If Saint Charles Borromeo (Cardinal-Archbishop of Milan 1560-1584), were alive today I suspect he would be regarded as hero to those who cherish the traditions of the Church. An important figure at the Council of Trent and confidant of Popes, he was anxious to preserve traditions and not allow fashion, false doctrine or laxity to push Tradition to one side. As Archbishop of Milan he wrote and legislated in minute detail about the Sacred Liturgy and everything associated with it.
Saint Charles laid down regulations about the dimensions of vestments for the Sacred Liturgy because, it would seem, he was concerned that the form of the vestments, which had been handed down for centuries, was being cast aside in favour of something convenient and “fashionable”. The chasuble, derived from the Latin word for “a little house” had been for centuries an ample garment. In the 15th and 16th centuries, there had been significant divergence from this Tradition, however, resulting in a form of chasuble that wasn’t ample, but cut right back so that it comprised a sort of narrow pendant, front and back, on the wearer. We know this form of chasuble as the “Roman” or “fiddleback” chasuble, and some claim that this is the form of the chasuble that is truly “traditional”. But Borromeo didn’t think that: he thought it represented a break with Tradition. And he specified the minimum size to which he expected chasubles to conform. They were to be at least 51 inches (130cm) wide and, at the back, they were to reach down almost to the heels of the wearer.
So, why was the chasuble drastically modified? Let’s answer that question by first tracing the origin and early development of this garment.
The ancestor of the chasuble is a Roman garment called the paenula. It was a semi-circular cloak, sewn together down the front and completely covering the arms. It was a garment for everyday wear by the lower classes, but was also worn by the upper classes and by women for travel and in bad weather. From the 5th century, a garment of similar shape but made in richer material was adopted by the Roman upper classes for ceremonial wear and this planeta was the immediate ancestor of our chasuble. Then, from the 9th century, a third name was given to a cloak which was still in the shape of the early paenula, and like it was a protective outer garment for the poor: casula (Latin for “little house”). For a time, the secular and liturgical use of these three similar garments continued side by side. It was the shape of these garments, rather than their use which came to be associated with the liturgical chasuble.
From the 10th century, what we know as the chasuble consisted of a semi-circle of material with the two halves of the straight edge folded together and sewn down the front leaving an opening at the neck. The neck opening was sometimes widened slightly, leaving a short horizontal opening near the top of the centre seam. This shape is referred to as the conical or bell chasuble. It was not until the turn of the 10th and 11th centuries that the chasuble was recognised everywhere as the vestment exclusively to be used for the Mass. But even until well into the 11th century, it continued to be worn by deacons, lectors and acolytes, not exclusively by priests.
It was only from the time of its use exclusive use by the celebrant of the Mass in the 11th century that its decoration became more ornate.
Perhaps three significant reasons brought about a desire to reduce the dimensions of the chasuble. The first was the introduction in the 13th century of the Elevations during the Canon of the Mass. The second was the rise of the private Mass, in other words, a Mass where the celebrant would not be assisted by a deacon and subdeacon (who were to lift and hold back the chasuble at certain points in the Mass to free the arms of the celebrant). Consequently, the celebrant had the need for a greater freedom of movement for his arms and the chasuble was redesigned in order to accommodate that. Additionally, the types of fabrics used for vestments changed from the 13th century and were heavier (often embroidered) and stiffer than the silks and wools used in previous centuries. In short, there were practical reasons to modify the dimensions of the chasuble.
How what is modified? Modification happened in stages and not uniformly across the Church in the West. In the first instance, the semi-circular shape of the chasuble was cut back in such a way that the bulk of fabric to be supported on the arms was reduced. Subsequently, shoulder seams were introduced and the length of that seam reduced from the conical form. The chasuble of S’ Thomas Becket is an example of this earliest modification (see figures 6-7). Notice that what had been a bell-shaped garment has become pointed. Once shoulder seams were introduced, it became possible progressively to reduce the length of that seam. The chasuble attributed to Saint Bernard is another example of this modified form.
But the more significant modification to the chasuble was that the angle of the shoulder line was decreased. This measure substantially changed the way the chasuble sat on the celebrant, so that it no longer wrapped around him in folds, like the ancient Roman toga, but instead rested on him somewhat like the modern-day Mexican “poncho” (see figure 5 & 8). This measure would have freed the arms of the celebrant significantly. Not content with that, however, vestment makers cut back the width of the chasuble more and more. These latter modifications (beginning in Northern Europe in the 15th century), went beyond what was needed to make the chasuble more practical for the celebrant to wear. In the 16th century, Saint Charles, objecting to these extreme modifications, laid down his regulations to remind priests and vestment-makers of the importance of preserving the centuries-old Tradition. It was obviously regarded by S. Charles as most important that the chasuble continue to be a garment that fully covered the celebrant, being both long (reaching almost to the heels) and wide (51 inches, between the elbow and the wrist).
When “The Borromeon style” of chasuble is referred to, it is important to remember that the cut of chasubles varied and were the work of craftsmen, not mass-manufacturers. I’d be rather sure that the vestments used by Saint Charles himself were not all precisely the same in cut. Furthermore, other styles were also prominent in the 16th and 17th centuries. One style we find in the various paintings of Saint Charles’ contemporary, Philip Neri. This chasuble was narrower than the 51 inches set down by S. Charles, but it was still very long. A variant of this “Philip Neri” style of chasuble was found in northern parts of Europe and in England. Yet another form, the Spanish style, is depicted in the famous painting of Saint Idelfonso.
Something might be included here about the ornamentation of chasubles. The early casula and planeta largely lacked any form of ornamentation. Because there was but one seam that formed the garment into its bell shape, that seam (which ran vertically down the front of the chasuble) came to be covered with a narrow braid-like band. In order to strengthen the fabric around the opening for the head, braid was also added. This is the origin – purely practical – of what is referred to as the “tau” style of ornament (“tau” being the letter of the Greek alphabet which corresponds to our “tee”).
It was a logical step from here to find that a corresponding strip of braid was applied to the back of the chasuble (even though it was purely decorative and not supporting seams etc.). The width of these braid-like ornaments came to be increased over the centuries from something that was no more than 3 – 5cm to something that became up to 20cm in width. And, very early on in the development of the chasuble, these strips ceased to be purely functional and became the focus of elaborate ornament and embroidery.
By the 14th century the chasuble had come to be ornamented in three common forms (with many variations). One is the Y-shaped orphrey (thought to be derived from Roman and Jewish ceremonial garb), which was mainly found in Northern Europe and England. Another is the “tau” shaped orphrey, which was an ornament applied to the front of the chasuble, but with the back of the chasuble ornamented with a simple column. This was the usual Italian or Roman style. The third form consisted of the back being decorated with a Latin Cross. This last style was not so frequently found in Italy, but was very common elsewhere in Europe.
In the 17th and particularly from the 18th century, authorised by no Ecclesiastical authority, the form of the chasuble almost universally used was that pendant-like form which we call the “Roman” chasuble. There were only a few voices raised in objection to setting aside the Tradition of the ample chasuble. And then, although it only occurred by degrees and over a period of time, that pendant form of chasuble, which to S. Charles represented such a break with Tradition, became regarded as THE legitimate Tradition. Pause to reflect on this, when you read expressions such as “Traditional Roman vestments” etc. We have the strange situation where the very dimensions of chasuble that Saint Charles strove to preserve, have been described by many latter-day “Traditionalists” as “un-traditional”!
We should also be careful about the use of the term “Roman” vestments. Roman vestments are those used for the Roman Rite: they do not refer to any particular style or shape. The pendant-style chasuble did not have its origin in Rome, but in northern Europe. Rome did not readily adopt it. Saint Charles legislated against it.
From the 19th century, scholars began promoting a return to the earlier, more ample style of chasuble. We find such chasubles appearing in England and parts of Europe. Sometimes these are referred to as “Gothic” vestments, although it is not certain why. These “Gothic” vestments were similar to the proportions insisted upon by S. Charles. Strangely, Rome (which for two centuries had held out against the introduction of the pendant-like vestments) did not welcome the 19th century interest in reviving these “Gothic” or “Borromeon” chasubles and in 1863 letter warned against the use of vestments that departed from the “received form”. How short, it would seem, was the Roman memory. In December 1925, at a time when vestment-makers in Europe and beyond were creating magnificent chasubles of Borromeon proportions, the Congregation of Rites published a rescript that the more ample form of chasuble was not to be used for the Roman Rite, except by special permission of the Holy See. What a peculiar decision this was, given that earlier in the same year an Exhibition of the Liturgical Arts had been held in Rome and newly-made vestments, according to the Borromeon proportions, were shown in a special audience with Pius XI, who approved their use and blessed them. A famous photograph exists of Pius XI celebrating Mass in S’ Peter’s in a 16th century style chasuble: some years after his Congregation of Rites had attempted to prohibit their use! The 1925 letter of the Congregation (which had been widely ignored!) was reversed by a new decision in August 1957, granting Diocesan bishops leave to permit the use of the more ample form of chasuble.
Eight years later (1965), Rome herself followed what was already occuring world-wide. The 18th century style of vestments used in Papal ceremonial was replaced with something very different but austere: somewhat like the ethos of the 1960’s itself. Somebody put to me once that many people were greatly upset and even scandalised when Papal Rome made this change. Consequently, and for precisely this reason, there is a very negative attitude amongst some to modern expressions in the style of vestments. And, to be frank, concerning vestments made from the 1970’s onward, there is ample scope for negativity.
But had 1960’s Rome just invented a new style of vestment and thrown out Tradition? In fact, no. The vestments which emerged in Rome from the mid-1960’s were a modern “take” on the Borromeon form of chasuble (see figures 19-20): this was a return to an earlier tradition. It’s a pity that Rome didn’t take the trouble to make that point very clear. Comparison of the picture of the Borromeon chasuble in Saint Mary’s Major with chasubles worn by Pope Paul will illustrate this very clearly: the form is almost the same (cf fig 1 & 19). If 1960’s Rome had decided to use beautiful and elaborate damasks for the Papal vestments instead of the plainest of silk, perhaps attitudes to the new Papal array might have been different. For, if anything, the vestments of post-Vatican II Papal Rome have lacked creativity and splendour. In Advent 2007 and Lent 2008, we witnessed Pope Benedict and his ministers using vestments of violet damask, quite different from the plain silks we have become accustomed to see. Even though those vestments (of the later Baroque style) were not particularly attractive, it is encouraging to see something different. May we not hope for something even better?
This article has attempted to be a comprehensive, but not an in-depth, study of the history of the chasuble. Consider it more as an illustrated lecture than a scholarly treatise. I refer you to these works for more detailed information:
Die liturgische Gewandung im Occident und Orient, Joseph Braun, 1907
The Vestments of the Roman Rite, Adrian Fortescue, 1912
Vestments and Vesture, Dom E Roulin, 1930
The Catholic Encyclopaedia (1911) and The New Catholic Encyclopaedia (1967)
High Fashion in the Church, Pauline Johnstone, 2002
A Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship, 1972.