Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Pontifical Requiem for King Richard III

Westminster chasuble
15th century English embroidery
 of the Crucifixion
on the rear of the chasuble.
The memorable events surrounding the reinterment of the remains of King Richard III of England have been taking place in Britain over the last several days and will conclude with the late King's burial in the Cathedral of the Anglican Diocese of Leicester on Thursday and Friday.

One of the occasions forming part of this was a Pontifical Mass celebrated by the Vincent Cardinal Nichols of Westminster at Holy Cross Priory Church in Leicester. For this Mass, the Cardinal wore a fifteenth century vestment known as the Westminster chasuble. Information about this chasuble may be read here and here.

It cannot be claimed with certainty that this chasuble was worn during a Mass offered in the presence of King Richard, although this is heavily suggested at present. If it were worn, the late King would be surprised to see what the chasuble looks like now, which bears little resemblance to its original condition. The chasuble became part of the patrimony of Ushaw College in northern England in 1867. Perhaps at this time it was transformed from its original mediaeval form to the "Roman" form. The word mutilated is not too strong to be used to describe this modification. An execrable narrow braid of gold lace has been used on the remade chasuble, adding insult to injury.

King Richard IIIWhenever it was modified, undoubtedly it was in bad condition by then, threadbare and unwearable. It is unlikely that the chasuble was just cut-back to make it smaller, but rather completely remade using those sections of fabric (a brocaded velvet) which were still in usable condition.

We see that the fabric on the back of the chasuble is quite different from that on the front. To our modern sensibilities, this may be seem quite strange, but it was hardly unusual in mediaeval times. It would seem that two quite different fabrics, but of the same place of origin were used to make this one chasuble.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art indicates that the velvet used for the front of the chasuble is probably of Venetian origin and from the last quarter of the fifteenth century. A description of an almost identical length of velvet, found in the Museum, is given here.

Westminster chasuble
Prompted by musings on another Blog and the indignation of one of our correspondents, we have prepared the adjacent rendering of how the Westminster chasuble might originally have looked. Quite obviously, this is conjectural, but it is based on some probabilities. By the fifteenth century, when fabrics employed for vestments were heavier and less flexible, the shape of the chasuble had changed from the classical conical or semi-conical form. A fifteenth century chasuble preserved in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has been used as the basis for our conjecture of the original appearance of the Westminster chasuble. The velvet described above preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been used to recreate the appearance of the front of the chasuble.

How would the chasuble have appeared on fifteenth century celebrants? Given the very much smaller average height of mediaeval people, the chasuble would have been long, but not ankle length, on its wearers. It would also have been quite wide, extending to the wrists. How different from how it appeared as worn by the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster last Monday!

Click on the images for an enlarged view.