Monday 22 September 2008

Chasubles of 16th and 17th centuries

At the New Liturgical Movement blog last week, an article was published written by the English architectural scholar Fr Anthony Symondson SJ about the so-called “Borromeon” chasuble. In a previous post on Rorate Caeli, I made a response to points made by Father Symondson.

In this post, I wish to discuss a famous statue of Saint Philip Neri in the sacristy of the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, Rome. This marvellous 3-metre tall statue was completed in 1638 by the famed Italian sculptor Alessandro Algardi.

Attached is a digitally-enhanced photograph of the statue. I emphasise that this enhancement is NOT intended to depict actual colours or decoration. It is intended to show more clearly the form and decoration of the chasuble that Algardi sculpted.

This is a chasuble in the Roman tradition. It is very long at the back, reaching almost the full length of the alb; at the front it is slightly shorter. It has a curved shape, rather than being squared-off at the bottom. Note that the chasuble falls gracefully over the body, indicating that it is not interlined to stiffen it, as chasubles were of the later Baroque period. It largely corresponds to dimensions set down by Saint Charles Borromeo (whilst Archbishop of Milan 1560-1584), but it is slightly narrower, since as sculpted it falls only slightly beyond the elbow, rather than approaching the wrist.

Very prominent on the chasuble is the massive tau, with adjoining panels supporting the neckline. Almost certainly, the rear of the chasuble would have been ornamented with a single column. These ornaments are formed from a floral scrollwork damask, outlined with a galloon (probably 3cm wide).

In terms of studying the history of the development of the chasuble, this statue is most significant. It is important to note that the statue was sculpted within the living memory of Saint Philip (he died in 1595). And yet, it reflects a style of chasuble found in the first quarter of the 17th century.

Several paintings exist of Saint Philip, and his contemporary Saint Ignatius Loyola, shewing them in sacred vestments. Many of these artworks, however, were painted long after the deaths of Neri and Loyola, even a century later. As such, it cannot be asserted that the chasubles depicted in these later paintings necessarily reveal the style of chasuble of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. They depict vestments of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, by which time it was common that the width of the chasuble was less ample and it had begun to be interlined to stiffen it.

And yet, let us also remember this. Saint Charles set down dimensions for the chasuble out of a desire to prevent its form being cut back in a manner he considered inconsistent with Sacred Tradition. It would be foolish of us to imagine, however, that his instructions were adhered to strictly, or even widely known. As a result, in this period of the history of the chasuble (say, the century between 1550 and 1650), several different styles of chasuble would have been extant, some longer and wider than others. The width of the woven fabrics would also have determined, to some extent, the width of the chasuble, to say nothing of the personal taste and preferences of priests, bishops and the vestment-makers themselves.

To illustrate, I also attach one of the two famous painting of Saint Ignatius by Rubens. Even though it was painted at much the same time as the Algardi statue was sculpted, it depicts a completely different style of chasuble. It is much narrower and stiffened with interlining to support the lavish embroidery: most assuredly not a “Borromeon” chasuble.

A word on the albs in the two pictures. Both a very ample, falling to the ground in graceful folds. The sleeves are extremely long but, since the cuffs fit the wrist so snugly, the sleeves do not fall over the hands. The close-fitting sleeve is most appropriate to these styles of chasuble. The alb in the statue of S’ Philip is trimmed with a small amount of lace.