Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The Changing Aesthetics of Papal Vestments

Pope Sixtus IV presiding at Mass celebrated
in the Sistine Chapel late 15th century.
Our Retrospective of Papacies from Pius IX to Benedict XVI has afforded a glimpse into the changing fashions of Papal Rome.

One day, we hope to continue the series by travelling back farther than the 19th century, to shew images of the Popes down the Ages, so far as they are available to us. This would help us to understand that Papal Rome was not always Baroque, but had other, equally legitimate expressions.

The continuity of the aesthetics of Papal Liturgy remained more or less unchanged from the 18th to 20th centuries. But in 1965, an abrupt change came about, brought about by Pope Paul VI under the advice of Monsignor Annibale Bugnini. Those changes will be obvious to anyone who has followed these Papal Retrospectives.

The pendulum swang too violently. What was well-known, if perhaps fussy and archaic, was swept aside in favour of an austere and functionalist aesthetic. There was to be an emphasis on the form of the vestments, rather than their ornament. Perhaps the intentions were good, but the change was too radical and disorienting.

From the 1980's, during the reign of Pope John Paul II,  the radical nature of that change to Papal aesthetics was softened. The Pope began to wear vestments which were more elaborate, made of better quality fabrics, sometimes magnificently embroidered or at least ornamented imaginatively. The revival of the TAU ornament on chasubles - which had been the manner of decorating chasubles for a thousand years in Rome - took place in the 1990's and through until the last years of the Pontificate of Pope John Paul. Some very fine vestments were produced in this period.

Another expression emerged in 2005, however, at the beginning of the Pontificate of Benedict XVI.  It was an attempt at the avant garde. The Papal chasubles became much more ample - inconveniently so - and their decoration sparse and stylised. This approach was intended to emphasise the more ancient form of Papal Pallium, which had been conferred on Pope Benedict at his Inauguration. The early mitres made for Pope Benedict were short and proportionate, but sometimes terribly misshapen and decorated, it must be said, in the most vulgar manner.

But then, in 2007, another Liturgical Regime was ushered in and the aesthetics of 2005 - 2007 quickly ushered out. A new direction was taken, but not a unified one. Mitres and chasubles of former Pontiffs came to be used, some of which suited Pope Benedict, some of which did not. A whole new range of chasubles and mitres in various styles was introduced and continued to be produced until the time of Pope Benedict's Abdication.

It is a strange fact that no Pope in history has used so many chasubles and so many mitres as Benedict XVI. They have either been gifts to the Pope or arranged by his Masters of Ceremonies. Several websites have been set up solely devoted to Pope Benedict's vestments. Must it be stated? Yes, all of this has been excessive. There was much to be said for the uniform appearance of previous pontificates and even the austere uniformity of the Pontificate of Paul VI.

These criticisms are written with some misgiving, because the insight of Pope Benedict into the nature of the Sacred Liturgy and its role in nurturing the Church is profound and probably unequalled by any Pope in modern times. It also must be emphasised that a wonderful revival in this period took place in the use of Gregorian chant for the Papal Liturgy, for the return of the splendid frontals to clothe the altar of the Confession in Saint Peter's, the use of historic Papal thrones instead of the rather tawdry white armchair which had become all too familiar. And the magnificent candlesticks and crucifixes which, in previous Pontificates adorned the Altar of the Basilica, came to be used again. All of these things were wonderful improvements upon what immediately preceded it.

But might it be hoped that in the forthcoming Pontificate, fewer vestments are used and a more unified aesthetic adopted?  Might it not be desirable that whenever we see the Pope offer Mass, things look more or less the same each time?

Has there also been a too-enthusiastic use of lace albes and surplices for Papal Liturgies?  It is one thing for the Pope to wear a highly-decorated albe, but could the deacons, concelebrants and MCs be returned to plain surplices and albes (preferably of linen) for all occasions?  For assuredly, there never was a chasuble or dalmatic whose appearance has not been cheapened by the excessive use of lace.

This opinion-piece has not been illustrated, but a review of recent posts on the Blog will give some idea.