Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The Tau and Christian vestments : 1

A late 13th century statue of
Pope Boniface VIII shewing
the TAU ornament on his chasuble.
The tiara worn by Boniface was likely
 exaggerated in proportion by the sculptor,
but is it not lofty?
The origins of the ornamentation of chasubles are largely utilitarian. Seams joining sections of fabrics together were concealed by sewing a narrow strip of fabric over the top of them: in later centuries we have come to describe these strips as braids. Similarly, strips of fabric were to used to reinforce the neckline opening in the chasuble, which is placed over the head.

These two original purposes for braids were intended for the convenient use of the vestment, not as ornamental, still less symbolic.

As such matters develop, however, these utilitarian braids became highly-ornamental, even embroidered with symbols and figures of the saints etc. It was Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) who, in his treatise De Sacro Altaris Mysterio first described the liturgical vestments in terms of their symbolism. He it was who also emphasised the TAU as a Christian symbol and from that time, especially through the spread of the Franciscan way, did the TAU become known throughout the Western Church.

Thus it was that the braids which were once used on the chasuble merely for utility, developed into a Christological symbol.

These articles are intended to illustrate the continuity of the use of the TAU as a means of ornamenting chasubles in Rome after the time of Innocent III: not quite one millenium.

We wish to start with a digression by discussing in this post the 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. It is emphasised 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 oversized 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.

Next post: The Tau, Pope Innocent III and Saint Francis.