Vestments – the Basics

In my last Church I ran a session with the children of our ‘Friday Fun Club’ called ‘Why Father Stephen wears unusual clothes’. We went to the Vestry in the Church and they tried on various vestments while I explained their meaning and answered questions. The various sacred things in traditional Churches are a great way of teaching the faith without too many words. I had been interested in the meaning of vestments since, as a teenager, I discovered a book called ‘The Ritual Reason Why’ and my doctoral thesis has a few sections on the interpretation of vestments in medieval and renaissance Europe. Coffee with a priest-friend from an evangelical background who, for the first time in her life, has to wear eucharistic vestments made me think it might be worth writing a short post on the basics of what the priest and deacon wear at the Eucharist. I will also say something about where they come from and what they mean.

Priest, Deacon and Subdeacon at High Mass

These vestments are quite simple. For the priest an alb, stole, and chasuble (with a few optional extras). A white robe, the ALB, is worn over the cassock or ordinary clothes (the black cassock is a version of ordinary street wear and is not a eucharistic vestment). The alb is sometimes held in at the waist with a rope GIRDLE or cloth CINCTURE. The alb is sometimes worn over an AMICE covering the neck opening and clerical collar but many modern clergy use a ‘cassock-alb’ which is a combination of the cassock and the alb and does not need an amice and others wear albs with hoods attached. A STOLE, a strip of cloth in the colour of the day, is worn round the neck hanging down at the front and sometimes tucked through the girdle. Sometimes the MANIPLE, a strip of cloth in the colour of the day, is worn around the left wrist falling down about 20cm each side. The CHASUBLE, a large poncho-like garment with a hole in the centre for the head, covers it all and hangs down the front and back. A deacon at the Eucharist wears the alb with a stole hanging diagonally from his or her left shoulder, joined at waist level on the right side, perhaps a maniple on the left wrist, and over it all the DALMATIC, a tabard-like garment, joined at the side and with short wide sleeves, in the colour of the day. If there is a subdeacon, they wear a similar garment called a TUNICLE.

An old guide to eucharistic vestments

These vestments can be described very simply, but Christian tradition in both East and West has developed for them a rich series of symbolic meanings. These were used as a kind of mnemonic to recall the minds of clergy and congregations to the central truths of the faith and to the virtues needed to live a good life. This method of interpreting the liturgy and its vestments is a playful one. There is no fixed single meaning for a thing or action, but a whole series of meanings is built up by comparison with Scripture and reflection on the shape of the vestment or ritual action. It is a living, organic tradition. This method uses the way Christians have traditionally interpreted Scripture. There is a literal understanding, for example the origin of the chasuble in late Roman dress, and a symbolic understanding which relates them to the moral life, the life of Christ and to the life of the world to come. This tradition influenced the traditional prayers said when putting on the vestments and it is sufficiently flexible that one can take from it what one finds useful or even develop it with new comparisons.

Modern vestments at St Paul’s Cathedral, Dundee

Jesus said of a just a few of the Christians of Sardis, ‘they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes’ (Revelation 3:4-5). White robes in Revelation are worn by the saved in heaven (Revelation 6:7, 7:9-14). The ALB is a close fitting white robe which covers the whole body. Its name comes from the Latin for while ‘albus’ and it sometimes has attached to it panels of cloth in the colour of the day called apparels. Its white colour recalls the dazzling white clothes of the transfigured Christ (Matthew 17:2) and the white robe of the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7:9. The alb is also related to baptism as the newly baptised wear white as a sign of their purity when they emerge from the font, ‘you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self’ (Colossians 3:9-10, cf Ephesians 4:24). The alb is thus a sign of the heavenly life begun on earth and it is especially appropriate for use in the liturgy where we lift up our hearts to heaven and join the angels in praise. The vesting prayer for the alb picks up these themes of purity and heaven, ‘Purify me, O Lord, from all stain and cleanse my heart, that, washed in the Blood of the Lamb, I may enjoy eternal delights’.

Putting on the Amice

Two other vestments sometimes go with the alb. The AMICE is a rectangular piece of white cloth worn around the neck, under the alb, with two strings attached that tie around the chest. It is traditionally put on around the head like a hood and then dropped down. It takes its name from the Latin word ‘amicire’ which means to cover and it was introduced in the eighth century. It symbolises control of speech as it goes round the throat, control of thoughts as it covers the head, and chastity as its two cords go around the heart. In the light of the passion of Christ it is the veil put over his head when he was mocked and the soldiers demanded ‘Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?’ (Matthew 26:68). As it goes on the head it recalls the ‘helmet of salvation’ (Ephesians 6:17), hence the vesting prayer, ‘Place, O Lord, on my head the helmet of salvation, that I may overcome the assaults of the devil’.

Alb with Girdle

The alb is often held in by a belt or GIRDLE which has the practical purpose of stopping the priest tripping over the alb but also, because it restrains the alb, symbolises temperance and self-control. Girding the loins it also recalls preparation and readiness, just like the Jews at Passover (Exodus 12:11) or the teaching of Jesus ‘Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning’ (Luke 12:35). It also calls us to live authentically, ‘Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth’ (Ephesians 6:14). The girdle can remind one of the golden belt worn by Christ (Revelation 1:13) but the vesting prayer emphasises its ascetic function, ‘Gird me, O Lord, with the girdle of purity, and quench in me the fire of disordered desire that the grace of temperance and chastity may abide in me’.

Priest wearing Alb and Stole

Jesus said, ‘take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls’ (Matthew 11:29). The STOLE symbolises the yoke of Christ, specifically the mission which we take on when we are ordained. Such symbolism is not rigidly fixed, as this same image is also applied to the chasuble. ‘Stole’ comes from the Greek word ‘stolē’ which means an item of clothing and the prayer said when putting it on refers to the fall of Adam and Eve and restoration in Christ, ‘Restore to me, O Lord, the garment of immortality which was lost to me by my first parents, and, although unworthy to approach your sacred mysteries, grant me, nevertheless, eternal joy.’ It also symbolises the rope that tied Christ to the pillar of scourging and is a symbol of his obedience even unto death (Philippians 2:6-8). Stoles are the same liturgical colour as the chasuble. Traditionally priests at the Eucharist wear the stole crossed over their breast, deacons over the left shoulder and bishops wear it hanging down straight on each side, but many Anglican priests now follow modern Roman Catholic custom and wear their stoles hanging down like bishops.

Priest and Deacon wearing Alb and Stole

The origin of the stole is a mystery but it is also called in Latin ‘orarium’ which means a napkin and it may have developed from a handkerchief-like cloth of the same name carried in Roman times. It is also possible that it came from a badge of office used by Roman officials or, less likely, from the Jewish prayer shawl. It is, as in the Roman example, a sign of identity and should always be worn when celebrating the sacraments. One unusual example of the use of the stole is among the Carthusian nuns who, since the middle ages, have worn the stole and maniple (on the right wrist) on the day of their profession of vows despite not being ordained priests.

The MANIPLE also derived from a liturgical napkin, Ivo of Chartres noted in the eleventh century that this was its purpose, but it developed into a strip of cloth like the stole but hanging from the left wrist. It is worn by priests, deacons and subdeacons at Mass but because the Roman Catholic Church in 1967 made its use optional its use is not common today. As a cloth to wipe away sweat, in Latin ‘sudarium’, it symbolises hard work and penance, and it also recalls the cords used to bind Christ when he was captured. ‘Manipulus’ in Latin can mean a bundle, as in Psalm 126:6, ‘Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves (manipulos)’, and so the maniple is seen as a symbol of heavenly reward as well as of earthly struggle. Both these are reflected in the prayer said when putting it on, ‘Grant, O Lord, that I may so bear the maniple of weeping and sorrow, that I may receive the reward for my labours with rejoicing’.

Priest wearing Chasuble and Maniple

‘Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony’ (Colossians 3:14). The CHASUBLE, that poncho-like garment that goes over everything else, symbolises love. The old commentators also related it to the text ‘love covers a multitude of sins’ (1 Peter 4:8) which suggests that the priest underneath is a sinner who is called to the work of love. When it goes over the head it falls down in two parts, one before and one behind, and this shape reminded them of Jesus’ double commandment of love: love God and love your neighbour (Matthew 22:37-40), while its fullness reminds us of the wideness of love which extends even to enemies (Matthew 5:44). Other ancient writers also relate the chasuble to Jesus himself: to putting on Christ in Baptism (Galatians 3:27) and to the purple robe with which the soldiers clothed Jesus during his passion (John 19:2). The prayer said by priests when they put it on takes a theme used of the stole, which also goes over the shoulders, ‘O Lord, you said, my yoke is sweet and my burden light, grant that I may carry it so as to obtain your grace’.

The chasuble developed from the standard outer garment of the Roman Empire, an oval poncho reaching to the feet called in Latin the ‘casula’ (meaning ‘little house’). It is probable that a good quality casula was reserved for the priest at the Eucharist and this was retained when fashions in secular dress changed. It is also called in Latin ‘planeta’, from the Greek word for wanderer which is behind the name ‘planet’, because its long edges wander about. Originally a long garment that needed to be folded up over the hands, from the middle ages the sides were gradually cut away until the chasuble became more like a sandwich-board. This form of chasuble is usually called ‘Roman’ or, because of the shape of the front panel, ‘fiddleback’, and the fuller form is often called ‘gothic’, as in the pictures above.

The DALMATIC of the deacon (above) is named after Dalmatia, whence it was believed to have come. The breadth of its sleeves was also held to symbolise the open arms of love and it is in the shape of a cross to remind us that at the Eucharist we ‘proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:26). The deacon’s vesting prayer suggests the joy of celebration, ‘Lord, clothe me with the garment of salvation, the vestment of joy, and always encompass me with the dalmatic of justice’. Here, as with all the vestments, material things bring us back to the heart of the faith because we all, like the children at the start of this post, learn through our senses.       

With thanks to Jeremy Auld, Alan Barton, Alex Lane, John Penman, Corinne Smith, and Susan Stoddart Ward for sending photographs for this post.

2 thoughts on “Vestments – the Basics

  1. Very interesting to be reminded of all this; I too had a copy of “The Ritual Reason Why”, it may still be in the loft! But I was glad to avail myself of the freedom to leave off the maniple – I was always knocking things with it, and I have for years worn an alb with a high collar instead of an amice – a very fussy garment. The fact the clergy wear these semi-formal garments rather the formal toga of Roman society reminds us of the humble origins of the Christian community- “not many noble, not many mighty…”

    1. Thank you and good point. I remember an old priest who retained the maniple and when asked why said ‘it is a symbol of humility’. It is interesting how quickly Anglicans followed the decrees of the SCDW!

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