coordonator: Manuela Dobre

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Archbishop Dr. Chrysostomos

Senior Fulbright Lecturer


I am especially pleased at the opportunity to contribute to the present volume of papers, a Festschrift in honor of the sixtieth birthday of Professor Dr. Stelian Brezeanu. While teaching a class in Byzantine history and historical theology at the University of Bucharest during the autumn term of 2000, I had the honor of being a colleague of this distinguished historian and scholar. In our brief discussions of the state of the historical sciences in the Balkans, as well as from my study of several of his scholarly articles, I gained tremendous respect for Professor Brezeanu’s great and deeply passionate love for the study of ideas and for his remarkable intellectual acumen. I offer the following brief observations on the study of Byzantine liturgical vesture, gleaned from research which I did for a book that I wrote on this subject almost two decades ago, as a tribute to his work. I also hope, by way of this short essay, to express my gratitude to him and other instructors in the Faculty of History, who provided me such a pleasant forum in which to put forth my ideas and theories and who showed me inimitable kindness in so doing.
Certainly, at one time or another, every serious ecclesiastical historian has, at least in passing, turned his attention toward the historical development of liturgical vesture in the Christian Church. Yet, this field has been largely neglected in terms of protracted scrutiny and study. The few existent studies in the area are mere prolegomena to an objective and extensive treatment. Perhaps the single most important impediment to the study of the origins of liturgical dress is an historiographical one. On all sides, the researcher is beset in the literature by certain assumptions about these origins which predispose the historical investigator to pursue avenues of research which have had two privative effects. On the one hand, research has tended to become preoccupied with historiographical rather than historical questions; on the other hand, the narrowness of the nature of historiographical disputes has been such as to restrict historical investigation largely to the Western Church and to ignore the historical development of liturgical vesture in the Byzantine Church. The purpose of our present essay is to comment on historiographical problematics in this area and to make a few suggestions about heuristic directions in research dealing with both Western and Eastern liturgical dress.


The study of the historical development of liturgical vestments has traditionally followed two paradigms. R.A.S. Macalister, in his at times prepossessing study of the subject, designates these as the “ritualistic” and “antiquarian” models.1 The ritualistic approach, which assumes that the vestments of the early Christian Church were modeled after the liturgical garments of the Jewish Levitical priesthood, aspires to link the Divine Mosaic institution of Jewish liturgical vesture with a presumably Divine element in the development of Christian liturgical garb. It is this historiographical spirit which best corresponds to the traditional approach of Eastern Orthodox writers to the subject, who generally claim a Divine institution for liturgical wear. The second approach, that of the antiquarian school, holds that Christian liturgical vesture evolved in a natural process from the ordinary dress of the Roman citizenry of the first few centuries of the Christian era. Its assumptions are those of the majority of the few scholars writing on the subject in contemporary times.


Before enumerating in greater detail the tenets of each of these schools, we might here take specific note of the insufficiency, in and of itself, of either approach. While the antiquarian view certainly enjoys the greater support of extant historical evidence, as we will subsequently demonstrate, it is probably the more parsimonious and does not account for the many changes which took place in the West during and following the ninth century. Furthermore, the development of vestments is rarely, if ever, differentiated, in this school, according to Eastern and Western usages. There is little evidence, on the other hand, to support the notion that the ritualistic school offers an exact thesis and that the early Christians actually modeled their liturgical garb directly after that of the Levitical priesthood. Reliable data to support the ritualistic notion are simply absent and one tends to agree with the accurate, albeit immoderate, reaction of Macalister: “The weight of argument which can be brought against it is so great that it is almost universally untenable.”2


Indeed, it is a synthesis of these two approaches which is most productive. Taking only the antiquarian paradigm, it is difficult to explain the evidence, however scanty, that early Christians had special liturgical dress in addition to ordinary daily dress (even if this liturgical dress was patterned after ordinary dress). The ritualistic model exhibits little historical accuracy, yet was assumed in the West in the ninth century as a prototypic source for then contemporary liturgical vestments. The outcome of these complementary foibles is that, while everyday Roman dress apparently set the style for the early Christian sacerdotal and ceremonial garments, the idea of special liturgical vestments was largely after a Jewish prototype, at least in the West.


The ritualistic school finds the source of Christian eucharistic vesture in the ceremonial dress of the Levitical priesthood. It is appropriate, then, to list here those vestments assigned to the Levitical priesthood in the twenty-eighth chapter of the book of Exodus:

And these are the vestments which they shall make for them: a breastplate and an ephod and a robe and an embroidered coat and a mitre and a girdle; and they shall make holy vestments for Aaron your brother and his sons that they may minister to me in the priest’s office. And for Aaron’s sons you shall make coats, and you shall make for them girdles, and bonnets you shall make for them, for glory and for beauty. And you shall make them breeches of fine linen to cover their nakedness.3


The ephod and the breastplate are without parallels in Christian liturgical vesture, unless one accepts the far-fetched notion that the ephod, worn around the neck, corresponds to the Western amice, worn around the neck under the outer garb. The breeches are clearly explained and have no counterpart in Christian ecclesiastical dress. The tunic, coat, and girdle have, perhaps, parallels in the Christian scheme of dress, but the descriptions rendered by Flavius Josephus in the Jewish Antiquities are such that no definite conclusions can be drawn concerning ostensible similarities. Josephus’ description of the bonnet, furthermore, leaves no doubt that it was a simple turban, certainly in no manner related to Christian liturgical headgear:

On his head he wears a cap without a peak, not encircling the entire head, though covering more than half of it, which is called the ‘mesnaemphthes. This covering is designed to look like a crown, consisting of a strip of woven linen tightly bound, for it is wound round and round and sewn frequently.4


The remaining case for possible correspondence between Levitical and Christian liturgical vestments is the mitre, described as a “golden crown” by Josephus. We tend to agree with one expert that this description is “quite at variance with the original laws on the subject.”5


The problems which arise in the ritualistic school are salient. If the Christians directly modeled their liturgical vestments on those of the Jewish priesthood as early as the first Christian centuries, why is there no extant written evidence of this fact? Furthermore, as Macalister points out:

Apart from these considerations, may we not ask with reason why the early Christians, a poor and persecuted sect, could possibly assume and maintain an elaborate and expensive system of vestments such as the Jewish? And if the assumption had been made after the days of persecution were past, surely some record of the transaction would have been preserved till our own day? [sic] We possess a tolerably full series of the acts and transactions of ecclesiastical courts in all parts of the known world from the earliest times-how is it that all record of such an important proceeding has perished?6


But perhaps the most devastating objection to the ritualistic approach is the fact that, while Christians borrowed many of their religious rites and details of worship from the Jews, they borrowed from synagogue worship, not from the antiquated worship of the temple. And, except for the talith, worn by the minister as well as by the people, no particular vestments were appointed for worship in the synagogue. Once and for all, this latter argument should impugn even the most articulate defense of the theory that early Christians adopted, in their liturgical dress, the styles of those religious leaders closest to them.


Given the strong case that can be brought against the ritualistic school, it still remains to be explained why the theory persisted, even as late as modern times, and why it was accepted, as we shall see, as a basis for the reform of liturgical dress during the ninth century in the Occident. W.B. Marriott gives a very convincing explanation which bears repeating:

Churchmen who had travelled widely, as then some did, in East as well as West, could hardly fail to notice the remarkable fact, that at Constantinople as at Rome, at Canterbury as at Arles, Vienna or Lyons, one general type of ministering dress was maintained, varying only in certain minor details; and that this dress everywhere presented a most marked contrast to what was in their time the prevailing dress of the laity. And as all knowledge of classical antiquity had for three centuries or more been well-nigh extinct in the church, it was not less natural that they should have sought a solution of the phenomenon thus presented to them in a theory of Levitical origin, which from that time forward was generally accepted.7


No doubt the Jewish prototype for the origin of Christian liturgical vestments will remain, at least in spirit, throughout every consideration of the subject. But it must be understood, aside from the light in which Marriott places it, as an approach more appropriate to the tradition of Christian conservatives than research scholars.


The antiquarian school finds the origin of Christian liturgical dress in the ordinary garb of the Roman citizens of the first Christian centuries.8 Authorities differ, however, concerning the centuries during which Christian liturgical vesture began using as its model that same ordinary dress. Macalister presumes that it was modeled on Roman dress of the first or second centuries. Fortescue extends the period by two centuries.9 A third authority, Lesage, contends that “all our liturgical vesture is modeled on that of polite Roman society in the last days of the Empire, that is, of the fourth and fifth centuries.”10 The solution to this problem is a difficult one, since sources indicating style changes in the first few Christian centuries are not easy to find. True it is that Saint Jerome and Saint John Chrysostomos decry the worldly dress of some followers for their capitulation to modern styles; however, the admonitions expressed by both are not really so much concerned with new dress styles as with the scanty cut of otherwise traditional items of clothing.11 One can simply conclude that liturgical dress must have ceased developing according to contemporary modes at the time when it was set aside as special vesture. It is thus that we confront the question of the separate stature of liturgical dress. Did the early Christians have a special dress appropriate to worship, which was different from ordinary garb? The answer to this question will illuminate our inquiry into the issue of which centuries provided the prototype for the liturgical wear of the Christian Church.


From the first through the fourth centuries, one source asserts, there is little substantial evidence that Christians used anything except their everyday dress for liturgical worship.12 Nonetheless, the reports to the contrary are numerous enough to bear mentioning, and convincing enough for this period to be called a debated one, in which the idea of separate liturgical garb must have developed at least enough to account for the definite evidence in the fifth century that such separate apparel did, indeed, exist. A passage from Saint Jerome’s homily on the book of Ezekiel seems to indicate two separate forms of vestments and is used repeatedly by scholars to prove that there were distinct liturgical vestments in the Christian Church before the fifth century: “Porro religio divina alterum habitum habet in ministerio, alterum in usu vitaque communi.”13 The weight of this piece of evidence is great.


The third-century Liturgy of Clement of Alexandria provides another example of separate vestments in use in the early Christian Church. A rubric enjoins the Priest to be “girded in his white vestment.”14 The Greek “lampran estheta metendys” suggests to Marriott and Macalister simply the use of “white” vestments, Macalister claiming that white was, therefore, the color used in primitive Christian worship.15 Supportive of this assumption are the words of Saint Jerome to the effect that ordinary dress should not be worn in Divine Services; but he makes no comments here about a liturgical vesture of special cut or fabric.16 However, in his letter to the Pelagian heretics, Jerome seems to suggest that clothes used in worship were not only of a special color, but of special cut and fabric:

Adjungis gloriam vestium et ornamentorum Deo esse contrariam. Quae sunt rogo inimicitiae contra Deum si tunicam habuero mundiorem? se [sic] episcopus, presbyter et diaconus et reliquus ordo ecclesiasticus in administratione sacrificiorum candida veste processerint.17


Saint Jerome’s defense of the beauty and ornament of liturgical vesture certainly seems to provide an insight into the subject which is difficult to dismiss


Such, then, are the sources which evidence the use of special vesture by the clergy of the first Christian centuries. Too incautious an observer might consider them quite conclusive and imagine the early Christians to have set aside white garments for liturgical use. An image such as this, unfortunately, is not unequivocally justified by the weight of available evidence. In all of the passages cited, there is no clear indication that the garments in question were precisely sacerdotal. Saint Jerome’s letter against the Pelagians asks a very hypothetical question, perhaps referring to a custom which was novel and very seldom practiced. Ultimately, one cannot simply state, from the scholarly standpoint, that the references in question are absolute evidence of a special liturgical vesture in the primitive Church, since the references might just as easily be interpreted as admonitions “to all wear their Sunday clothes.”18 The passages stand as moot indications, not proof. It is probably true that, at the very least, the idea of a special liturgical dress was germinating in the first four hundred Christian years and that, if there was a special dress, it was modeled after ordinary dress. A careful observer must not go beyond this.


Whatever the course of thought in the first four hundred years of Christian history, by the fifth century, special vestments appropriate to the clergy were apparent in liturgical worship. This age of increasing evidence for the use of ritual garments might well be called a transitional one, wherein most of the counterparts of liturgical vestments in their distinctive final forms, both Eastern and Western, are found. The first evidence apropos of the ritualistic use of vestments is the forty-first canon of the Synod of Carthage, ca. 400. Directions are clearly given to the Deacon that he should wear the alb only “tempore oblationis tantum vel lectionis.”19 Unfortunately, little more is known of circumstances in the fifth century (although this reference leaves no doubt that the ritualistic use of vestments was a fact of Christian worship in that century). The sixth century, however, is replete with references to the ritualistic significance of clerical dress.


The second Synod of Braga (563) clearly indicates that, by the sixth century, vestments used in worship distinguished the ecclesiastical status of the celebrant:

Item placuit ut quia in aliquantis huius provinciae ecclesiis diacones [sic] absconsis infra tunicam utantur orariis ita ut nihil differre a subdiacono videantur de cetero superposito scapulae utantur orario.20


The first Synod of Narbonne decreed that “nec diaconus aut subdiaconus certe vel lector antequam missa consummetur alba se praesumat exuere.”21 This latter decree leaves little doubt that separate vestments were used in the worship service. A seventh-century rubric book, Ordo Romanus I, gives an excellent account of ceremonials in Rome, clearly stating that the Roman Bishop was to arrive at the basilica, there to be vested with his liturgical attire.22 By far the most protracted commentary from the period of transition, however, comes out of the fourth Synod of Toledo (633), presided over by Saint Isidore of Seville. The concern of the twenty-eighth canon of that Synod is the reinstatement of a clergy falsely removed from office. In setting the rules of reinstatement, the canon makes valuable comment regarding the use of liturgical vestments by the clergy. The canon dictates that the cleric cannot be returned to office except before a Bishop at the altar, where he must receive the insignia of his office:

...[si episcopus] orarium, annulum, et baculum; si presbyter orarium et planeta; si diaconus orarium et albam; si subdiaconus patenam et calicem; sic et reliqui gradus ea in reparationem sui recipiant quae cum ordinarentur perceperunt.23


What has thus far been established is that, in the age of transition, clerical dress served a certain ritualistic purpose. Nothing, on the other hand, can be found to prove that a certain kind of dress (in terms of distinctive cut) was used during this period. One can only infer such. Furthermore, a drawing of Saint Gregory the Great (Bishop of Rome from 590–604) with his mother and father (the authenticity of which is argued by Marriott24 ) suggests that no special type of dress did exist. Save for the book of the Gospels and the papal pallium, there is nothing to distinguish the Bishop from his aristocratic parents.25 There is, of course, no incontrovertible evidence that Saint Gregory is vested in garments appropriate to liturgical service. The fact that his pallium is decorated with crosses and that he holds a book of Gospels would seem to suggest so, but this is mere speculation. Our question, then, concerns the date of and reasons for the adoption of distinct and separate liturgical garb which was clearly different from ordinary dress. For an answer to this query, we must turn to the development of liturgical vestments in their final forms and to a separate treatment of that development in the East and West.


The perhaps surprising honor thrust upon a rather provincial and insignificant barbarian of the West – Charlemagne – on that fateful Christmas day in 800 marked the beginning of the so-called Carolingian Renaissance, when interest was created anew in the antiquities of the Empire (then dead in the declining West). By the time of this renaissance, liturgical vestments in the West were no longer in keeping with the styles of ordinary dress, and it was quite natural that some scholarly inquiry was directed toward understanding the origin of those vestments. Initial study tended to link the sacerdotal attire with that of the Levitical priesthood, but conceded that early Christians must have said the liturgy in clothes similar to everyday garb. In the twenty-fourth chapter of De Rebus Ecclesiasticis, Walfrid Strabo (ca. 840) writes that the number of Christian vestments corresponded to that of the Jewish Levitical vestments, but that

vestes etiam sacerdotales per incrementa ad eum qui nunc habetur auctae sunt ornatum. Nam primis temporibus communi indumento vestiti missas agebant, sicut et hacetenus quidam Orientalium facere perhibentur.26


Later study, however, essayed to make an unequivocal equation between Christian and Jewish liturgical vesture. Rabanus Maurus, Archbishop of Mainz, was the first Christian writer to propose this thesis in an extended manner. In his De Institutione Clericorum, written about 850, he contends that the liturgical vestments in use at his time were modeled after those of the Mosaic prescriptions and assumes that Christians had intentionally mimicked the Jewish usage in the primitive Church.27


The desire to assume a Jewish prototype for Christian liturgical vestments grew widespread as a result of the speculations formulated during the initial period of the Carolingian Renaissance. Attempts to make the Christian garments correspond to those of the Levitical priests account for an increase in the number of Christian vestments between the ninth and twelfth centuries. In the ninth century Rabanus Maurus catalogued the vestments of the Church as the alb, girdle, sandals, and pallium. In the early twelfth century, Ivo of Chartres adds the stockings to the list. Then, around 1130, Honorius of Autun adds the subcingulum, rational, mitre, gloves, ring, and staff.28 (The rational, now extinct in the West, was assumed as a direct imitation, by Latin bishops of the early Middle Ages, of the ephod mentioned in Exodus.) While headdress did exist in the transitional period, the twelfth-century innovation of the bishop’s mitre was undoubtedly an adaptation of the Jewish prototype. The ring and staff, mentioned by the Synod of Toledo, were brought, in this later time, to the status of vestments. They are absent from the list offered by Rabanus Maurus.


We can conclude that, in the West, the Jewish prototype served to transform what had heretofore been dress styled after everyday wear, outdated by changes over the years, into separate and sacred vestments. Undoubtedly the seed of this conception was already planted in the transitional period, when the differentiation of clerical rank by dress was growing; but it was not until the ninth century that any standardization took place, and then according to the Jewish prototype. The many innovations and changes in liturgical dress which followed in the Middle Ages were purposely made to conform Christian vestments to their Old Testamental counterparts.


What, then, was the particular case in the East? First, liturgical dress was reserved much earlier as significant of ecclesiastical rank. No doubt, as Duchesne29 points out, the Byzantine church-state hegemony makes it more likely that the Eastern Church followed the fourth-century imperial dictum that all officials wear a sign of office. (Under Saint Justinian, of course, Eastern clergymen were just that: officials of imperial rank.) This being the case, one can easily account for the threefold development of the stole in the Eastern Church, which development has no counterpart in the West: the omophorion of the Bishop; the epitrachelion, or peritrachelion, of the Priest; and the orarion of the Deacon. While this view is repudiated by Macalister,30 it is one which commends itself to the best reconstruction of the historical facts. An early development is evidenced by the striking complexity of Eastern vesture already enumerated by Saint Germanos of Constantinople in the early eighth century. Since there is no extant evidence to prove that an adoption of the Jewish prototype, such as took place in the West in the ninth century, occurred in the East, one is forced to assume that the development of liturgical vesture in the East was part of a very long and natural historical process. It was probably more influenced in this development by the demands of the insignia of imperial office than by the kind of artificial imitation provoked by the abrupt changes which took place during the Carolingian Renaissance in the Latin West.


One incidental historiographical observation should be made in summary. Having considered the development of liturgical vesture more or less through its final form (i.e., through the prototypical forms on which modern vesture is based), we must consider the problem of the resistance to change, at least in the West, that characterizes liturgical vesture up to the time of its standardization. In the East, where this standardization corresponded to the standardization of worship (one must be struck by the fact that Byzantine liturgical worship went through a period, not of development, but of standardization as early as the fourth century – something unparalleled in the West until the ninth century), there is some sense in this persistence. Moreover, if liturgical vesture in the Byzantine Church was influenced by bureaucratic codes and imperial style, there is further reason for standardization and resistance to change. Just as judicial and official dress tends to remain fixed, resisting stylistic changes in general – function dictating form –, so Byzantine Church dress must have resisted change.


In the West, resistance to change is very difficult to explain. Since the imperial prototype does not seem to have been an important element in determining Western ecclesiastical dress, a social resistance to change in this realm seems unlikely. (While it is not our intention to investigate the matter here, an interesting area of research yet untouched is the possibility that the development of ecclesiastical vesture in the Carolingian West influenced a simultaneous development of the imperial dress necessitated by the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire.) In the last analysis, there being no reason to doubt that Western Christianity, like most religious movements, espoused a manner and style of dress that was conservative and modest, one might best account for the persistence of classical vesture well into the medieval Western Church by simple conservatism.

My foregoing comments should serve to demonstrate that neither the antiquarian nor the ritualistic school is an adequate historiographical scheme for understanding the historical development of Christian liturgical dress. Each school confesses limitations in dealing with that development in the West, where to some extent both models are appropriate. As regards the Christian East, either model will lead the casual observer, if not even the reasonably careful scholar, to an overview which is simply inadequate to encompass the unique and complex historical forces of the Byzantine Empire.


1 R.A.S. Macalister, Ecclesiastical Vestments: Their Development and History (London: 1886), pp. 2–3.
2 Ibid.
3 Exodus 28:4,40,42.
4 I have translated the text from Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, in The Works of Josephus, ed. H.St.J. Thackery (Cambridge, MA: 1957), Vol. IV, p. 39.
5 Ibid., p. 12.
6 Macalister, Vestments, p. 10.
7 W.B. Marriott, Vestiarum Christianum: The Origin and Gradual Development of the Dress of the Holy Clergy (London: 1868), p. 78.
8 Macalister, Vestments, p. 3
9 A. Fortescue, The Eastern Orthodox Church (New York: 1967 [reprint]), p. 405.
10 R. Lesage, Vestments and Church Furniture (New York: 1963), p. 106.
11 See an excellent presentation of this matter in G. Davies, The Early Christian Church (New York: 1965), p. 278.
12 Macalister, Vestments, p. 21.
13 Patrologia Latina [hereafter, PL], Vol. XXV, col. 436.
14 Macalister, Vestments, p. 15.
15 I.e., during the first four Christian centuries.
16 P.L., Vol. XXV, col. 436.
17 Ibid., Vol. XXIII, col. 524.
18 Macalister, Vestments, p. 19.
19 Labbe, Sacrosancta Concilia ad Regiam Editionem Exacta (Paris: 1963), Vol. II, col. 1203.
20 Ibid., Vol. V, col. 841.
21 Ibid., col. 1030.
22 See this account and reference in Josef Andreas Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development (New York: 1951–1955), Vol. I, pp. 66–74.
23 Cf. Macalister, Vestments, pp. 27–28.
24 Ibid., p. 48.
25 See this illustration in W.M. Webb, The Heritage of Dress (London: 1912), p. 140.
26 P.L., Vol. CXIV, col. 942.
27 Ibid., Vol. CVII, col. 306.
28 See Macalister, Vestments, p. 64. His dating is questionable, if only because it is speculative.
29 L. Duchesne, Christian Worship: Its Origins and Evolution, trans. M.L. McClure (London: 1903), p. 394.
30 Macalister, Vestments, p. 50.

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