After the death of the emperor Theodosius in 395, the Sacred Roman Empire, and its church, started a process of profound division the consequences of which can still be felt today.
With the establishment of two power centers, the Christian world soon started to branch into divergent lines. For the purposes of this article, we will follow the evolution of church vestments in the Western portion of the Roman Empire.
The documentation collected from the time when Honorius, the son of Theodosius, ruled the Western portion of the Empire, offers certain details about the use of vestments in Italy, Spain, Gaul, and Britain. It is safe to say that the evolution of ecclesiastic attire remained consistent through this vast area.
In fact, the introduction of novelties by certain bishops was soon frowned upon by religious authorities since the early days of the Western Roman Empire. The Roman See found it necessary to sharply reprimand some of their bishops because of their inadherence to their current code. According to a rather harsh letter sent by Pope Celestine to the Bishops of Vienne and Narbonne, they were accused of holding superstitious observances in dress by retaining ascetic garments. Curiously, the two Bishops had apparently begun wearing a pallium cloak and girdle in consonance to passages from the scriptures. But Pope Celestine saw this as mere posturing, arguing that if they truly wanted to follow these biblical precepts to the letter, they should also carry burning lights in their hands and wield the now demode pastoral staff. Of course, this clear attempt to retain uniformity proved it to be impractical.
Back then, there were generally four pieces of vestments used by religious leaders.
Also named tunica alba, it was a flowing tunic made of white linen. This piece of garment was the first one to be instituted as a mandatory ritual vestment and was an adequate dress for minor orders of the clergy.
It is said that the tunica alba is closely related to the tunica talaris, which was a long tunic worn by Roman citizens. This robe was usually made of wool and reached to the feet, hence its name talaris (ankles). The talaris was not fitted to the body, so it required a girdle to confine the flowing folds.
The tunica alba was even fuller than its counterpart as it needed the extra room to account for the wearer´s everyday dress.
The alb was eventually replaced by the surplice. This was a sleeved white linen vestment that resulted from a modification of the cumbersome alb. It was ample enough to be worn on top of the cassock or pellice. A sleeveless version of the surplice was the rochet.
There has been much discussion about the etymology of this term. However, the most likely origin comes from its initial use which was to wipe the user´s face during the ceremony. The orarium was a type of scarf, and some documents seem to indicate it was also used as a bandage to tie up scars or wounded eyes.
This piece of clothing also fell under heavy regulation. Documents from the fourth Council of Toledo indicate that the number of oraria allowed per member was restricted to one, it could not contain ornaments of any kinds, and it had to be worn exclusively over the left shoulder so the right side was kept free to facilitate the execution of the members´ duties.
The orarium was further regulated with a mandate imposed on priests to wear them without intermission, effectively making it an official vestment.
The orarium eventually evolved into more modern stoles and tippets.
The toga was recognized as the proper streetwear for Roman citizens for centuries. It was a long and encumbering oblong piece of cloth that had to be folded around the body in a very complicated, or even ceremonial, manner. Its evolution and disappearance was only a matter of time and, as soon as comfort and convenience became more valued among the people, other options started to be considered.
That's when sleeved tunics became more fashionable. At the time, there were three options: the paenula, the casula, and the planeta. The paenula was worn primarily by slaves but also used as a traveling dress due to its convenience. The casula was of even inferior quality and was usually worn by poorer classes. However, it was later adopted by monks of ascetic leaning.
The planeta had was of more luxurious manufacture and was worn mostly by nobles and senators of the time. However, Saint Isidore later forbade its use as a religious garment because of its price and ostentatious nature.
The Cassock was the logical evolution of these vestments and was worn by almost everyone from the 11th century onwards. However, it also evolved into other more convenient garments like the short coat. Thanks to the conservative view of the church at the time, its members were discouraged from following the current fashion trends. For warmth purposes, cassocks were often lined with furs and adopted the Latin name of pellicea due to its hairy texture. The white piece of cloth worn over the pellicea was called super-pellicea and was later shortened to surplice.
Ring and Staff: These are two elements that have either disappeared or been placed on a secondary plane by most churches today.
The Ring And Staff
The ring was a special mark of the Bishop even at the time of the Council of Toledo. However, to be differentiated from the many other rings most religious leaders wore, it had to be large enough to be worn above a gloved finger and centered by a precious stone, usually a ruby. Bishops wore the ring on the third finger of the right hand. However, the episcopal ring never reached the knuckle. Instead, Bishops wore their office ring above the second joint.
The staff was one of the earliest external symbols the church prescribed for the ordained. The simpler version was a rod of wood, usually crooked at the top. However, many pastoral staves had incrustations of precious metals or stones. Unfortunately, its association with more pastoral and frugal times made it clash with the rising status of the papacy. Today, the only remains of this important element are only found on engravings or some ornate pastor or apostle vestments.
However, the significance of the ring and staff remain the same Isidore of Seville expressed in his De Officiis Ecclesiasticis writings. According to St Isidore, the bishop is given a shepherd's staff to guide his consecration and a ring as a seal for secret things or mysteries of the church.
All these elements have evolved with time and have slowly become an integral part of the usual pastor and apostle vestments we see during service. While church vestments differ depending on the denomination, it is usual to see a combination of these elements.
The now common cassock replaced the toga or planeta; the surplice came to take the place of the original alb; the orarium is still worn in the form of stoles and tippets; the episcopal ring and the pastoral staff were merged into one symbol. The Church of God in Christ, for example, prescribes that Bishops wear a gold ring engraved with a shepherd's staff and centered by a ruby or amethyst.
However, these modifications do not mean that today´s clothes are of lower quality or less dignified.
On the contrary, today we can find excellent pastor vestments that both honor their origins and provide unparalleled quality and comfort. Visit our pastor attire section and take a look at our incredible selection of vestments and liturgical garments.