High Fashion in the Church: The Place of Church Vestments in the History of Art from the Ninth to the Nineteenth Century

By Roy, Neil J. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2005 | Go to article overview

High Fashion in the Church: The Place of Church Vestments in the History of Art from the Ninth to the Nineteenth Century


Roy, Neil J., The Catholic Historical Review


High Fashion in the Church: The Place of Church Vestments in the History of Art from the Ninth to the Nineteenth Century. By Pauline Johnstone. (Leeds, UK: Maney, 2002. Pp. ix, 176; 32 color plates. $119.00 clothbound; $59.00 paperback.)

Pauline Johnstone affords the reader a fascinating and lavishly illustrated study of the origins and development of sacred vestments, chiefly in the Catholic tradition. This splendid tome ought to adorn the shelves of every Catholic seminary and house of formation where, according to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, "During their philosophical and theological studies, clerics are to be taught about the history and development of sacred art and about the basic principles which govern the production of its works. Thus they will be able to appreciate and preserve the Church's ancient monuments, and be able to aid by good advice artists who are engaged in producing works of art" (Sacrosanctum concilium 129).

The size of a coffee-table book, and favored with a scholarly text copiously footnoted, it doubtless will make a welcome addition to the library of anyone seriously interested in producing, collecting, studying, or simply admiring liturgical vestments. Altar guilds, especially those of the Anglican communion, will rejoice in the possession of this attractive and engaging volume. Likewise, costume designers and producers of historical dramas striving not merely for effect but for authenticity would do well to have this book ready to hand.

In addition to scores of exquisite black-and-white photographs, plus thirty-two magnificent color plates, of historic vestments and altar frontals, the book features a first appendix of over twenty-six diagrams, drawn by Des Firth, illustrating various cuts and shapes of assorted vestments. These display regional differences in the arrangements of orphreys and panels. A second appendix lists the principal Christian symbols used in traditional vestment decoration, e.g., anchor, fish, pelican, tetragrammaton, etc., and their mystical meaning. A glossary of technical terms acquaints the non-specialist with types of fabric, textile, and kinds of stitchery.

Formerly a member of the curatorial staff of the Department of Textiles and Dress at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Johnstone is quite at home discussing embroidery and the technical creation and decoration of church vestments. Her expertise here is beyond question, and she explains her material with aplomb. She is on slightly less solid ground, however, when she treats the iconographie dimensions of ecclesiastical art and finer points of church history. She identifies as the risen Christ, for example, a figure of Christ who is undergoing the complete paschal mystery in a representation of "The Mass of St Gregory" (Fig. 3, p. 6). There, on the altar, stands Christ nearly naked, crowned with thorns, blood pouring from his side into Gregory's chalice. Several groups surround him: Pilate condemns him, Peter denies him, torturers mock, scourge, and spit at him. The rugged cross of Calvary serves as the altar cross and the sepulcher functions as the retable or reredos. Two jars of ointment stand on the tomb. The whole picture presents a conflation of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, not merely or even primarily the resurrection. This slip is entirely forgivable in view of the need for brevity and the fact that the body of Christ in the Eucharist is not a cadaver but the living body of the risen Lord. …

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