This series was written for Angelus Press by Louis Tofari
Discourses on Solemn Mass: Part IV
In our day, the outer vestments of the sacred ministers at Solemn Mass correspond with the holy orders they are exercising; that is, priesthood, diaconate and subdiaconate. However in ancient times of the Roman Rite, this distinction was harder see to as all ministers (including the clergy in attendance) wore the casula planeta – or chasuble – regardless of their sacred function. A remnant of this older practice still exists in solemn Pontifical Mass for the clergy who form the cathedral chapter, as well as for prelates assisting at the traditional Papal Mass. Of course, another glimpse of this earlier praxis is magnificently seen during the Chrismal Mass on the morning of Holy Thursday – but I digress.
Of the outer vestments worn by the sacred ministers, the chasuble (today worn only by the priest) is the most distinct and over time has given rise to two defining styles based upon their cut, or shapes. These styles are the conical (or so-called “gothic”), and the Roman, and each in turn has its own minor variations which can differ even from country to country, particularly with the latter one.
The conical-style chasuble was actually the original form of Latin Rite vestments; it is distinguished by a circular shape with a hole cut in the middle, thus resembling a tent when worn – hence the origin of its name, chasuble, from the Latin casula meaning “little house”. The other vestment pieces though were narrow and long – longer than what is typically seen today. There are many ancient depictions of the gothic style of vestments being worn, some of the most detailed on medieval English brasses (flat engraved pieces of brass commonly placed over those entombed under church floors). Though this style fell out of vogue about the 16th century, owing mostly to the influence of monastic orders, a revival of this early style began just before the 20th century.
The origin of the Roman-style chasuble is of a more recent date – circa the 16th century when Baroque architecture came into vogue. Essentially the sides of the ancient conical chasuble were trimmed down to remove any impediment in moving the arms, which also made for a lighter and cooler vestment – particularly in the heat of a Roman summer!
Originally though, this new style of chasuble was much fuller in volume than what we are accustomed to seeing today, as demonstrated by the famous chasuble of St. Philip Neri. Over time though, the Roman chasuble was trimmed down even further, either as a straight vertical cut, or even the famous “fiddleback” – so-called from its resemblance to a violin case. While the chasuble was trimmed down for ease of movement, the other pieces were actually widened with their ends typically broadening into a bell shape – ironically often making the maniple more unwieldy than its ancient predecessor!
In the next discourse, we shall examine the outer vestments proper to each sacred minister and see how they are put on.
Footnote: 1 Cathedral chapters have been non-existent in the United States with one notable historical example: the Cathedral of St. Louis in New Orleans, Louisiana, when it was under the French rule.
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