Christine Aribaud's Soieries en Sacristie: Fastes Liturgigues, XVII-XVIIIe siècles, (Toulouse, Musée Paul Dupuy, 1998, and Somagy in Paris) explores a world the French have lost, that is the one of the faithful's attempt to please the divine by dressing holy intercessors with it as majestically as possible. There were, of course monks and clergy in the Early Modern centuries who perceived magnificence as luxury, and dressed as humbly as possible (hemp and sandals) but in the parishes and cathedrals every attempt was made to provide the clergy with the finest finery. Like pride in the greatness and beauty of the edifice, vestments and altar furnishings were an expression of the pride of the parish or diocese. These were generally (and still are) the property of the parish. Fabriques, or vestries allocated funds for these costly items, and accepted or rejected the donations from the faithful according to the strings attached to them (chapel burial rights, usually) of donors. Vestments were blessed in specific ceremonies; they were kept clean and repaired. A succession from a tall priest to a short one caused mud from the paths and cemetery to soil the bottom of the chasubles. When too worn they were to be sealed up in a wall niche or burned, not unlike a burial, rules which are still in force. The parallel about destroying tattered or dirty U.S. flags comes to mind. I do not know about the rules on flags in contemporary France, but the image of dirty Tricolores over school doors comes to mind - as a parallel with the now dominant mode of "simple" vestments in the church.
Beneath this beautifully illustrated book there rests the research by Aribaud for a thesis that she defended in 1989 at Toulouse. The need to give contemporaries basic definitions of vestments, and an introduction to their history, is met here ― admirably ― with just the right tone. The legislation on vestments of Vatican II is described here as "badly applied" (p. 19). Its influence continues to be strong. But Aribaud is too good a historian to attribute such power to conciliar decrees. Profound changes occurred within the French Church since World War l l, so profound that Vatican II must be seen more as a product of those changes, as only partially a source of them.
Aribaud has a rare talent for making objects speak ("un simple crissement de soie nous suggère toute une histoire"), for example as she recounts the adaptation of the shape of the late Roman dress (the chasuble in particular) to the priest who must have his arms free to hold up the Host for the faithful to see. Assistants for centuries held open his vestment.
A sense of participation was conveyed by gesture ― a world of politeness separate from the secular, but related to it (we take pleasure in holding a door open for someone). At every point the relation between shape and function is noted. The history of liturgical colors is reviewed, and why the pink was thought appropriate for the fourth Sunday of Lent. Aribaud's understanding of the liturgical is profoundly historical; it was not (is not) something coming down from on high, though rules of conduct promulgated by bishops were enforced, particularly in the Catholic Reformation and since Vatican II. But liturgy is collective action of priest, assistants, and community together - teaching and repeating what is known. Did the finery of the vestments in the past help the clergy to cope with their own emotions before the many tragedies and joyous celebrations over which they were called to preside? When Cardinal Richelieu visited Privas the extreme poverty of the inhabitants made him so ill that he had to go to bed. The office of the dead required black or violet; the priest at Courbet's Ornans would not have seemed bizarre to most priests in the Ancien Regime. The levelling down after World War l l, supposedly in response to Soviet simplicity and Communism, largely by priests competing with each other to be more humble, broke a thread with the community that perhaps respected them less.
Aribaud's sources have been what survives in the sacristies of Languedoc, pastoral visitation and notorial records. She finds a cycle of major increases in the number and costs of vestments in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and again in the late 18th century, with only minor changes for the century between. Does this cycle respond to church building projects as well? Do resources go to buildings, windows, organs first, and then to vestments? There was some increase in the number of chasubles, and a decline in dalmatics. Here, obviously, it is the visitation records that permit such calculations, not what has survived in the sacristies.
Toward the end Aribaud takes up the different question regarding the history of woven design in silk. The references and examples quickly extend beyond Languedoc, to Italy, Lyons, Tours ― to Curiosité and Bizarreries, Chinoiseries, etc. The famous palm design may well have Genoese origins; there is a piece that looks somewhat vaguely inspired by Berain, but it might also have links to the designs worked out for the magnificent book bindings dating from the eighteenth century. And one thinks of the over-refinement in color nuances that developed in tapestry making in the eighteenth century, as attempts to reach closer and closer to the colors of a Boucher painting ended up in a product which, if not carefully protected by the light, became murky and washed out; as the métiers became more and more perfected, designs became smaller and smaller in silks, not necessarily more beautiful or more resistant to wear and fading. Designs in Lyon were patented for 25 years, which makes the dating of fabrics more difficult than bindings and tapestries, where generally the subject offers stray evidence about dating on elite works, at least.
Yet, what is striking is that while secular and sacred floral and other patterns seemed to become almost indistinguishable across the 18th century, the famous Indiennes and toile de Jouy designs do not seem to come into liturgical silks. Still, as the court aristocracy moved out of silk (it happened in Languedoc too, Y. Castan, Honnêteté....) and into single colored wools, for the first time the confection of a dress might cost more than the material used, a revolution of sorts (D. Roche, Culture des Apparences.......). It is to be wished that Aribaud's trained eye will remain trained on the history of fabrics, perhaps more secular fabrics, in order to find out whether or not there really can be a history of design in and out of fabrics in Languedoc.
While visiting the Lyon silk museum a number a of years ago I noticed a young woman--- obviously from Oriental regions ― walking through, pad, pencils, including colored pencils, in hand. It would take her only 5-7 minutes to work out and record the specifics of what looked like a very complex brocade design. How could she do this? Some sort of mental image, or grid, must already have been in her mind, probably known to many artisans, that she could name, after which she could then quickly draw the differences and color nuances. An oral culture of weaving and colors may still be alive in the North Italian mountains, the Lyonnais, and China-Japan - not the same language, but one with corresponding words for ensembles of features that the person who does not know the language "sees" as all different. The positivism still so strongly at work in the French Church today prevents, I suspect, the commissioning of a chasuble in any fabric design dating from the 18th century. The silks in the liturgical vestments for sale on the square before Sta. Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome this summer were neither historical nor contemporary in the designs ---- "bastards" of beautiful stuff but lacking magnificence. That's where things are today, between the boldness of contemporary design, and the historicity of the fine copy.
p.s. It is ironic to note that the vestments worn by the Greek Orthodox clergy all over Eastern Europe remains as magnificent as ever, there where Communism "flourished."