The Eucharistic vestments


Origins in the Roman Empire

The wearing of the Eucharistic vestments is the only everyday custom which has come down to us from the old civilisation of the Roman Empire before the barbarian hordes from Russia and China swept across Europe at the beginning of the fifth century.  The break-up of the Empire began in the year 410 AD when Alaric, the barbarian chief, captured and looted Rome, the city which for 800 years had been unconquered.

And so the face of Europe was changed.  Thus, until then, the ordinary dress which people wore at home and in the streets, was of the gown type, long and graceful; quite different from that of the barbarians who dressed like the Viking warriors we see in pictures, with skins wound round their legs and kept in place with criss-crossed leather thongs.  It is from this barbarian dress that we get the modern trousers.  Gradually the dress of the old civilisation disappeared from ordinary daily life, and people began to wear the same kind of clothes as the barbarians.  But there was one exception: the clergy, when celebrating the Eucharist, still wore the dress that they had always worn.  In their minds the dress of the barbarians was connected with the savage, barbarian invasions, with the burning of churches and the butchering of Christians.  So the clergy continued to celebrate the Eucharist in the everyday dress of the old Roman Empire and do so still to this day.

Ordinary dress of the Romans

During the 300 years before the sack of Rome, the ordinary dress which people wore consisted of a long undergarment of white linen (the alb); a knee-length tunic with short sleeves; and on top a circular cloak with a hole in the middle for one to put one’s head through (the chasuble). 

So the record of the martyrdom of St Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, in the year 258 AD describes his death:  he took off his red cloak, folded it, knelt down on it and prayed to the Lord.  Then he took off his tunic, handed it to the deacons and stood up in his alb, awaiting the executioners. (1) Some years later a girdle was also worn by certain government officials.  A scarf also came into use as a sign of some particular office or rank.  Some believe this is the origin of the stole.  Others believe that the stole originated from a napkin or towel and is linked with Jesus’ washing and drying of his disciples’ feet on Maundy Thursday.  According to this, the stole shows that its wearer, like Jesus, is one who serves.  Lastly a large handkerchief (the maniple) was carried over the left arm.

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