The Fabric of Worship

On a cold, gray day shortly after Christmas, Alice and I parked at the northern end of Manhattan and walked into a faux medieval monastery overlooking the Hudson River known as The Cloisters. Built in the 1930s, the castle-like structure was designed to receive art taken from abandoned monasteries in Europe. This annex to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art is a remarkable testament to the religiosity of another age.


The Cloisters, located above the Hudson River, is a branch of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The art here was incorporated into the building itself in an array of courtyards, chapter rooms, and several chapels, with the individual artifacts displayed as elements of worship space: three dimensional objects, or reliefs, given space to breathe and be themselves. The collection is unusual in that virtually all of it comes from the rarified world of medieval monastic life.

The world portrayed in the art of the Cloisters was very different than our own. The Middle Ages was a period of poor roads, widespread illiteracy, and limited horizons. One can idealize this “age of faith,” but for the monks who celebrated the sacred liturgy, their daily fare in winter was a mixture of freezing nights and a diet of hard bread and vegetable pottage.

In such an environment, the monastery chapel with its polychrome statues, brilliant stained glass windows, and altar illuminated by candlelight, was a heavenly antechamber that merited fine priestly vestments. “We must enter into the Holy of Holies,” the 13th century liturgist Guillaume Durand wrote, “with a pure conscience and with clean holy raiment must we handle and hold things of God.”

Monks are seldom shown in the art of the Cloisters. When they are, they are depicted in the drab, peasant-like garments of gray, black, or brown. In sharp contrast, the priest celebrating Mass is invariably shown garbed in rich colors, his vestment gilded, brocaded, and fringed. When it came to liturgical expression, the medieval monks were exuberant.

By the 1300s beautiful liturgical garments were closely identified with the understanding of priesthood. “A priest clad in the sacred vestments acts in Christ’s place,” the mystic Thomas a’Kempis explains. “When the priest celebrates Mass, he honors God, gladdens the angels, strengthens the Church, helps the living, and brings rest to the departed.” It was during this same period, that the vestment colors marking the seasons of the liturgical year became standardized.

Priestly vestment
Priestly vestments, shown in a 15th century Flemish Painting at the Cloisters Museum New York City.

Over time, the remarkable synthesis of medieval art and spirituality faded. Protestant reformers rejected key elements of the Eucharistic celebration, stripping churches of art, doing away with vestments, and reducing all to the pure Word of Scripture. Catholic reformers moved in the opposing direction. In the baroque era, Church vestments became unwieldy under the weight of stitchery, beading, quilting, and even painting. As a priest friend noted, “This period after the Council of Trent was perhaps the period of the most beautiful vestments ever made.” But the extreme ornamentation tended to make the vestment an end in itself, overshadowing the meaning of the celebration it was intended to serve.

Since Vatican Council II, most Catholic Churches have adopted vestments whose cut and color are based on patterns of the late Middle Ages. In more recent times some have favored vestments that were common in Italy in the 18th and 19th century. Suitability for worship not fashion is the primary value. “The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her very own,” Vatican II’s Decree on the Liturgy notes, “She has admitted styles from every period according to the natural talents and circumstances of peoples… provided that it adorns… the holy rites with due reverence and honor.” The recently revised General Instruction on the Roman Missal expands this vision. “The beauty of a vestment” it tells us, “should derive from its material and design rather than from lavish ornamentation.”

Heavy snow now began to fall as we left the cloisters, and the stiff, bracing wind reminded me of the hard edges of the era of the early monasteries. But my experience with the art of this time left me with another insight. Like the monks of earlier times, we are called to practice humility, and abnegation in our personal lives. But as members of the Christ’s community, we also celebrate a liturgy whose light and color is a foretaste of a heavenly Jerusalem.

Larry Mullaly

January 3, 2013

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