Monday, June 19, 2017

Evangelization through beauty: the Saint Bede Studio

Sacred vestments can be odd to the desacralized imagination. Especially in their traditional forms, vestments are cumbersome, utterly impractical, even garish to those who are more used to seeing ministers in coat and tie. The spirit that moves contemporary Christians to ridicule the use of vestments--that the clergy must "conform to the times"--is the very opposite of why the Church mandates their use! For vestments, properly made, take the priest and his ministers out of the ordinary world and into sacred space, sacred time. From the amice ("the helmet of salvation") to the "tunicle of delight" and the "dalmatic of justice", each garment further hides the minister wearing it to allow him to be the servant of the liturgy--not its master.

I'd like to highlight the work of a vestment-maker I've been following for more than five years: the Saint Bede Studio. Based out of Australia, the Studio's stated aim is to produce sacred vestments in a range of styles inspired by Benedictine spirituality: all hand-made, not out of a catalog but according to custom designs. I also appreciate that (like my traveling schola of Gregorian chanters) the Studio undertakes their work as part of a spiritual apostolate.


The Saint Austin design

Since we observed Pentecost earlier this month, it's fitting to start by looking at this recently made red chasuble below, made for a priest in the Diocese of Arlington (Virginia).


They call this the "Saint Austin" design, after the apostle of the English so greatly revered by Augustus Welby Pugin: Saint Augustine of Canterbury. Pugin was, of course, not only an architect, but a master of all fields of liturgical design. The braiding used by Saint Bede is based directly upon Pugin's designs, like the chasuble below, which the father of the Gothic revival designed for Saint Augustine's Abbey, Ramsgate.

This original Pugin chasuble was eventually given by the monks of Saint Augustine's, Ramsgate to the Victoria & Albert Museum. See here for more info.

The semi-conical design

One of my favorite designs is the most ancient: the voluminous conical chasuble. This is the style most clearly descended from the paenula: the ancient Roman "poncho", or outer garment adopted by the clergy for sacral use. An old black-and-white photo from the era of its revival in monastic communities can be seen below.


By the 13th century, perhaps spurred on by the rise of private low Masses and the attending lack of assistance from the deacon and subdeacon to help hold the excess fabric around the arms, this cut had gradually been reduced. The first stage was what we might call the "semi-conical" chasuble, as worn by Saint Thomas Becket and depicted here. One of the more striking examples of the semi-conical style might be this Lenten chasuble below made for a priest in Trenton, New Jersey (not far from me) several years ago. The purple is accented with black and a grey which suggests the famous ash of Ash Wednesday. Not strictly a replica of a medieval design, but with a contemporary touch appreciated by a self-dubbed "Modern Medievalist" like myself.



Here's a tunicle from the same set.

The Saint Martin design

Another chasuble in the line of ample cuts, the Saint Martin style is named after Saint Martin of Tours. While the word "Roman" when applied to vestments usually summons to mind the fiddeback, its use by the Saint Bede Studio is meant to draw from much older inspirations of Roman vestments in art. Below is a photo submitted by Father Samuel Fontana: a then-newly ordained priest. Note the decoration, like the semi-conical shown above, relies upon the Tau cross.

The Borromeon design

Not to be concerned exclusively with medieval designs, the Studio also offers vestments in the so-called "Borromeon" style, after Saint Charles Borromeo: a famous leader of the Counter-Reformation period. The fathers of the Council of Trent still would not have known anything like the vestments we call Baroque today. The Borromeon chasuble is an interim cut which isn't as ample as the Gothic, but still extends partway down the priest's arm. Here's a nice "action photo" from, once again, a priest's first Mass, this time in Brooklyn.

Father Carlos Velasquez incensing the altar at St Joseph's church, Brooklyn. More info here.
Dalmatic from the same set.

The papal set

At last, it's worth mentioning that the Saint Bede Studio had the tremendous honor of supplying a vestment set for the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI during his 2008 visit to Sydney, Australia. Click here for a detailed blog post on some of the inspirations and design details of that project. Below is a photo of His Holiness wearing the Studio's chasuble and mitre.



If anything you've seen here or on the Studio's website inspires you to commission a set for yourself or a priest (or deacon) in your life, be sure to send an inquiry to their email address as given on their blog. I'm told their commissions for 2018 are filling up quickly, so the time to place an order is now!

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