(Cross-posted at Liturgical Arts Journal today).
If the seven priestly vestments signified the perfection of priestly virtue and the fullness of divine life poured out in the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, then the seven additional vestments of the bishop indicate another level of perfection, corresponding to his higher state. We notice the same pattern here: the garments are read according to all four modes of Scriptural interpretation, bringing into relief the person of Christ incarnate in the bishop and his liturgical action.
Largely, the bishop’s garments represent his preaching, teaching, and pastoral functions. We don’t often think of the rich symbolic meanings behind the ancient garments, so redolent with Scriptural and Christological associations. The mystical commentary can give us eyes to see.
Honorius of Autun, Gemma Animae, ch. 209 – 218
On Episcopal Vestments
The bishops wears the same seven vestments and is adorned by seven more, namely the sandals, dalmatic, rationale, mitre, gloves, ring, and staff. The word sandals (sandalia) comes from the sandarac plant (sandica herba) also known as sandaracus, with which the sandals are said to be painted. We believe that their use comes from Our Lord himself or from the apostles, who preached in them. It is the sort of open footwear in which the foot is partly covered and partly nude. Thus it signifies preaching, in which the Gospel is partly opened to listeners, and partly left closed.
Sandals are made from the skins of dead animals because the Apostles and Doctors of the Church strengthen their preaching with the writings of the prophets, who are God’s animals. The bottom of the foot is covered by the sole of this shoe, and the top is naked because in Gospel preaching the truth must be hidden from carnal men through the letter, but laid bare for spiritual men through allegory. A strap of white leather runs up from the sole because the preacher must leave behind all earthly business and his tongue must be innocent and without guile. A connected strap runs above the foot because they carry good news [of their preaching] to the bishop. The upper strap (lingua) is the tongue of spiritual men, who chose him for the work of preaching. Sandals are covered on the inside with white leather because the preacher’s conscience should shine with purity before God. But outside its appearance is black, because his life should be cast down in humility before men. The top part where the foot enters is stitched from many threads, because he must pour heavenly preaching into minds through many sentences. The strap (lingua) lies over the foot, and the preacher’s tongue (lingua) over the people. The string that runs from the strap to the other side of the sole is evangelical perfection that stretches toward God. The strings that run from both sides are the law and prophecy, which bear testimony to the Gospel. Tying the sandal is the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation, which is untied by the hand of the preacher. He trods upon the padding underneath his foot so that he may learn to despise the things of this world and to love the things of heaven. The priests of the Law wore stockings which covered uncleanness. The priests of the Church wear sandals because they preach cleanness also to others.
On the Dalmatic
The dalmatic is named after the province of Dalmatia, where it was first invented. It stands for the Lord’s seamless tunic and the apostles’ colobium. The colobium was a hooded garment without sleeves, as can still be seen in monastic hoods or the tunics of sailors. Now Pope St. Sylvester substituted the colobium with the dalmatic, adding sleeves and ordering it to be worn during the Sacrifice. It is worn by the bishop at Mass, when Christ’s Passion is celebrated, because it is shaped like the Cross. The vestment is white because Christ’s flesh was generated from a chaste virgin and because the bishop’s life must be a shining example of chastity. It has the form of the Cross because Christ underwent the torture of the Cross for our sake, and the bishop must crucify himself to vice and concupiscence. The sleeves of this garment are like the wings of a mother hen, for God nurtured the first humans in Paradise like eggs in a nest. He gathered up the Church, his chicks, under his wings of grace and mercy. In the same way the bishop must gather up the faithful under the wings of the Old and New Law by his preaching, spread himself over them by his good conduct, and by his prayer protect them from the raptors of the sky, who are the demons. The dalmatic must be seamless as the Lord’s tunic, because he must keep the integrity of the faith whole and entire.
On the Dalmatic and What it Signifies
The dalmatic also signifies religion pure and unspotted, for we are commanded to visit the orphans and widows and to keep our life spotless before God. The dalmatic has two scarlet stripes in front and behind, because the Old and New Law shine with the love of God and neighbor, in which the bishop must be wreathed. The two purple stripes signify the blood of Christ, poured out for two peoples. Unspottedness corresponds to the love of God; the visitation of our brethren to the love of neighbor; and the scarlet color is understood to be works of mercy, which are offered on account of the twin love of widows and orphans. The tassels that hang from the dalmatic are the words and example of the preacher, which flow from the virtue of religion. The tassels hang in front and behind because the twin commandment of love is found in both the Law and the Gospel. In each of the stripes there are fifteen tassels on each side, before and behind, because in the Old Law fifteen psalms go out like the fifteen steps on the way of charity, and likewise in the New there are fifteen branches sprouting from the tree of life. Now the branches are these: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (I Corinthians 13). The left side has tassels that signify the toils of human labor because the active life is worried and troubled about many things. The right side does not have tassels because the contemplative life remains calm, and the queen standing at the right hand has nothing sinister in her. The great size of the sleeves is the good cheer of the giver.
On the Rationale
The rationale is taken from the Law, where it was made of gold, violet, and purple and measured one span (Exodus 28). Doctrine and truth were placed on it, and twelve precious stones, in which the names of the sons of Israel were inscribed, and the pontiff wore it on his chest as a remembrance of the people. This garment appears also among our vestments. It is attached to the chest at the top part of the chasuble, covered in gold and gems. It warns the bishop to be vigorous in reason and by the gold of wisdom, the violet of spiritual intelligence, and the purple of patience to tend always toward Christ (who measures the heavens in a span), to radiate doctrine and truth, to shine with the gems of virtue, to imitate the holiness of the twelve apostles, and to remember the whole people in the Sacrifice .
On the Pontifical Mitre
The pontifical mitre is also taken from the practice of the Law. It is made from cotton and is called a tiara, cidaris, infula, or pileus. The mitre that veils the head, in which the senses are located, means custody of the senses against the temptations of the world through following the Lord’s commands. We do this in exchange for the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. The mitre is also the Church, and the head is Christ, of whom the bishop is a figure. The mitre that surrounds the bishop’s head is made of cotton, a material that is rendered white through much labor, while the Church is made clean by Baptism, made white by the labor of good works, and deeply yearns to see Christ her head in glory, never ceasing to imitate him through various passions in order to obtain the crown of life. Moreover, the bishop’s head is adorned with the mitre when the Church enlightened by his doctrine gives honor to his dignity, and the whole clergy and people gather around him.
On the Gloves
The use of gloves has been handed down by the Apostles. Now the hands signify good works, but the gloves signify their hiddenness. For sometimes the hands are veiled in the gloves and sometimes they are taken off to leave the hands bare. In the same way good works are sometimes concealed in order to avoid all show of arrogance, but at other times they are made manifest for the edification of our neighbors. Gloves are put on when the following is fulfilled: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1). They are taken off again when this one is fulfilled: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). The gloves are seamless because the pontiff’s actions must be concordant with the true faith.
On the Ring
The use of the ring is believed to come from the Gospel, where the prodigal son is vested in a robe and a ring is put on his finger for the feast of the fattened calf (Luke 15). Formerly kings used to sign letters with a ring and noblemen used to wed their wives this way. It is said that a wise man named Prometheus first made an iron ring as a sign of love, and placed a stone of adamant in it. For just as iron vanquishes all, so love conquers all. And as adamant cannot be broken, so love cannot be overcome. He decided to wear it on the finger through which the heart’s vein runs, and thus it has the name annularis. But later gold rings were substituted for iron ones and set with gems rather than adamant. For just as gold is the most excellent metal, so affection is the most excellent of good things, and just as gold is embellished with a gem, so love is adorned by affection. The bishop wears a ring to show that he is the Church’s spouse and like Christ will lay down his life for her in time of need. Let him seal the mysteries of Scripture in a place hidden from the unfaithful, but unseal all secrets for the Church.
On the Episcopal Staff
The staff is used on the authority of the Law and the Gospel, and is called the pastoral staff, shepherd’s crook (capuita), rod (ferula), or crook (pedum). For Moses held a staff in hand when he pastured his sheep. At the Lord’s command, he carried it into Egypt with him, used it to work wonders that terrified his enemies, who were like wolves devouring the Lord’s flock. Like a shepherd leading his sheep to pasture, he led the Lord’s flock out of Egypt through the Red Sea with this staff, used it to bring bread from heaven and water from the rock, and led them with it into the land flowing with milk and honey. This staff was nothing other than pastoral staff, which he used to guide his flock like a shepherd. Some authors call this staff a crook (pedum), because shepherds used its curved head to grab and drag the feet of their flock.
Again on the Episcopal Rod and Staff
In the Gospel Our Lord commanded the apostles to carry nothing with them besides a staff when they went to preach (Mark 6; Luke 9). Because the bishops are the pastors of the Lord’s flock, as both Moses and the apostles were, so they keep a staff for protection. The staff signifies the authority of Christian doctrine, by which the weak are supported. The rod is a figure for the power of governing, by which the ways of the unjust are corrected. The bishops carry a staff to raise up the weak in faith through sound teaching; they carry a rod to correct the restless through their power. The rod or staff is curved so that it can drag the wayward sheep back toward penitence by their teaching. It is sharp on the end to cast out the rebellious by excommunication and frighten the heretics away like wolves from Christ’s sheepfold.