Late Roman dress and church vestments

Last night while my wife was getting a haircut, I sat in the lobby of the hairdresser’s and looked at pictures on my phone, in particular pictures of Late Antique and mediaeval ivory carvings. Because they are magnificent. And beautiful. Scrolling through the photos from my various travels, I inspected this one for a while:

cropped fl felix 428This piece is in the best little (and free!) museum in Paris, the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Collection de Monnaies, Médailles et Antiques (BnF). It is one leaf of a consular diptych from Rome depicting Flavius Felix, consul in the year 428. Amongst the many ivory artefacts that strike my fancy, I love consular diptychs in particular. If I remember Alan Cameron, ‘The Origin, Context, and Function of Consular Diptychs,’*  correctly, these diptychs were given as unofficial gifts by consuls and other Roman officials to commemorate their holding of office, particularly the sponsorship of games.

I zoomed in on Flavius Felix’s diptych and looked first at the open curtain behind him, and his staff, and his clothes. And his clothes caught my eye. First, it was the presence of what looks like a stole or pallium (I do not actually know the correct technical term here, sorry). Then I observed that he is wearing a long, ankle-length robe underneath a short, possibly fancier robe. Lucky Flavius also has a fancy, embroidered garment surmounting it all. I’m not sure what it is; it does not much look like a toga. I’ve seen images of togas before, like what this Late Antique emperor in the process of apotheosis is wearing:

From around 402, in British Museum
From around 402, in British Museum

These garments of Felix’s all caught my eye, as the title of this post has given away, because they are reminiscent of traditional clerical vestments as visible in Eastern Orthodox and traditional, Latin use Roman Catholic churches. That same Parisian museum has this Greek icon of the second half of the 16th century as an example:

Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil
Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil

Here we can see the similarities in the dress between Felix and the three hierarchs, even if they are not perfectly mirrored.

Years ago, you see, a low-church, non-conformist friend asked where on earth clerical vestments even came from. I did some Googling, and a website somewhere (this was before 2004, so I’m not rehunting this site!) said that the origins lay in the vestments of Roman lawyers.

Now, I admit to not knowing about Roman lawyers and not taking the time to investigate more thoroughly. However, the evidence of this consular diptych suggests that ceremonial dress of the Later Roman Empire was the source for the ceremonial dress of the church. This makes sense, since the liturgy is meant to be an event of great splendour and worship of a God of splendour. As part of the enculturation of Christianity in Late Antiquity, the clergy took on forms of dress from the secular world just as the church adopted secular, Roman styles from architecture, art, poetry, etc.

To close, here are some other consular diptychs I’ve seen:

Leaf from diptych of Areobindus, Constantinople, 506 (Musée de Cluny)
Leaf from diptych of Areobindus, Constantinople, 506 (Musée de Cluny)
9th/10th-century western European imitation of a Late Antique diptych
9th/10th-century western European imitation of a Late Antique diptych, BnF, Paris
Leaf of diptych of Magnus, first quarter of 6th c, Constantinople (BnF, Paris)
Leaf of diptych of Magnus, first quarter of 6th c, Constantinople (BnF, Paris)
Diptych of Theodore Philoxenus Sotericus, Constantinople, 525 (BnF, Paris)
Diptych of Theodore Philoxenus Sotericus, Constantinople, 525 (BnF, Paris)
Diptych of Flavius Anastasius Probus, Constantinople, 517 (BnF, Paris)
Diptych of Flavius Anastasius Probus, Constantinople, 517 (BnF, Paris)

*Journal of Roman Studies 103 (November 2013), 174-207.

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