Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Gems from Pugin's "Glossary of Ecclesiastical Ornament"

I've taken a short break from my ongoing series on Victorian neo-medievalism to read and post some interesting gems from an art guide by my favorite designer of all time, Augustus Pugin (the Victorian Catholic architect who, among many other feats, designed the Big Ben Clock Tower and the interior of the Houses of Parliament). 

 The book, published in 1844, is called the Glossary of Ecclesiastical Ornament and Costume. Its purpose is to serve as a guide for Catholic church designers, artists, and craftsmen how the furnishings of a church should look, and exactly what they're for. We're talking about vestments, chalices, altar cloths, statues, inscriptions, and even wallpaper. There are bunches of wonderful illustrations in the second half of the book, all drawn by the man himself. A book like this would also be of great interest to a sacristan. If this sounds like your sort of thing, it's available for download in .pdf or .epub right here (see the orange button on the left).

A breathtaking cover page illustration by Pugin himself.

The first thing I noticed is from the cover, describing Pugin as "Professor of Ecclesiastical Antiquities" at Saint Mary's College, Oscott (currently a seminary in Birmingham, England). It's amusing because Pugin himself never spent a day in college as a student. Nonetheless, it takes only a few pages to see that Pugin, through self-study, amassed a savant-like knowledge of Church history and liturgy. 

Pugin opens his text with an introduction on "Symbolism in Art". Lest you ever accuse his churches and designs of being too vibrant or too ornate, he sternly warns that: 

 "Every ornament, to deserve the name, must possess an appropriate meaning, and be introduced with an intelligent purpose, and on reasonable grounds. The symbolical associations of each ornament must be understood and considered: otherwise things beautiful in themselves will be rendered absurd by their application."

Following his introduction is a massive glossary of every imaginable thing you could find in a church. For many of these entries, Pugin felt the need to supply them with lengthy essays. For example, the entry on Chasuble, the upper vestment worn by priests during the Mass. Fairly straightforward, right? But Pugin has nine and a half pages to tell us all about this garment. Much of it is spent lambasting the Roman, or "fiddleback" style that was popular in his time and which has been revived in the vast majority of traditional Catholic churches. My fellow trads would find the entry annoying, but I believe he's right. He says:

"It is surprising how soon the minds of the multitude are reconciled to changes, when they are for the worse; and the clipping principle, in the course of little less than two centuries has reduced the most graceful Vestment of the Church into a most hideous shape, with a front resembling the body of a wasp, and a back like a board, without a vestige of its ancient beauty or mystical signification; nay more, not only have modern vestments been made in this stunted and miserable form, but hundreds of ancient ones--ample and glorious--which had escaped the ravages of harassing pursuivants, in secret recesses of the Catholic mansions of England, have been actually cut and clipped in latter times by the hands of the degenerate descendants of those very men, who in days of greatest trouble and distress, had preserved alike intact the Vestments and the Faith. The present forms of Chasubles are not only hideous, but they destroy the meaning of many of the ceremonies of the Mass." (page 62, or 83 in Adobe)

And so he goes on, for several more paragraphs. In the passage above, he was referencing the practice of how Catholics in his time would actually cut up old, flowing chasubles so they'd conform to the fiddleback style! I've seen them; chasubles going back all the way to the High Middle Ages, cut down to size; for myself on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. It was absurd.

The dreaded fiddleback!

Pugin also points out a very odd, but true, observation on the fiddleback chasuble: the fact that you hardly ever see it in sculptures. In short, artists hate the fiddleback:

"Every artist is aware that the folds of drapery constitute its great beauty; the most majestic mantle extended flat is unsightly. Ever since the chasubles have been made of a stiff material, they have been avoided by sculptors and painters in their works, and they invariably select the Cope instead, solely on account of its folds, when, if the chasubles were made of the ancient graceful form, they would afford the most beautiful combinations of folds." (footnote on page 63, or 84 in Adobe)

But enough on that. Moving on in the Glossary, Pugin peppers this book, which would normally be as dull as watching paint dry, with his own English sense of humor. Whereas he normally has detailed descriptions of the liturgical colors and what they represent, his entry for Purple merely reads, 
"See Blue, and Red".

On his entry for Dog, I seriously can't tell if he's being funny or not. It reads, 

"Emblem of fidelity, and generally introduced at the feet of married women in sepulchral effigies, with that signification. It also signifies loyalty to the sovereign."

Other entries are ridiculously obscure. Ever wanted to know how to dress a boy bishop for Mass? See page 46. And what on earth is a pome? Pugin explains: 

 "A ball of precious metal filled with hot water, and placed on the Altar during the winter months, to prevent danger of accidents with the Chalice, from the hands of the priest becoming numb with cold."

            Only in England, friends. Only in England....

One of these obscure antiquities, which really ought to be revived, is the use of the herse at funerals. No, not the funeral carriages, though those are nice, too. But the herse was a frame for candles and heraldic devices, placed over a corpse during the funeral rites. It can only be explained by a picture, which Pugin the illustrator generously provides:

In the entry for hoods, Pugin embraces his inner medievalist to the core in an opinion that would warm the heart of any religious.

"Hoods: are a most ancient covering for the head, and far more elegant and useful than the more modern fashion of hats, which present a useless elevation, and leave the neck and ears completely exposed."

            Pugin fascinatingly also tries his hand at apologetics. Some of these entries are genuinely edifying and deserve to be printed in pamphlets or posted on Internet fora even today. I draw attention in particular to his entry on Images:

"No sooner had the doctrine of the Cross triumphed over Pagan error, and the danger of idolatry been removed by the overthrow and destruction of the idols themselves, than the Church permitted the glorious art of sculpture, hitherto dedicated to the illustration of error, to be exercised in honour of the true God and his blessed Saints, and to contribute to the piety and devotion of the faithful, by setting forth the most sacred representations, for their contemplation and instruction. Although the fury of the early iconoclastic heretics had well nigh stifled Christian sculpture in its birth, and the still more fatal destruction caused by the Calvinistic and revolutionary iconoclasts of more recent times, has defaced or destroyed many of its finest productions, the great churches of Christendom yet exhibit most wondrous proofs of that the art of man, when influenced by faith and devotion, could do, in embodying the Life and Sufferings of our Blessed Lord, the lives of the Saints, and the glories of the Heavenly Kingdom." (page 158, or 179 in Adobe)

Finally, I'd like to touch on Pugin's entry for Chair. In it, he covers all kinds ranging from the bishop's cathedra (throne), to the humble priest's sedilia. In most trad chapels today, the sedilia is a sort of bench with three seats on an equal plane: the priest in the middle, and the deacon and subdeacon (or acolytes) to his sides. Pugin, however, revived the medieval use of niches in the wall arranged hierarchically with the priest at the highest point, then the deacon, then the subdeacon. Again, such a thing can't be envisioned without a picture. There isn't one in the book, but I'll show you one he actually made at the church of Saint Giles, Cheadle. (Full-size image here.)

The names of the orders are inscribed under each seat (sacerdos for priest, diaconos for deacon, etc.). Each seat has symbols of his order as well. The subdeacon has cruets, the deacon has a gospel book, and the priest has the Eucharist. Pugin also incorporates function with form; the easternmost niche has a credence shelf above (to hold the cruets, bowl, ewer, etc.) and a sacrarium below (to safely wash vessels so that any remaining particles of the Eucharist may settle in the earth). And to add further function, the seats are conveniently arranged so that the priest, deacon, and subdeacon can go to and from the altar without changing places to allow the priest in the middle.

Pugin, in his typical medievalist manner, scorns the newfangled "Italian" chairs used in most churches of his time (and in trad chapels today) as suited more for saloons.

"These sedilia or stalls, for the celebrant and assistants, were formerly to be found in every foreign church; but the love of modern Italian design to which the Catholic clergy of the last three centuries have been so lamentably addicted, combined with the stiffness of modern vestments which rendered these seats inconvenient, has banished them from all the ancient continental choirs, and in lieu of them chairs of the most unsuitable description, fit only for the saloon of an hotel, are frequently used." (page 58, or 79 in Adobe)

            I’ll close this post with a few choice scans of artwork from the second half of the book and this final thought: while I created this post mainly to share some levity, this blog’s purpose is to show just how the ideas of the Middle Ages are relevant to our needs, not obsolete. Pugin was accused in his lifetime of being an “architectural bigot” for asserting that Gothic style (which he simply called Christian architecture) was morally superior to other forms. He responded that the medievals, through Gothic, actually fulfilled the ideals of classicism more faithfully than the imitators of Greece and Rome and that their style, formed entirely in a Christian age for Christian purposes, is timeless. Therefore, I hope that if you who are reading this are a cleric, a sacristan, a religious artist, or even just a humble server, you’ll add Pugin’s Glossary to your collection and make use of it as a guide for how the Catholic Church ought to look: not just for Pugin’s century, but for ours today.

Some illustration of priestly vestments, based on medieval funeral effigies around Europe.

An altar with a reliquary underneath, and curtains drawn back.

Various patterns.

An alphabet guide to Gothic lettering.

Cope designed by Pugin for his own parish church, now at the V&A. (Rowan Williams wore a copy of it for the recent royal wedding, though with a Holy Ghost dove in place of Saint Thomas Becket's face.)

A bishop's mitre designed by Pugin, based on one of the illustrations in the Glossary. I believe it's currently kept at Westminster Cathedral, London.

Uber-Gothic chalice by Pugin, which I also saw at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Requiem Mass illustration at the very end of the Glossary. Note the ominous hooded monks.


  1. James,

    Thanks for posting this. The hearse was very interesting. I am partial to the fiddleback, but Gothics have grown on me over time.
    Will bookmark and, as you suggest, will try to bring this into my small, very small sphere of influence as a server.


    1. Joe,

      You're welcome. I used to be a fan of the fiddleback, but in addition to Pugin's arguments, I've come to believe "long, flowing, and dramatic" are watchwords for good vestments, from an aesthetic point of view. Furthermore, cutting the chasuble down is a blatant act of minimalism. The fiddleback is truly the sleeveless t-shirt/wifebeater shirt of Catholic liturgical paraphenalia.

      The rubricist Rev. Father Adrian Fortescue bashed fiddlebacks in his essay on Vestments of the Roman Rite, though for reasons unexplained, he didn't like Pugin's vestments, either.

  2. Thanks for the link to the pdf.

    Belgium has its own Pugin, Jean-Baptiste Bethune. They even worked together on a castle. A pity his tiara (the Belgian tiara) was never worn by the popes.

    I see medieval surplices in the illustrations. Were they common in catholic gothic revival?

    1. I hadn't heard of Bethune until just now. Did a cursory search, and I'm sure now that I'll do a piece on him some day.

      For those curious, here's the Bethune tiara given to Pope Pius IX.

      "I see medieval surplices in the illustrations. Were they common in catholic gothic revival?"

      You mean the very long ones? I don't think they ever got mainstream. People really like the visual contrast between the black of the cassock and the white of the surplice... a contrast which is enhanced by having shorter surplices or Baroque-style lace inserts.

      I do, however, see that in this photo of the Rev. Father Adrian Fortescue, all the surplices are of the long, "baggy" kind.

    2. That doesn't surprise me at all: "It is astonishing how modern the little cotta to the waist is. Illustrations of the Pontifical at Venice in the eighteenth century still show long full surplices without lace;1 and France and Germany have never brought the surplice above the knee. I need hardly point out that artistically the beauty and dignity of this garment are entirely a matter of long, full folds. A long surplice falling in folds, with wide sleeves - one, in short, made according to St. Charles's rules - is an exceedingly handsome garment. "
      (copied from

      If I recall correctly, even Borromeo mentioned that the surplice should be undecorated and have a round neckline.

    3. Oh, I do recall correctly. It's even mentioned in the quote. :D

  3. Thanks for this, James. I really look forward to the next offering. In a way, I hate reading this stuff because it make me long for a better day in the future. But I feel I may not live to see such a revival. Then again, the idea that it may happen is invigorating and the fight for the True, Good and Beautiful is worth the wait, isn't it.

    1. Jeremy, if it makes you feel better, remember that Pugin died young and frustrated because not many people "got it" during his time, either. And that was in 1851!

  4. Dear James,

    What does Pugin (or others in your research) say about the antipendium? Thank you.

    May Our Lady bless you! Sister Maria Philomena (smph (at)

    1. Hello. Pugin has an entry for "Frontal" in his Glossary of Ecclesiastical Ornament, but it's mostly technical descriptions of medieval antependia for artists. In The Present State of Ecclesiastical Architecture in England, Pugin says:

      "The front of the altar, if solid, should be furnished with, at least, an antependium with appropriate ornaments, and a purple frontal for Lent; but, if means would permit, a complete set of frontals of the five colours should be provided."

      That's interesting because he expresses support for the five-color system, even though it hadn't existed in medieval England. (It was a post-Tridentine development.) Still, Pugin either must have thought it a good idea, or was just expressing fidelity to liturgical rubrics here.

  5. The world would be much better of if Pugin's True Principals were applied to everything!

  6. The Gothic lettering in his alphabet is faithfully reproduced on the United Reformed Church in Sedbergh, the carving dating probably from 1871. (see Street Typography in Sedbergh. I'm sure there must be other examples around the country and if anyone can point me in the direction of them I'd be very grateful.

  7. Great article! I'm glad to have seen it and discovered Pugin's book. What a funny guy!

  8. I found a reference from you on another blog in which you state, "Augustus Pugin, in his Glossary of Ecclesiastical Ornament, tells us that this instrument is an emunctorium, which is Latin for "snuffer". The acolyte tasked with lighting or extinguishing candles is an accensor (Latin for enkindler)."

    I have Pugin's book and have searched the book online, but can not find the reference to which you refer. Do you have a page number where the emunctorium is referenced?


    Pastor John M. Koelpin

    1. Now I can't find it either. That just figures. I might be buried in a side note somewhere....