margin notes
Costume and Dress in
Early Christian Art

The artistic portrayal of characters in mythical and biblical scenes in contemporary costume followed Greco-Roman artistic traditions. A striking feature of the dress of biblical figures in early Christian art is ordinariness.

Just as in contemporary society, dress was important during the early Christian era under Roman and Byzantine rule hemogeny. It is, therefore, important that we have some understanding of the variations of apparel when considering the way in which early Christians clothed themselves. In this way we will understand the methods used by the early Christian artists in depicting biblical figures.

Sources for our knowledge of dress in late antiquity include wall paintings, monumental reliefs, mosaics, sarcophagi, painted portraits (mainly Egyptian), and even some actual garments, i.e., fragments of, garments and a sandal excavated from the Bar Kochba Caves in the Judean Desert, contemporary texts, literary references from Greek and Roman historical records and Talmudic literature, throw light on the type of dress and their social significance.

All these connotations played an important part in Early Christian art. It is notable that with a few exceptions all the figures shown are wearing contemporary Greco-Roman costume depiction. i.e. A fresco from the CE 3rd century synagogue of Durra Europas in Syria shows Samuel anointing David dressed in colorful knee-length tunics.

The main sources for our knowledge of the various types of clothing worn by the Hebrews of that era is through Talmudic literature; the Bar Kokhba archaeological finds of a thonged sandal, garments and textiles; and pictured on the Dura-Europos frescoes.

There was no specifically Jewish costume depicted. The patriarchs as well as rabbinical figures were pictured in the attire of Roman dignitaries. There were, however, some details that would depict an individual as a Jew - fibers such as wool and linen would never be mixed together according to the biblical edict ( shaiatnez ) forbidding the mixture of fibers in a single cloth. Also, men would have worn tsistsit , ritual fringes on the corners of their mantles.

In the Talmudic era a Jewish man would of worn a haluq , a short tunic, decorated with clavi , stripes, and a talith , a shaw-like garment of wool (or linen) with fringes at the four corners, worn during religious services. Jewish women wore long tunics and loose, sleeveless cloak or cape that resembled the pallai or ihimationi . Decoration was usually the gamma-shaped patterns, probably of the similar design of Roman Egypt.

The Christian clergy wore the collumbium and after the third century, the dalmatica and the stola was adopted (these ancient garments survive in Catholic and other Christian dress.) The stola has metamorphosed into the stole, a strip of silk or other material hanging from the back of the neck over the left shoulder and down to the knees. The dalmatica has become the dalmatic, a wide-sleeved, long-loosed vestment with slit sides, worn at religious rites. There is also the tunicle, derived from the tunica, Roman or Greek tunic, and a chasuble, worn by a priest during the celebration of Mass - from the Roman paenula or casula , a loose sleeveless outer garment. The pallium , a large rectangular mantle worn by men in ancient Greece and Rome, has shrunk into a circular strip of white lamb's wool, worn over the chasuble by the Catholic hierarchy.


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Left to right: Capuchin, Calmalduensian, Capuchin, and Valombrose monks

Comparison Between Christians of Early Times and Those of Today

by Blaise Pascal (c.1662), translated from the French by O.W. Wight

IN EARLY TIMES, Christians were perfectly instructed in all the points necessary to salvation; whilst we see to-day so gross an ignorance of them, that it makes all those mourn who have sentiments of tenderness for the Church.

Men only entered then into the Church after great labors and long desires; they find their way into it now without any trouble, without care, and without labor. They were only admitted to it after a strict examination. They are received into it now before they are in a condition to be examined.
They were not received then until after having abjured their past life, until after having renounced the world, the flesh, and the devil. They enter it now before they are in a condition to do any of these things. In short, it was necessary formerly to forsake the world in order to be received into the Church; whilst men enter now into the Church at the same time as into the world. By this process, an essential distinction was then known between the world and the Church.

They were considered as two opposites, as two irreconcilable enemies, of which the one persecuted the other without cessation, and of which the weaker in appearance should one day triumph over the stronger; so that of these two antagonistic parties men quitted the one to enter the other; they abandoned the maxims of the one to embrace the maxims of the other; they put off the sentiments of the one to put on the sentiments of the other; in fine, they quitted, they renounced, they abjured this world in which they had received their first birth, to devote themselves entirely to the Church in which they received as it were their second birth and thus they conceived a terrible difference between the two; whilst they now find themselves almost at the same time in both; and the same moment that brings us forth into the world makes us acknowledged by the Church, so that the reason supervening, no longer makes a difference between these two opposite worlds. It is developed in both together.

Men frequent the Sacraments, and enjoy the pleasures of the world; and thus whilst formerly they saw an essential difference between the two, they see them now confounded and blended together, so that they can no longer discriminate between them.

Hence it is that formerly none but well-instructed persons were to be seen among the Christians, whilst they are now in an ignorance that inspires one with horror; hence it is that those who had formerly been regenerated by baptism, and had forsaken the vices of the world to enter into the piety of the Church, fell back so rarely from the Church into the world; whilst nothing more common is to be seen at this time than the vices of the world in the hearts of Christians. The Church of the Saints is found defiled by the mingling of the wicked; and her children, whom she has conceived and nourished from childhood in her bosom, are the very ones who carry into her heart, that is to the participation in her most august mysteries, the most cruel of her enemies, the spirit of the world, the spirit of ambition, the spirit of vengeance, the spirit of impurity, the spirit of concupiscence and the love that she has for her children obliges her to admit into her very bowels the most cruel of her persecutors.
But it is not to the Church that should be imputed the misfortunes which have followed a change in such salutary discipline, for she has not changed in spirit, however she may have changed in conduct.

Having therefore seen that the deferring of baptism left a great number of children in the curse of Adam, she wished to deliver them from this mass of perdition by hastening the aid which she could give them; and this good mother sees only with extreme regret that what she devised for the salvation of these children has become the occasion for the destruction of adults. Her true spirit is that those whom she withdraws at so tender an age from the contagion of the world, shall adopt sentiments wholly opposed to those of the world. She anticipates the use of reason to anticipate the vices into which corrupt reason will allure them; and before their mind has power to act, she fills them with her spirit, that they may live in ignorance of the world and in a condition so much the more remote from vice as they will never have known it.

This appears from the ceremonies of baptism; for she does not accord baptism to children until after they have declared, by the mouth of sponsors, that they desire it, that they believe, that they renounce the world and Satan. And as she wishes that they should preserve these intentions throughout the whole course of their lives, she commands them expressly to keep them inviolate, and orders the sponsors, by an indispensable commandment, to instruct the children in all these things; for she does not wish that those whom she has nourished in her bosom should to-day be less instructed and less zealous than the adults whom she admitted in former times to the number of her own; she does not desire a less perfection in those whom she nourishes than in those whom she receives. Yet men use it in a manner so contrary to the intention of the Church, that one cannot think of it without horror. They scarcely reflect any longer upon so great a benefit, because they have never wished it, because they have never asked it, because they do not even remember having received it. . .

But as it is evident that the Church demands no less zeal in those who have been brought up servants of the faith than in those who aspire to become such, it is necessary to place before their eyes the example of the catechumens, to consider their ardor, their devotion, their horror of the world, their generous renunciation of the world; and if they were not deemed worthy of receiving baptism without this disposition, those who do not find it in themselves. They must therefore submit to receive the instruction that they would have had if they had begun to enter into the communion of the Church; they must moreover submit to a continual penitence, and have less aversion for the austerity or their mortification than pleasure in the use of delights poisoned by sin.
To dispose them to be instructed, they must be made to understand the difference of the customs that have been practised in the Church in conformity with the diversity of the times. As in the infant Church they taught the catechumens, that is those who aspired to baptism, before conferring it upon them; and only admitted them to it after full instruction in the mysteries of religion, after a penitence for their past lives, after profound knowledge of the greatness and excellence of the profession of the faith and of the Christian maxims into which they desired to enter forever, after eminent tokens of a genuine conversion of the heart, and after an extreme desire of baptism.

These things being known to all the Church, the sacrament of incorporation was conferred upon them by which they became members of the Church; whilst in these times, baptism having been accorded to children before the use of reason, through very important considerations, it happens that the negligence of parents suffers Christians to grow old without any knowledge of the greatness of our religion.
When instruction preceded baptism, all were instructed; but now that baptism precedes instruction, the instruction that was necessary has become voluntary, and then neglected and almost abolished.

The true reason of this conduct is that men are persuaded of the necessity of baptism, and they are not persuaded of the necessity of instruction. So that when instruction preceded baptism, the necessity of the one caused men to have recourse to the other necessarily; whilst baptism at the present time preceding instruction, as men have been made Christians without having been instructed, they believe that they can remain Christians without seeking instruction.

And whilst the early Christians testified so much gratitude towards the Church for the favor which she accorded only to their long prayers, they testify to-day so much ingratitude for this same favor, which she accords to them even before they are in a condition to ask it. And if she detested so strongly the lapses of the former, although so rare, how much must she hold in abomination the continual lapses and relapses of the latter, although they are much more indebted to her, since she has drawn them much sooner and much more unsparingly from the damnation to which they were bound by their first birth. She cannot, without mourning, see the greatest of her favors abused, and what she has done to secure their salvation becomes the almost certain occasion of their destruction.


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