Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Wednesday 14 February 2024

Ash Wednesday and Lent - liturgy and vestments

Ash Wednesday sees each year a striking change in the outward expression of the Church’s devotion. Lent is visually as well as liturgically different, even after the anticipating weeks of Septuagesima. In the Novus Ordo the  change is all the more dramatic to the eye as green yields overnight to violet in vestments and hangings within churches.

The austere beauty of the Lenten liturgy is expressed in the outward sign of the imposition of ashes and the inward call to repentance. The history of ashing is set out in my post from 2011 at Ashes and Ash Wednesday

The excellent Catholic website The Pillar has a discussion of the varieties of imposing ashes which I have linked to in the past, and can be seen at On Ash Wednesday, some ‘trace’ and some ‘sprinkle’ — But why?

Once we get into Lent the liturgy changes. One of the most notable changes in the traditional forms, and a delight to scholars and students of such matters, is the appearance of the folded chasuble and broad stole at Mass. There is a very good account of these features from Canticum Salomonis at The History of the Folded Chasuble (Part 1) and The History of the Folded Chasuble (Part 2)

There is also an illustrated 2009 account of the folded chasuble from the St Lawrence Press at Folded chasubles

It has been very good indeed in recent years to watch Masses online during this season where these ancient forms of vesture have reappeared in celebrations of the pre-1955 Triduum liturgy.

For most of us in the Roman tradition violet is the liturgical colour of Lent, but that is not uniformly so. Amongst the surviving historic Rites, as sanctioned by the Council of Trent and  St Pius V, Braga uses violet, but the Ambrosian Rite in Milan and the Lyonese Rite are quite distinct.

For the church of Milan Lent does not start today but on the Monday after next Sunday with ashing on those two days after the Mass of the Sunday forty days before Easter. For low Masses penitential black is worn and on Sundays the blueish violet known as morello, until red appears for Holy Week. This is set out on the New Litugical Movement at Liturgical Colours of Lent in the Ambrosian Rite, by the Liturgical Arts Journal at The Ambrosian Rite's Unique Liturgical Colour: Morello , and by the website of Duomo itself at Sunday at the beginning of Lent

The practice in Lyons was to wear ash-coloured vestments as can be seen from the New Liturgical Movement at The Ash Grey Lenten Vestments of the Rite of Lyon

The Rad Trad in a 2014 post on the Lyonese Missal points out that Lyons followed Roman useage more than other 2/Rites and that:

Green….is also used for the fourth Sunday of Lent….”Ash” colored vestments are utilised from Ash Wednesday until the Mass of the Lord’s Supper exclusive. Where Ash is not available violet is used….black for ...Good Friday.

The Lyons useage appears to preserve early Roman approaches to the seasonal liturgy as opposed to the more clearly ancient but distinctive practice of Milan. There is a Wikipedia article about it at Rite of Lyon

The Archbishop of Lyons as Primate of Gaul enjoyed for many centuries oversight of the three Provinces of Tours, Rouen and Sens. This, and the tradition of Gallican autonomy as codified in 1438 and 1516, led to the survival of distinctive liturgical traditions and developments. These are often associated with Paris which in the late seventeenth century replaced Sens as the Provincial centre.
Rouen, which remained at least nominally under the supervision of Lyons until 1702, and the cathedral clearly followed very much virtually the same liturgy as Lyons into the eighteenth century. This is beautifully set out in a detailed post from Zephyrinus drawing upon an account published in 1718. This can be seen at Rouen, France. “Voyages Liturgiques De France: The Cathedral Chapter”.

If the Lenten colour of Rouen was indeed ashen, then this may explain the tradition of the Lenten array used by Sarum in medieval England. 

Unbleached linen hangings throughout Lent in churches and vestments to match are a distinctive feature of restored medieval use in Anglo-Catholic churches, including Westminster Abbey and Wakefield Cathedral as well as parishes, and occasionally in Catholic churches. They were very much associated with the ideas of writers such as Percy Dearmer. He has, however, been seen as codifying far too rigidly the varying practices of  medieval England as a kind of English exceptionalism. My doubts about such a schema derive from not, as I recall, ever seeing such vestments listed in the inventories from the plunder of the Henrician and Edwardian period of the 1540s abd early 1550s. Maybe I, or someone, out to look in a more detailed way at these accounts of robbery so carefully transcribed and published by past generations of antiquarian researchers.

The claims for Sarum Lenten array are set out in Lenten Array and by my Oxford acquaintance Fr Lawrence Lew OP on the New Liturgical Movement at Lenten Array in the Sarum Use

If the useage of Lyons was copied by the centralised diocese and Province of Rouen, that is the Duchy of Normandy, then Norman clergy coming, as we know so many did, after 1066 to England may well have introduced it or  adapted it on this side of the Channel. Ironically then the exceptionalism of Sarum may in fact derive from Rouen, and that in turn from Lyons.


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