The origin of Christian clothing is found in the humbler civil clothes of Classical antiquity. This clothing was adapted to suit the tastes of each era to produce liturgical garments, usually forming complete sets. The dalmatic (derived from the short tunic used by the slaves of Dalmatia), the chasuble and pluvial (both inspired by the Roman paenula – a wide cloak with a hood) are the most important pieces in such a set. The altar where mass is celebrated was often dressed in harmony with the vestments over the frontal, as a symbol of the presence of the Eucharist.
The colour of the vestments was closely linked to the church calendar, and real gold was allowed to substitute for the three liturgical main colours of white, red and green. Up to the first half of the 16C, vestments were preferably made of velvet, damask or silk, occasionally enriched with brocades and brocatelle interwoven with threads of gold and silver. The decorative motifs, standardised and symmetrical, were of a large size and continued the 15C taste for foliage designs involving pomegranate or chard. In exceptional cases hagiographic imagery, embroidered in polychromatic silk, sumptuously invades the niches in the orphrey banding. The second half of the 16C saw a development towards the Mannerist style.
The religious embroidered imagery was more defined, appearing within ‘Roman style’ medallions or in Flemish cartouches. The coming together of cultures between Europeans and Orientals promoted by the Discoveries and missionary work, led to the importation of religious vestments from India and China throughout the 17C and 18C. Incorporating elements of Christian symbolism, these seem at times to be hybrid but exotic compositions, in which the density of the ornamentation was favoured much to the detriment of the human figure. The spirit of the Baroque was expressed above all through the splendour of gold and silver, and the undulating pattern of decorative motifs. In the second half of the 18C, more stylized and asymmetric motifs in the Rococo style introduced a hitherto unknown lightness into this area.