Liturgical Arts Journal: The Pontifical Dalmatic and Tunicle: A Brief History and Consideration (2024)

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Continuing on with our consideration of the pontifical vestments, I wished to turn our attention today to the pontifical dalmatic and tunicle. These pontificals are utilized by prelates in the context of the solemn pontifical Mass. Having vested in the buskins and sandals, amice, alb and stole, the prelate next puts upon himself the tunicle and dalmatic. As he does so he prays the following vesting prayers:

Ad Tunicellam Tunica jucunditatis, et indumento laetitiae induat me Dominus.

At the Tunicle May the Lord cloth me in the tunicle of delight, and the garment of rejoicing.

Ad Dalmaticam Indue me, Domine, indumento salutis et vestimento laetitiae; et dalmatica justitiae circumda me semper.

At the Dalmatic Cloth me, Lord, with the garment of salvation, and the raiment of joy; and ever place upon me the dalmatic of justice.

As they have developed, the pontifical dalmatic and tunic are essentially very thin, light vestments of silk that are easily worn the one over the other.

Liturgical Arts Journal: The Pontifical Dalmatic and Tunicle: A Brief History and Consideration (1)

Over this is then worn the chasuble:

Liturgical Arts Journal: The Pontifical Dalmatic and Tunicle: A Brief History and Consideration (2)

So then, the question will naturally be asked, why is this done? To modern eyes the dalmatic is a vestment which belongs to another 'clerical order' -- namely that of deacons -- so why would a bishop wear it? To understand this one must first understand a bit of the historical background of this vestment. The dalmatic is very ancient and particularly Roman and its use was never, in fact, exclusive to deacons, being a vestment worn first by the Pope. What's more, even its use by deacons was at first limited to Rome:

According to the "Liber Pontificalis" the dalmatic was introduced by Pope Sylvester I (314-35). It is certain that as early as the first half of the fourth century its use was customary at Rome; then, as today, the deacons wore it as an outer vestment, and the pope put it on under the chasuble. In early Roman practice bishops other than the pope and deacons other than Roman were not permitted to wear the vestment without the express or tacit permission of the pope... The Bishops of Milan most probably wore the dalmatic as early as the fifth century... mosaics in the church of San Vitale at Ravenna show that it was worn by the archbishops of Ravenna and their deacons at least as early as the sixth century. About the ninth century the dalmatic was adopted almost universally for bishops and deacons in Western Europe, even including Spain and Gaul, where instead of a dalmatic deacons had worn a tunic called an alb. (The Catholic Encyclopedia)

One can see from this that our modern sense of the dalmatic being specifically and uniquely "diaconal" is not entirely accurate then. This shifts the question then to the much more basic question of what the symbolism of this additional pontifical vestment is?

One of the common interpretations you will find in relation to the episcopal use of the dalmatic is that it demonstrates the fullness of the bishop's priesthood. It may well be the case that this would eventually come to be understood in this way, but writing in2009, Msgr. Guido Marini, papal master of ceremonies, ties his own understanding of this question closely to its historical origins in Rome, specifically the granting of its use by the pope to the cardinal deacons of Rome who acted as special ministers of the pope:

From the beginning of the third century, this vestment had become the outerwear of the most distinguished people of Rome. We find mention of the dalmatic in the Liber Pontificalis as a distinctive, honorary garment granted to the Roman deacons by Pope Sylvester (A.D. 314-335), “so that deacons would use dalmatics in church” ... to distinguish them among the clergy due to the fact that they had a special relationship with the Pope. Before that, the dalmatic was part of the papal wardrobe and the proper and distinctive garb of the bishop. Outside Rome, deacons wore a simple white tunic for liturgical services, over which was soon added the orarium or stole. The news of the concession of the dalmatic to the deacons by Pope Sylvester is confirmed by the Roman author of the Quaestionum Veteris et Novi Testamenti (circa A.D. 370), who, not without a touch of irony, writes: “Today the deacons vest like bishops” (n. 46).

For Marini, this early Roman history of the dalmatic, the pope and the cardinal deacons is the key to understanding its symbolism, not so much as a sign of the fullness of the priesthood of the bishop, but rather as a sign of service:

... bishops wear the dalmatic on the most solemn occasions, underneath the chasuble, and also as the outer vestment when anointing the altar or during the washing of the feet. In this latter instance, as theCaeremoniale Episcoporum(Ceremonial of Bishops), n. 301, relates, the bishop takes off the mitre and chasuble but not the dalmatic. The dalmatic underscores not so much the fullness of the priesthood but service as a characteristic of episcopal ministry. In the case of cardinal deacons wearing the dalmatic, this goes to underscore their role as servants and also as close collaborators of the Roman Pontiff in the liturgy. The dalmatic is a sign of service, dedication to the Gospel and to others. But also when the bishop uses the dalmatic, he uses it to serve: whether during the washing of the feet, or in the special liturgical service that bishops, who are cardinal deacons, carry out near to the Roman Pontiff.

There is a certainly an irony in the fact that many in the episcopate today seem reticent to use the pontifical dalmatic and tunicle, perhaps believing it to be too hierarchical or too much "pomp" when in actuality what they are brushing aside is a vestment that is a symbol of service. Perhaps if more of our bishops were to become aware of this additional symbolism, they might not so readily set these worthy vestments aside.

Liturgical Arts Journal: The Pontifical Dalmatic and Tunicle: A Brief History and Consideration (2024)
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