Ecclesiastical Lace

Needle-lace chasuble
Linen, silk, and silver threads
Textilmuseum St. Gallen, 51480
Photo: Michael Rast

Luxurious textiles such as lace have long been an essential part of Christian religious rites. Alongside sumptuous furnishings of silk, velvet, and lavish embroideries, ecclesiastical lace—including altar frontals, chalice covers, and priests’ vestments—represented divine glory and was thus an important element of the holy mass. Lace intended for use in the liturgy often featured religious iconography such as monograms of Christ and depictions of saints.

Historically, the church was an important buyer of lace and the clergy, who followed the court’s taste in rich fabrics, often with some delay, also sought to acquire this symbol of status and wealth. Additionally, ecclesiastical institutions often received donations of this expensive commodity from elite patrons.

The church benefited financially from the lacemaking industry, as much of the lace in Europe was created by women in religious institutions. Many girls born into noble families were sent to convents to become nuns (some against their will), where they made lace in strictly regulated environments. Handcrafts like lacemaking were considered expressions of a virtuous and contemplative life at this time and therefore suitable activities for pious women.

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Golden needle-lace panel, possibly an antependium (altar frontal) or trimming for an alb, with scenes of the founding of a Cistercian monastery
Flanders, Southern Netherlands; France; or Italy
ca. 1695–1710
Linen, silk, and metal threads with silk core
Textilmuseum St. Gallen, Acquired from the Estate of John Jacoby, 1954, 00816
Photo: Michael Rast