“A fragile part of our culture”

First Communion © CBA

Many young people celebrate their First Communion today – on White Sunday. Where this name comes from and the importance of textiles in the Church, we were able to talk with an expert on historical fabrics.

Interviewer: Where does the name "White Sunday" come from??

Dr. Gudrun Stracke (Institute for Historical Textiles) The name is derived from the Latin "Dominica in Albis": the Sunday in white robes. It is believed that the custom of wearing these white vestments on the day of First Communion goes back to the baptismal vestments. In the days of early Christianity, it was customary to wear long, tunic-shaped vestments as an adult.

Interviewer: White vestments at baptism, white dresses at communion, then we have wedding dresses in white, the pope wears white. What do these white fabrics symbolize in the Church?

Stracke: White is the color where all colors come together. It is an expression of light and innocence. When preparing for first Holy Communion, one does so in a lengthy course of instruction. One goes to confession, receives the sacrament of penance and then goes to the Eucharist with a pure heart. This is what the white garment expresses.
Interviewer: Not only the white clothes – in the church in general textiles play a special role. Why is that so?

Stracke: When we think of textiles, we may start from our everyday clothes. It is functional, comfortable, simple and sporty. But when we want to make something stand out from the ordinary, to set a special accent, then we wear more festive clothing: a chic costume, something colorful. With this we set a sign that something special is taking place.

Interviewer: Textiles are often also part of the church treasure. How can it be that textiles and fabrics are attributed such an important meaning in the church??
Stracke: Textiles are sacral treasure art. They are a part of our culture that is particularly fragile. Sometimes they have traveled a long way, arriving here as diplomatic gifts. They were intangible in their materiality, that is, almost incomprehensible to the man of the Middle Ages. The first silk fabrics that we can make ourselves here in Europe were not made until the 14th century. Century. Everything that came to us before that, and which has been handed down in large numbers here in Cologne church treasures, has traveled a long way: from Byzantium, from the Near East, from China. Because of its materiality, the fine silk, because of the colorfulness, but also because of the strange and exotic ornaments, this treasure is incredibly precious. For this reason, the textiles were intended, on the one hand, to wrap the relics, but then also to create vestments of the liturgy.
Interviewer: At what point should we start thinking about the conservation of such textiles?? Only when they are exhibited?
Stracke: No, of course that is also the case when they are used in the liturgy. Fabrics that have been worn for many centuries are, of course, particularly stressed and also demanding in their care and preservation. They must be stored away from light. They should not be exposed to dust, because dust rubs against the surface of the fibers. There are many things that have to be considered in the careful handling of textiles.
Interviewer: In 19. Then, in the sixteenth century, people began to collect textiles?
Strack: At the time when the cathedral in Cologne was being completed, there was a movement that was very focused on the Middle Ages and saw the roots of its own culture in medieval art. That’s how people started to turn away from baroque fabrics with rich floral patterns. One has gone in search of one’s own parament fabrics, which one can buy in the 19. The textile industry has recreated in the twentieth century. In order to recreate these fabrics and ornaments, old fabrics were also collected. Some of them were small fragments, but there were also vestments. One of Cologne’s well-known collectors, Alexander Schnutgen, amassed an incredible number of liturgical vestments in his lifetime, which today make up an important core collection of the Museum Schnutgen.
Interviewer: You deal with such textiles and objects on a daily basis in your institute. Is there anything that has particularly stuck in your mind during your time at the institute?
Stracke:Yes, a particularly fascinating object that is very large in size. This is a red painted silk cloth that has survived the ages as a secondary relic and shows a representation of the Holy Rock from Trier. An angel holds on it this vestment at the shoulders and presents it frontally. It is today in aristocratic private property. We know that this cloth was used for the instruction of the Holy Robe in the 17th century. Century was imposed. The painter was commissioned to copy and draw the Holy Rock one to one. We know that the Holy Skirt over time, even just in the 19th century. Century, has been restored many times and is not preserved in its original dimension. But with this touch relic, with this painted cloth, we know the original dimension of the Holy Rock.
Interviewer: What fascinates you most about your profession??
Stracke: This is the change in the textiles. Liturgical vestments also change over the centuries, even though they reflect an original type. For example, fabrics are donated that were once originally a wedding dress, then embroidery is added that may have come from another context. In the course of the centuries and especially in the 19. Then in the twentieth century they changed things again. This constant change is very fascinating. We also made a special discovery once: we were forced – one doesn’t like to do that – to open a historical seam and examine the linen inlay of a chasuble. We put the outer fabric aside a bit, and on the inlay we found an inscription from the tailor. It read, "If this garment is ever altered and this lining is found, may an Our Father be prayed for me." That’s what we did then.

Interviewer: Are there any current research projects they’re working on, then?

Stracke: We completed a major research project some time ago. In cooperation with the University of Cologne, a corpus of the Cologne borders has been created. This records all Cologne braids of the late Middle Ages that have survived on Cologne city territory. The braids were a Cologne export hit. They have been used to make liturgical vestments that are exported as far away as Iceland. They have been preserved until today in great numbers because they are created from such a wonderful material, provided by the Cologne guilds and probably made by the embroiderers of coats of arms.

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