THE streets of Pimlico, I suppose, are as good a place as any to run across a Catholic confrère. We found ourselves as the only two visitors to the showroom where Indar Pasricha has moved from Connaught Street. Another textile specialist occupies the neighbouring premises, giving Moreton Street the decorative feel of a bazaar.
The current show is the result of more than 20 years of collecting, and brings together some three dozen extraordinarily varied and rich vestments from the 1560s (a cope made for Philip II of Spain) to the 1940s (the white chasuble, stole, and maniple created for a Monegasque bishop has more than a hint of Matisse about it). They are available for sale, from a few thousands of pounds to a million.
The range of textiles shown here offers the visitor the chance of creeping into sacristies as far afield as India and China as well as those in France, Spain, and Italy. A couple of the exhibits are domestic textiles, including part of a pre-Revolutionary bed curtain from Couzon, near Lyon, and several rich brocade panels, from the Venice of Tiepolo; but the display is essentially that of liturgical material.
St Gregory the Great, who sent Augustine to England in 597, claimed in The Book of Pastoral Rule that, as the gold vesture of priests “is resplendent beyond all else, so should he especially shine beyond all the others in the understanding of wisdom”. A later pontiff, Paul V, who, like Gregory, also sponsored the missionary evangelisation of the Church, was aware of the need to accommodate local custom; in June 1615, he granted Jesuits the unique privilege of wearing a skull cap, of the liturgical colour of the day, while celebrating mass, to avoid causing the Chinese embarrassment that such a solemn action should be performed bare-headed.
The last room offers a theatrical display of eight chasubles suspended from the ceiling like so many multi-coloured parasols, the glint from gold embroideries shimmering with the silks of India and Europe. The walls are hung with orphreys and cut-down fragments of other vestments, tent-like. Missing only is the hint of incense and the glimmer of candlelight to pick up the bouclé effect of metal threads.
The recovery of the 16th-century Spanish cope is not only historically exciting for the Patrimonio Nacional but also shows how the silver from New Spain pouring into the country was used to the glory of God in whose name the Conquista took place.
The red cope can be approximately dated because the royal arms on the morse are the achievements of Philip II before he claimed the Portuguese throne in 1581. Decorated with scenes from the Passion, it would have been more than suitable for use at the veneration of the Cross on Good Friday, and the catalogue essay includes an entry from the account books of the Escorial in 1567 which refers to just such vestments.
From 1569, the palace had its own embroidery workshop producing works of brilliant quality and re-working existing pieces. If this cope is one of the latter productions, it might explain why the scene of Calvary on the hood appears to be of an earlier date, and, to my mind, suggests as its source a pre-Tridentine Northern (German?) engraving.
A French red silk-satin chalice veil from 1654 has a bemused looking St Jerome standing fully vested with his lion in the centre of a floral garland of ranunculi and passiflora from which the nails of the Passion protrude. Covering the chalice became a common practice in the 16th century (and in many churches is still continued), and offered embroiderers a further chance to show off their skill at the altar.
Seemingly from Macao, the Indian black silk vestments decorated with flowers once belonged to the Abbé Paul Couturier (1881-1953), the apostle of Christian ecumenism. Thinking of the vesting prayers said by a priest before celebrating the eucharist (Matthew 11.30), I wondered who would be the next priest to bear this yoke upon his shoulders.
Despite the shift since the Second Vatican Council away from ceremony and opulent ecclesiastical materials, it sounds as if the parishioners in West Byfleet have a richer treasury of vestments than those available at All Saints’, Blackheath. In my parish, the only chasuble in which the V&A apparently had a marked interest is the one paid for by a tabloid newspaper to mark the 1991 release from captivity in the Near East of a parishioner, Captain Terry Waite CA.
“Apparelled in Celestial Light” is at Indar Pasricha Fine Arts, 44 Moreton Street, London SW1 (open Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.), until 3 November. Phone 020 7724 9541. www.indarpasricha.co.uk