Liturgical Gloves (Italy, c. 17th century). Knitted silk. The Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester. (Whitworth T.8240)

This pair of silk knitted liturgical gloves in the Whitworth (accession number T.8240) has been dated to the seventeenth century and is believed to have come from Italy. Each glove measures 254 mm in length and is 127 mm wide. The tip of the left thumb appears to have been damaged at some point and has been repaired with thread which is thicker than the crimson silk used for the main part of the gloves. The gloves are knitted in the round with stranded knitting used to provide decorative elements. Charles Borromeo, in his Instructiones fabricae et supellectilis ecclesiasticae (1577), specified that the bishop’s gloves must have a decorative circle on the back of the hand. These could be made separately and attached or could be knitted as part of the gloves. The most common motif to from an integral part of the knitted gloves was the IHS monogram surrounded by rays. Pius V (d. 1572) instituted five liturgical colours: white, red, green, violet, and black. The red of the Whitworth gloves indicates that they were used in the week of Pentecost, on the feasts of Christ’s Passion, and on the feasts of Apostles and martyrs.

Liturgical gloves are worn by bishops and cardinals. William Durandus, in his late thirteenth-century Rationale Divinorum Officiorum enumerates fifteen vestments which were put on during the ordination, the eighth of which are the gloves. Liturgical gloves, firmly embedded in the ritual of the church, drew attention to the hands of the bishop during the symbolic repetition of Christ’s sacrifice during mass. The placement of the hands and the use of the hands – with or without gloves – are minutely described in the Ceremoniale Episcoporum. Gloves are carefully placed when not being worn, they are put onto the bishop’s hands and taken off again, the gloved hands – and the bare hands – of the bishop are kissed.

Various authors considered that the gloves represented clerical virtues such as modesty and purity but they could also be interpreted as denoting the sinful nature of man as taken on by Jesus. Bishops acted in persona Christi during mass and their gloves – along with other vestments – allowed them to take on a spiritual identity. The heavy and sometimes densely decorated clothing of the bishop acted as a boundary but one which also drew attention to the possibility of crossing it in order to gain the kingdom of heaven.

Dr. Cordelia Warr