Iconic Imagery Since The First Millennium: The Pallium

Throughout the last two millennia, there have been few garments as exclusively worn as the pallium. From the early middle ages onward, only the pope of the Roman Catholic Church or select archbishops had permission to wear one. Even today, it’s seen as a distinctive garment reserved for bishops, archbishops, and the pope himself. This makes it an excellent example of how a select style of clothing can become emblematic of something bigger than itself, and persist for multiple centuries for that reason. 

What Exactly Is A Pallium?

Essentially, it’s a woolen garment worn around the neck, breast, and shoulders. There are usually two pendants, one on the front side and the other on the back, as well as six black crosses adorning each separate space. Additionally, gold pins set with precious stones are used over the crosses on the breast, back, and left shoulder. This is worn over the chasuble, being an outer-piece that accentuates the rest of the outfit for a more regal, prominent effect.

Only the pope has official permission to wear a pallium, though archbishops are allowed to wear them with the pope’s blessing. Other bishops may be gifted a pallium in certain circumstances, but these are rare cases. To this day, the pallium retains a solemn significance for its limited availability and its direct ties to the highest members of the church. 

Centuries Of Iconic Status

The earliest known mention of the pallium comes from the ‘Liber Pontificalis,’ written in the fourth century C.E. It’s here we learn that the pope would occasionally bestow palliums as an honor to select archbishops, giving them status as a preferred member of the church. This persisted through the generations for more than a thousand and a half years. Given that so few people ever wore it, and only during church functions, it has remained an icon of the Church, demonstrating the significance of the papacy and the favor of those who wear it. 

With such a combination of uniqueness and cultural significance, garments like these are perfect examples of how clothing and culture combine to shape history. Even a garment worn as little as the pallium has the power to transform the perceptions of the wearer, as well as the people around them.