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St. Patrick Actually Wore Blue, And Other Facts History Got Wrong

03/17/2016 11:11 EDT | Updated 03/18/2017 05:12 EDT

When you think of St. Patrick, the man who brought Christianity to Ireland, what do you see? A man with a white beard in green clerical robes, wearing a mitre, carrying a crook?

This is the commonly recognized version of the saint but it turns out that much of his costume has been appropriated from different time periods and is not necessarily true to the period in which St. Patrick lived. In fact, no one really knows what the saint looked like because there are no visual records of him before the 13th century -- 800 years after he died.

"The manner in which he has come to be depicted represents the culmination of over a thousand years of art, influenced by various texts and evolving belief systems, both localized and international," says the Irish Royal Academy. In other words, his image has been appropriated by generations of artists who depicted the saint in more familiar and contemporary terms that people could relate to.

Until the 19th century, few Irish could read, outside of monks and clergy, so people were educated through image and symbolism through the church. The people of St. Patrick's time would have understood the Catholic symbolism associated with his garb, rife with allegory.

Clerical costume of the fifth century

Maewyn Succat -- that's Saint Patrick's real name -- was born in Roman Britain in 387 and died on March 17, 461 in County Down, Ireland. During St. Patrick's life, according to 20,000 Years of Fashion by Francois Boucher, clothing was simple and not gender-specific. "Originally the only difference between the elements of religious costume and those of lay clothing was the use of more sumptuous materials for the former."

Catholic clerical wear has not evolved much since the early Christian era, so St. Patrick's image is mostly correct to period, but there are some inauthentic -- i.e. appropriated -- features in our common understanding of what St. Patrick looks like. Let's start at the top.

Mitre

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The first and most obvious appropriation of St. Patrick is his headdress. The mitre, the pointed hat split in half that bishops and popes wear, is what we have come to associate with the saint, but mitres didn't appear until the seventh century (St. Patrick died in the mid-fifth century).

Were St. Patrick true to his period, he may have worn a hood or a soft skull cap instead of the mitre. However, bestowing St. Patrick with this head piece that symbolized power in the church indicates that the saint was highly regarded.

Pall (or Pallium)

The Y-shaped band of wool worn over the chasuble (below) is the pall, drenched in allegory, which features six embroidered crosses to symbolize the nails used in Christ's crucifixion.

Chasuble

Green, the colour of the saint's chasuble symbolized cheerfulness and the goodness of God and of the Resurrection. It is a circular garment with an opening for the head, adopted by the clergy in the fifth century and heavy with allegory.

According to Costume in England by F.W. Fairholt, "The chasuble signifies the robe of Christ, which is the Church. It is ample and closed on all sides, to show forth the unity and fullness of the true faith.'' Fairholt also suggests that the chasuble is symbolic of the purple garment that was put on Jesus Christ before he was crucified.

Dalmatic (or Dalmatica if you're Roman)

Under the saint's chasuble is his gold embroidered dalmatic. According to Fairholt, the dalmatic was associated with an immaculate life, and the broad sleeves symbolized charity towards the poor. St. Patrick's dalmatic is blue, the colour of the sky, which, to people of fifth century Britain, indicated divine contemplation.

Stole

According to 20.000 Years of Fashion, the pall began life as a large, draped Roman cape which narrowed over time to become the stole. Stoles are long, embroidered scarf-like items draped around the neck and still worn by the Catholic clergy. Allegorically, the stole symbolizes the cords with which Christ was bound.

Alb

St. Patrick's base layer looks much like a long dalmatic. According to Costume in England, the alb was "not invariably made of linen cloth...[and] not necessarily white. It was originally intended to indicate the white garment which Pilate placed upon the Saviour after he had despised and mocked him."

The alb symbolized purity and innocence. St. Patrick's alb in the illustration appears to be white linen woven with gold threads. To Christians of St. Patrick's era, gold signified purity, dignity, wisdom and glory.

Buskins

Our saint likely wears buskins, soft embroidered leather slippers of the fifth century.

Crook

The bishop's crook is another "recent" addition. Bishops carried the crook, a decorated shepherd's hook, alluding to Christ the shepherd, in the 12th century.

Colour

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(St. Patrick, depicted here in stained glass from the St. Patrick Cathedral in Dublin, wears crimson, not green, and attached to his short mitre are lappets, but these were not worn until the 12th century.)

We expect St. Patrick to be dressed in green, but after an image search, one can see the saint dressed in green, and also in blue, crimson, white and yellow. When clerics decided to dress in fine fabrics, they also incorporated coloured clothing symbolic to the early Christian faith.

The Smithsonianmagazine features what they believe to be the earliest depiction of St. Patrick from the thirteenth century: a man who wears not a mitre and cleric's robes, but a simple, hooded, blue monk's robe.

According to the Irish Journal, "Ireland's history with the colour blue is largely related to its colonial history, but there are older associations too - Flaitheas Éireann, the embodiment of Irish sovereignty in mythological times (a sort of Irish answer to Uncle Sam), wore blue."

Blue is associated with the state and of English rule. When Henry VIII declared himself king of Ireland in 1541, he gave Ireland its own coat of arms: a golden harp on a blue background, and in 1783, "George III created a new order of chivalry for the Kingdom of Ireland, the Order of St. Patrick, its official color was a sky blue, known as 'St. Patrick's Blue'," according to the Smithsonian.

The colour green seems to be a differentiating colour linked to Irish politics and independence which eventually became associated with the Catholic population of southern Ireland. Green appears to be linked to Irish nationalism of the nineteenth century, "when the colour was adopted as a more striking way of separating Ireland from the various reds or blues that were now associated with England, Scotland and Wales," the Irish Journal says.

So, the commonly recognized depiction of Saint Patrick is actually a mixed collection of liturgical garments from different periods, and not based in the reality of his life. However, the splendor of St. Patrick's green robes and the tall, fancy hat gives us a more appealing image to raise our glasses to on March 17th, instead of a humble, barefoot, blue-robed, tonsured monk with a chin beard.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

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