Gremiale – An Apron-like Catholic Liturgical Vestment

Pope Benedict XVI wearing the gremiale, and apron-like vestment

Pope Benedict XVI wearing the gremiale, an apron-like vestment

The gremiale, also called gremial, is an apron-like vestment worn by the bishop as part of the Catholic Mass or other sacred orders.  The Catholic Encyclopedia describes the current understanding of this vestment in this way:

A square or oblong cloth which the bishop, according to the “Cæremoniale” and “Pontificale”, should wear over his lap, when seated on the throne during the singing of the Kyrie, Gloria, and Credo by the choir, during the distribution of blessed candles, palms or ashes, and also during the anointments in connection with Holy orders. The gremiale is never used during pontifical Vespers. The primary object of the gremiale is to prevent the soiling of the other vestments, especially the chasuble. The gremiale used during the pontifical Mass is made of silk. It should be decorated by a cross in the centre, and trimmed with silk embroidery. Its colour must correspond with the colour of the chasuble. The gremiales used at other functions are made of linen, to facilitate their cleansing in case they be soiled. Little is known of its history; apparently its origin dates back to the later Middle Ages. The Roman Ordo of Gaetano Stefaneschi (c. 1311) mention it first (n. 48); soon after it is mentioned in the statutes of Grandison of Exeter (England) as early as 1339, In earlier times it was used not only any bishop but also by priests. It is not blessed and has no symbolical meaning.1

This is an intriguing vestment, particularly since “little is known of its history.”  So I did some research and found a bit more about it. 

New Catholic Dictionary illustration of a gremiale, noting the unique embroidery

New Catholic Dictionary illustration of a gremiale, noting the unique embroidery

First, this vestment is referred to explicitly as an “apron” in many references.  The New Catholic Dictionary describes it:

A silken apron, trimmed with silk embroidery, of the color of the day laid upon the bishop’s lap when he sits during a pontifical Mass. A linen gremial is used when conferring sacred orders.2


Small golden laced, ornamented apron used when seated or conferring Holy Orders.3

Text not available

A glossary of liturgical and ecclesiastical terms, By Frederick George Lee

The JM Latin-English Dictionary defines the term:

apron/lap cloth for bishop at Mass/pontifical functions

In Latin, the word gremiale literally means apron, derived from the Latin word gremium for lap, bosom, or womb4.  It is also called a lap cloth5.  Because of its relative word germe, it also happens to be the word used for firewood, or more generally for trees or shrubs6.

The Century Dictionary notes that it is used by the bishop during mass or ordination “to protect his vestments from the consecrated oil”7.  Or as another source puts it, “used in ordination to protect the sacred vestments from any drops of unction that might fall in the act of anointing candidates for the priesthood”8.  It also seems that the gremiale is used to protect the vestments from being soiled from the sweat of the hands while sitting9.

Most sources note how the gremiale is of different colors, and is usually highly decorated, embroidered with gold and silver thread.  In most of the examples I found, this is true.  Here are three:10

Gremiale, manifattura emiliana, sec. XVII; velluto ricamato. San Giovanni in Persiceto (Bologna).

Gremiale, manifattura emiliana, sec. XVII; velluto ricamato. San Giovanni in Persiceto (Bologna).

Grémial, 1921, cathédrale, Amiens (Somme).

Grémial, 1921, cathédrale, Amiens (Somme).

Gremial, Portugal (?), século XVIII; gorgorão de seda vermelha bordado a ouro e sedas policromas. Patriarcado de Lisboa.

Gremial, Portugal (?), século XVIII; gorgorão de seda vermelha bordado a ouro e sedas policromas. Patriarcado de Lisboa.

The gremial was originally made out of linen, but over time was gradually replaced with silk, or even the same material as the rest of the liturgical vestments11.  Some have compared the gremiale to the towel girded by Christ as he washed the feet of the twelve apostles; indeed, it is still used in such feet washing ceremonies12.  Although now primarily used by the bishop, the gremiale was originally used by all degrees of priesthood, including the prelate, priest, deacon and sub-deacon to cover the knees during Mass13.

Some sources note that this vestment was a type of “liturgical veil,” and was one of the vestments donned as part of a clothing ceremony14.

Gremial of Archbishop Juan de Zumárranga, Spain or Mexico, 1528-37, Embroidered velvet with gold, silver, and silk threads, 39 3/8 x 39 3/4 inches, Museo Nacional Del Virreinato/CONACULTA, INAH, Tepotzotlán, Mexico, 10-1257

Gremial of Archbishop Juan de Zumárranga, Spain or Mexico, 1528-37, Embroidered velvet with gold, silver, and silk threads, 39 3/8 x 39 3/4 inches, Museo Nacional Del Virreinato/CONACULTA, INAH, Tepotzotlán, Mexico, 10-1257

One of the most unique gremiales I found was that which belonged to the Archbishop Juan de Zumárranga, and is noted as the “oldest known embroidery in colonial Latin America” according to The Arts in Latin America, 1492-182015.  This gremiale is particularly unique because it is so covered in symbols, in contrast to the definition given above that gremiales had “no symbolical meaning”:

The gremial’s design is similar to that of earlier Spanish ceremonial cloths.  It is embroidered on blue velvet with gold and silver metallic and red silk threads and white silk appliques.  The text around the border reads ARMA MUNDI REDEM / TORIS REGIS REGUM / UNIVERSI CREATORIS / IHVXPI SALVATORUS (The arms of the Redeemer of the World, King of Kings, Creator of the Universe, Jesus Christ the Savior).  The shield in the center contains the cross and instruments of the Passions surrounded by a decorative foliate design and knotted Franciscan cords representing the order’s vows.  In the four corners are shields with the five bloody wounds of Christ, part of the Fransciscan coat of arms, surrounded by decorative borders.16

One commentator thinks that the gremiale may “owe its origin to the Limus of the Victimarii”17.  In a footnote he quotes Fosbroke:

Limus, Limum, Limocincti – An Apron descending from the navel to the ankles, commonly bordered with purple.  It was the only Vestment of the Victimarii.  It was interwoven with many colours, and was called Licium, when worn by the servants of Magistrates, who were called Limocincti.18

This limus is an interesting word, by itself.  It is the Latin word that describes the apron worn by a sacrificing priest, or by attendants of a sacrifice in ancient Rome19.  The limocinti were “certain priestly officers who attended on a magistrate, as girt with an apron (limus)”20.  These victimarii were those persons designated to perform the animal sacrifices21.

Many more modern examples of the gremiale can be found on the Cattolici Romani forum.

One of the best studies I’ve read about such aprons is Matthew Brown’s “Girded about with a Lambskin,” in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 6:2 (1997), p. 124-151.  His analysis includes a look at such ritual apparel in ancient Israel, Egypt, Mesopotamia, among the Freemasons, and in the Book of Mormon.

  1. []
  2. []
  3. []
  4. []
  5. Addis, William E., Thomas Arnold, and T. B. Scannell. A Catholic Dictionary: Containing Some Account of the Doctrine, Discipline, Rites, Ceremonies, Councils, and Religious Orders of the Catholic Church. [Whitefish, MT]: Kessinger, 2006. 400. Link. []
  6.;; Whitney, William Dwight. The Century Dictionary; An Encyclopedic Lexicon of the English Language. New York: The Century co, 1889. 2620. Link. []
  7. ibid. []
  8. Lee, Frederick George. A Glossary of Liturgical and Ecclesiastical Terms. London: B. Quaritch, 1877. 143. Link. []
  9. Rock, Daniel, George Waldegrave Hart, and Walter Howard Frere. The Church of Our Fathers As Seen in St. Osmund’s Rite for the Cathedral of Salisbury : with Dissertations on the Belief and Ritual in England Before and After the Coming of the Normans. London: J. Hodges, 1903. 336. Link []
  10. Thesaurus del Corredo Ecclesiastico di Culto Cattolico, “Gremiale,” []
  11. Dolby, Anastasia. Church Vestments: Their Origin Use, and Ornament, Practically Illustrated. London: Chapman & Hall, 1868. 151-152. Link. []
  12. Bishop Mark A. Pivarunas, CMRI, “The Liturgy of Holy Week,”; Catholic Church, and Joseph Rosati. Ceremonial for the Use of the Catholic Churches in the United States of America. Philadelphia: H.L. Kilner, 1894. 360. Link []
  13. Dolby, Anastasia. Church Vestments: Their Origin Use, and Ornament, Practically Illustrated. London: Chapman & Hall, 1868. 151-152. Link. []
  14. Stravinskas, Peter M. J. Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Encyclopedia. Huntington, Ind: Our Sunday Visitor Pub, 1998. 478. Link; Baldeschi, Giuseppe, and John Duncan Hilarius Dale. Ceremonial According to the Roman Rite. London: Catholic Pub. & Bookselling Co, 1859. 89. Link []
  15. Rishel, Joseph J., and Suzanne L. Stratton. The Arts in Latin America, 1492-1820. Philadelphia Museum of Art series. Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2006. 169. Link. []
  16. ibid. []
  17. Pinnock, W. H. The Laws and Usages of the Church and the Clergy. 1855. 921. Link. []
  18. ibid. []
  19. Key, Thomas Hewitt. A Latin-English Dictionary Printed from the Unfinished Ms. of the Late Thomas Hewitt Key. Cambridge: The University press, 1888. 376. Link; []
  20. ibid. []
  21.; []


  1. Posted March 20, 2009 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Interesting, isn’t it, how the priesthood (bishops, popes) wears it?

  2. Posted March 20, 2009 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Great insights. I wonder if there is more connection to nature than just an obscure “trees” or “shrubs” connotation. It would be fascinating to uncover its true origins.

    Thanks for the information and the link to Brown’s article.

  3. Posted March 20, 2009 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Matthew Brown does include some commentary about how the tree of life was sometimes iconified upon the apron of ancient kings:

    In some Hebrew theological circles it was held that Adam was the first earthly king, and the kings of Israel were thus seen as imitators of the first man (see Genesis 1:26—28). Since Adam wore an apron made of fig leaves (see Genesis 3:7), is it possible that the apron worn by Israel’s king somehow imitated the one worn by Adam? A strong connection was made in ancient Near Eastern religious thought between the king and the tree of life, even to the point where the king was seen as a personification of that tree. This correlates closely with ancient Hebrew legends which taught that the tree of knowledge of good and evil was a fig tree and it was from this tree’s leaves that Adam constructed his apron. It is apparent from the depiction of the Christian king Charlemagne (AD 742—814) in figure 2 just how the ancient king could personify a sacred tree by the iconography upon his apron. (“Girded about with a Lambskin”)

    See this post I wrote a while ago for the example of the depiction of King Charlemagne.

  4. Posted March 20, 2009 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    I should also note that the gremiale of Archbishop Juan de Zumárranga is said to have a “decorative foliate design” surrounding the shield in the center.

  5. Posted March 20, 2009 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Bryce.

    You have a real talent for finding subtle pieces of information, and your this post should remind us that we LDS need to be more literate in comparative religion, especially in knowing more about the practices and tradtions of our “other” Christian brothers and sisters.

  6. Steve
    Posted March 20, 2009 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    Excellent article, I find stuff like this fascinating. I really enjoy symbolism and the study of what could be considered ‘doctrinal debris’ among the different religions of the world.

  7. Matthew B. Brown
    Posted March 21, 2009 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    You might want to compare the center symbols on Juan’s gremial with those on the “elaborately embroidered apron” given to some eastern orthodox monks when they are initiated into higher orders. This apron includes an acronym for Paradise and the word “Adam.”

    Graham Speake, Mount Athos, 212-13; Wikipedia article on “Great Schema” / “Degrees of Eastern Orthodox Monasticism” —

    Then compare the symbols found on monastic aprons with those that decorate the aprons of the Freemasons.

  8. Posted March 21, 2009 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Br. Brown, thank you for the references! Fantastic! I looked up the reference in Mount Athos, and it is very interesting indeed:

    Only great schema monks may wear the full habit, which includes an elaborately embroidered apron or stole with numerous crosses and Greek acronyms picked out in red – beginning with M[ichael] and G[abriel] and ending with the skull and cross-bones of Adam at the foot of the cross over the words ‘T[opos] K[ranious] [the place of the skull, i.e. Golgotha] P[aradeisos] G[egonen] [has become Paradise]‘. This garment symbolizes the cross that the monk takes up when he vows to follow Christ. Great schema monks undertake to accept for themselves the cross and death of Christ and take stricter vows than other monks with regard to prayer and fasting. Initiates go through a ceremony similar to that for the small schema but of longer duration and more solemn tone. (Speake, Graham. Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2004. 212-13. Link.)

    Thanks for the reference to the Wikipedia article too, which shows an illustration of this vestment. Here is another illustration. Here is a photo of one, and another, and another. This is another clearer photo, and here.

    It appears that this vestment is similar to the scapular – “Monastic scapulars originated as aprons worn by medieval monks, and were later extended to habits for members of religious organizations, orders or confraternities… many sources agree that the scapular emerged from an apron-like piece of cloth worn by monks… Some authors interpret the scapular as a symbolic apron based on the fact that monks and nuns, when engaged on some manual labor, tend to cover it with a protective apron or carefully tuck it up or throw the front length back over their shoulder to prevent it from getting in the way.”

    Val Brinkerhoff showed me a rare photo of Joseph Smith’s masonic apron just last week, and it looked similar to George Washington’s. It seems that both share elements such as instruments, and both clearly also show the skull and crossbones representing Adam at the bottom.

    I’ve thought for a long time that the Eastern Orthodox tradition has some of the most striking resemblances to the LDS. Why that is, I’m not sure, but I love to learn more about them.

  9. Posted March 21, 2009 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Great post! You have done some wonderful research here! Matthew Brown probably mentions this in his article, but the Old Testament priestly ephod was supposed to be an apron-like vestment (sometimes described as gold in color) that the high priest wore. The ephod was a symbol of priestly authority. The ephod was also connected to revelation somehow (1 Sam 30:7–8; cf. Judg 18:5), likely because it had some connection to the Urim and Thummim. It is interesting that in the OT, not only the high priest, but also prophets, kings, and judges (like Gideon) are mentioned as using this ephod.
    Again, wonderful post! Its neat to see how long this tradition has carried on.


  10. Matthew B. Brown
    Posted March 21, 2009 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    If you take a close look at the picture of the eastern orthodox apron that I linked to above you will notice that there are two crosses on its shoulder pieces. These crosses correspond to the two engraved stones placed on the shoulder straps of the Israelite ephod/apron (see Exodus 28:12; the breastplate containing the Urim and Thummim was secured between the straps). It therefore appears that orthodox Christian monks are wearing an item of apparel somewhat akin to what was worn by the temple priests of ancient Israel. Since the king of ancient Israel also wore an ephod/apron (see 2 Samuel 6:14; 1 Chronicles 15:27) and the king was equated with Adam (see Psalm 72 and Psalm 89) – and Adam was a king (see Genesis 1:26) – the question naturally arises about whether there was some type of connection between the ephod/apron that the Israelite king wore and the kind of apron worn by king Adam (see Genesis 3:7).

  11. Floyd the Wonderdog
    Posted March 22, 2009 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    I thought the skull and bones on the Masonic apron represented those of Hiram Abiff.

  12. Posted April 30, 2009 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Here is another good example from Eastern Orthodox monasticism:

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  1. [...] including a photo of Pope Benedict wearing a silk one at this link.  Very interesting reading. -…I have seen the substitution of a large amice at Confirmation in place of the gremial in several [...]

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