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Among the Clothing of a 16c Capuchin

4 "And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey."

Gospel according to Matthew, ch. 3 (King James Version)


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The hairshirt of St. Joseph of Leonessa († 1612).

Hairshirts are, well, shirts made of hair; usually of goat's hair, but you mustn't put the soft luxury of cashmere into your mind. Imagine instead a burlap T‑shirt, except much rougher. If in antiquity haircloth was just a rough material of very practical use to fishermen (see the article Cilicium of Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities), by the 4c A.D. we find it being worn by ascetics, usually beneath their street clothes; for the rich Christian especially, this uncomfortable underwear was an ideal way of identifying with the poor without letting it show, and thus avoiding the sin of vainglory: letting people know how virtuous you are. And though there is no scriptural justification for the wearing of hairshirts, a connection was made early on with the example of John the Baptist, and emphasized by the Capuchin order to which S. Giuseppe belonged.

Mind you, things are never as simple as they seem, and sure enough, the easy English quote from the KJV is misleading: it's uncertain whether John wore a garment of hair or of skin, which the translators of the Authorized Version curiously confirm by rendering "hair" in Matthew, but "skin" in Mark 1.6, the identical Greek word. Those inclined to delve into this might start profitably with a clear outline of the question as presented by Sir Thomas Browne in Pseudodoxia Epidemica V.15.

A very practical motivation might also be involved. S. Giuseppe firmly identified with his own working-class people and by the end of his life had acquired the robust common sense that has characterized so many great saints; he may have shared St. Rita's take on the matter. (She lived and died in Cascia, by the way, the next largish town on the main road, about 20 km NNE of Leonessa.)


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His sandals, about which there's not much to say.
The red ribbons and wax seals of course are modern ecclesiastical additions.


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Page updated: 10 Jan 11