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See also: sackcloth
Not to be confused with Chalice.
Mary Magdalene in cilice. Polychrome wood carving by Pedro de Mena, Church of San Miguel and San Julian, Valladolid

A cilice /ˈsɪlɨs/ was originally a garment or undergarment made of coarse cloth or animal hair (a hairshirt) worn close to the skin. It was used in some religious traditions to induce discomfort or pain as a sign of repentance and atonement.

Cilices were originally made from sackcloth or coarse animal hair so they would irritate the skin. Other features were added to make cilices more uncomfortable, such as thin wires or twigs.

In modern religious circles, it simply means any device worn for the same purposes.


The word derives from the Latin cilicium, a covering made of goat's hair from Cilicia, a Roman province in south-east Asia Minor.[1] The reputed first Scriptural use of this exact term is in the original Latin Vulgate of Psalm 35:13, "Ego autem, cum mihi molesti essent, induebar cilicio." This is translated as hair-cloth in the Douay Bible, and as sackcloth in the King James Version and the Book of Common Prayer ("But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth." in the King James Bible). Sackcloth is often mentioned in the Bible as a symbol of mourning and penance, and probably was a form of hairshirt. Sackcloth may also mean burlap. However, sackcloth in the Bible was usually made of coarse, black goat's hair.[citation needed]


Cilice of St. Louis at St. Aspais Church, Melun, France
Ivan the Terrible's cilice (16th century). The tsar wanted to die like a monk.

There is some evidence, based on analyses of both clothing represented in art and preserved skin imprint patterns at Çatalhöyük in Turkey, that the usage of the cilice predates written history. This finding has been mirrored at Göbekli Tepe, another Anatolian site, indicating the widespread manufacturing of cilices. Ian Hodder has argued that "self-injuring clothing was an essential component of the Catalhöyük culturoritual entanglement, representing 'cleansing' and 'lightness'."[2]

To show deep repentance, it was the custom in Biblical times in the Jewish religion to wear a hairshirt (sackcloth) as a sign of repentance and atonement (Genesis 37:34, 2 Samuel 3:31, Esther 4:1), but not in order to cause harm to oneself, which is forbidden in the Jewish religion. Such garments or adornments have been worn at various times in the history of the Christian faith, to mortify the flesh or as penance for adorning oneself. Being made of rough cloth, generally woven from goats' hair, and worn close to the skin, they would feel very itchy.

Thomas Becket was wearing a hairshirt when he was martyred, St. Patrick reputedly wore a cilice, Charlemagne was buried in a hairshirt, and Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Germany, famously wore one in the Walk to Canossa during the Investiture Controversy. Prince Henry the Navigator was found to be wearing a hairshirt at the time of his death in 1460.[citation needed] They have been used for centuries in the Catholic Church as a mild form of bodily penance, like fasting. St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Therese of Lisieux are known to have used them. In modern times they have been used by Mother Teresa, St. Padre Pio, and Pope Paul VI.[3] The Discalced Carmelite convent of St. Teresa in Livorno, Italy, members of Opus Dei who are celibate (about 30% of the membership), and the Franciscan Brothers and Sisters of the Immaculate Conception continue an ascetic use of the cilice.[4] According to John Allen, an American Catholic writer, its practice in the Catholic Church is "more widespread than many observers imagine".[4]

It was in common usage in monasteries and convents throughout history up until the 1960s, and has been endorsed by popes as a way of following Christ, who died in a bloody crucifixion and who gave this advice: "Let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me."[5][6] Supporters say that opposition to mortification is rooted in having lost (1) the "sense of the enormity of sin" or offense against God, and the consequent penance, both interior and exterior, (2) the notions of "wounded human nature" and of concupiscence or inclination to sin, and thus the need for "spiritual battle",[7] and (3) a spirit of sacrifice for love and "supernatural ends", and not only for physical enhancement.[citation needed]

In popular culture[edit]

Closeup of a metal cilice with inwardly-pointing tines

In Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code, one of the antagonists, an albino numerary named Silas associated with the religious organization Opus Dei, wears a cilice in the form of a spiked chain around his thigh. The sensationalized depiction in the novel has been criticized for its inaccuracy in subsequent books and by Opus Dei itself, which issued a press release responding to the movie's depiction of the practice, saying "In reality, they cause a fairly low level of discomfort comparable to fasting. There is no blood, no injury, nothing to harm a person's health, nothing traumatic. If it caused any harm, the Church would not allow it."[4][3]

In Molière's play, Tartuffe, the title character is shown to be a religious hypocrite when he wears a hair shirt with the hair lining facing outward, so that it can be seen, rather than felt.

The Marvel Comics character Robbie Baldwin commissioned the creation of a suit with 612 internal spikes to represent each person who died in an explosion for which he felt responsible, so that he would be reminded of their pain in everything he did.

In Gustave Flaubert's "The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitaler", Julian wears a hair shirt with iron spikes to do penance for his parricide.

In Flannery O'Connor's novel Wise Blood, the protagonist Hazel Motes is discovered by his landlady to be wearing a barbed wire cilice around his torso after he has blinded himself. She also finds that he has been walking miles each day with small rocks and glass in the bottom of his shoes.

In George R. R. Martin's series A Song of Ice and Fire, members of the militant branch of the Faith of the Seven known as Warrior's Sons and Poor Fellows commonly wear hair shirts. The High Septon appointed in A Feast for Crows known as the High Sparrow also wears one.

In the U.S. WGN America television series, Salem, Increase Mather is shown wearing a metal cilice in Season 1, Episodes 10 and 11.

In Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall", Sir Thomas More wears a hair shirt as is repeatedly mentioned by the narrator, Thomas Cromwell.

In The Nun (2013 film) the main character Suzanne when pressured to wear a cilice by the new mother superior, hastily throws it into a fire.

In Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth several characters, including Thomas Becket, are described as wearing hairshirts.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Cilice". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 2012-06-30. 
  2. ^ Ian Hodder, "Çatalhöyük: The Leopard's Tale", Thames & Hudson, 2006.
  3. ^ a b "Opus Dei". opusdei.us. 17 May 2006. 
  4. ^ a b c John Allen, Jr. Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church, Double Day, 2006. pages 165, 169, 171–173.
  5. ^ Luke 9:23
  6. ^ "The Da Vinci Code, the Catholic Church and Opus Dei". Opus Dei Official Site. Retrieved 2006-11-27. 
  7. ^ "The consequences of Adam's sin for humanity". Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 405. Retrieved 2007-06-13. 

External links[edit]

Original courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cilice — Please support Wikipedia.
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