The scapular (from Latin scapulae, "shoulders") is a Catholic garment suspended from the shoulders. There are two types of scapular, the monastic and devotional scapular, although both forms may simply be referred to as "scapular." As an object of popular piety, it serves to remind the wearers of their commitment to live a Christian life.
The "monastic scapular" appeared first, perhaps as early as the 7th century in the Order of Saint Benedict. It is a somewhat large length of cloth suspended both front and back from the shoulders of the wearer, often reaching to the knees. It may vary in shape, color, size and style. Monastic scapulars originated as aprons worn by medieval monks, and were later extended to habits for members of religious organizations, orders or confraternities. Monastic scapulars now form part of the habit of monks and nuns in many Christian orders.
The "devotional scapular" is a much smaller item and evolved from the monastic scapular. These may also be worn by individuals who are not members of a monastic order. The devotional scapular typically consists of two small (usually rectangular) pieces of cloth, wood or laminated paper, a few inches in size, which may bear religious images or text. These are joined by two bands of cloth and the wearer places one square on the chest, rests the bands one on each shoulder and lets the second square drop down the back.
In many cases, both forms of the scapular come with a set of promises for the faithful who wear them. Some of the promises are rooted in tradition, and others have been formally approved by religious leaders. For Roman Catholics, for instance, over the centuries several popes have approved specific indulgences for scapulars, as for some other objects of popular piety.
The scapular may have emerged from an apron-like piece of cloth worn by monks. Item 55 of the Rule of Saint Benedict, dating to the 7th century refers to the use of the scapular. In the Catholic Church the key elements of a monk's habit eventually became the tunic, the cincture, the scapular and the hood. A nun's clothing included the tunic, the scapular and the head veil. 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.