A New York exhibition shows how liturgical vestments embodied a language of belief
I had grown used to seeing in museums gryphons and suchlike fabulous beasts woven into textiles that had been produced more than 1,000 years ago in Syria and other lands of the Islamic world but then used to make liturgical vestments and the linings of reliquaries. But I had not realised that, after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, textiles incorporating the Cross continued to be produced in the Ottoman Empire for use by Orthodox Christians there and in Muscovy.
Some of are on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in a fascinating exhibition, Liturgical Textiles of the Post-Byzantine World, on until the end of October. I have not seen it, but a New York professor, Warren T Woodfin, has written some interesting things about it.
He rightly stresses that figured vestments were not “merely a means of self-aggrandisement by the clergy; rather, they point beyond themselves to the mysteries of the liturgy as a dramatic reenactment of the life of Christ and microcosm of the divine kingdom”.
Looking at an icon such as that of St James painted in Greece by Stephanos Tzangarolas in 1688 (pictured), a Westerner recognises that the saint is dressed as for the divine liturgy, but the vestments do not quite match those of the Latin Church.
Like Latin vestments they had derived from the ordinary formal wear of the late Roman Empire. So the Roman paenula, a sort of cloak, developed into the chasuble, which the priest wears at Mass in the Latin Church. In the Greek Church it became the phelonion, which in the picture of St James is covered with a starry, floral motif resembling a field of crosses.
Beneath that, St James wears a garment patterned with different coloured flowers (the sticharion, the equivalent of the Latin alb). This derived from the plain linen tunic that everyone wore. In the West, as a liturgical garment, it was consciously connected to the metaphorical whiteness worked by the cleansing waters of baptism. As the priest put it on before Mass each day, he would say a prayer beginning Dealba me, Domine, et munda cor meum: “Make me white, O Lord, and cleanse my heart.”
This invokes a passage in the book of Revelation about those who have mystically washed their clothes in the blood of the Lamb. Verbally it also recalls the familiar Psalm 51, recited at the Asperges, the sprinkling of holy water: Lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor: “ Thou wilt wash me, and I shall be washed whiter than snow.”
If there were any idea that liturgical vestments are just a form of high fashion, it is dispelled by the importance given in the East and the West to the vestment distinctive of the clerical office. This is the stole, called in Greek the epitrachelion. Worn by priests even on a battlefield as they tend the dying, it was carried by mission priests at the risk of their lives in hostile territories, such as Elizabethan England, for use at the celebration of the Mass.
The epitrachelion or stole derives from an ordinary scarf. As he puts it on, the priest says a prayer: “Lord, restore to me the stole of immortality.” St James is depicted in an epitrachelion ornamented with panels embroidered with priests, kings, and prophets from the Bible, representing the triple role of Jesus Christ in the liturgy, which ordained priests carry out in his name.
All these garments and prayers may be unfamiliar but they demolish any insultingly reductive notion of priests as men in frocks.
To those of you reading this blog who may not be particularly enamoured of the use of vestments by clergy in the various celebrations of The Divine Liturgy, here is a very good example (and explanation) of their use in both the Orthodox and Catholic Traditions of the Christian Church.
Vestments in the Liturgy are meant not for the aggrandisement of the clergy wearing them; rather, they are an indication of the glory of the God to whom the worship of the Church is offered by the clergy who take the trouble to use them. After all, if one were called to pay homage to an earthly potentate, one would probably be encouraged to wear clothing suitable for the occasion. Similarly, when one becomes an ordained minister of the Church, with a duty to lead others in worship of the Triune God, there is a long-standing tradition of ‘dressing for the occasion’, which has been handed down through the posterity of generations of the Christian priesthood.
In the Reformed Churches, which may have decided to dispense with the tradition, it can be discerned that the vestments have been replaced with other signs of dignity which, however, may be said to attach to the person officiating, rather than respect for the God they have elected to worship. Thus, doctoral gowns and hoods and academic dress are sometimes substituted for the vestments of the bishop, priest or deacon at the Eucharist.
While such substitutes for the ‘tradition’ may find favour in non-episcopal Churches, they do not conform to what has found favour through many generations of the Church in its long history of the tradition. However, the absolute basic garment for celebration of the Sacraments of Christ, demonstrated here in the stole (or ‘epitrachelion’ in the Greek Tradition), is not always adhered to. In some evangelical parts of the Anglican Church, it seems that the ‘celebrant’ is content to wear a collar and tie, or even jeans and T-shirt! While such a Eucharistic celebration may still be accounted ‘valid’, it can sometimes seem sufficiently far away from the nicety of ‘tradition’ that onlookers can fail to discern the respect due to the presence of the King of Kings present in the Eucharist.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand