Frederica: Here I am in the Shakespeare Garden, of the—what’s it called? The Portland –
Kh. Krista: The Portland International Rose Garden.
Frederica: The Portland International Rose Garden, in Portland, Oregon. Which is gorgeous. It’s on the side of a mountain, part of the Cascade Range, Krista was telling me, and you can stand at the top and look down the terraces, and it’s just roses and roses and roses. We’re in a little tucked-away corner that’s the Shakespearean garden; not too many roses here, but all the flowers are named after characters in Shakespeare. So this is a nice quiet place to be. I’m here with Krista West, Khouria Krista West, the wife of Father Alban West, who is the pastor of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Portland, and her daughter Nora, and her daughter Zuzu, both of whom are sketching at this moment. Krista’s probably known to many listeners as a liturgical seamstress and as an expert in liturgical vestment history. You gave a speech about this recently at Holy Cross Seminary in Boston, didn’t you?
Kh. Krista: Yes, I did.
Frederica: Why don’t you summarize a little bit?
Kh. Krista: The speech that I gave was to the Crossroad Vocation Program, so they were bringing in junior and senior high schoolers and talking to them about finding their vocation. Not just within the church, but a vocation that they could share with both their community and the church. And so when I gave my presentation, one third was talking about Orthodox aesthetics, or the practice and theology of beauty in the church. The second third, we took my tailor’s form, who we call Father Pin, and we dress him up and we talk about all the different pieces as I get him all dressed up as a priest, and we talk about –
Frederica: So this is what I’d call a dressmaker’s dummy.
Kh. Krista: Exactly. A dressmaker’s dummy.
Frederica: And you actually ship that with you on the airplane?
Kh. Krista: Take it with me—yes, yes, the plane people love me. And we get him packed up and we take him with us, and that way he looks a little more like a person as we show the vestments. He fills out the vestments so that they look like something, like what we’re all used to –
Frederica: So they’re hanging right.
Kh. Krista: So they’re hanging right. And then we discuss all the pieces. And then the last third was actually a slideshow. I spent some time doing conservation work in a monastery in Crete about a year and a half ago, and the slideshow was part of my time there and then part of my reference books showing people historical styles, embroidered epignatia, you know specific pieces.
Frederica: I don’t know what an epignatia is.
Kh. Krista: Oh, the epignation is the diamond-shaped piece that hangs at the knee.
Frederica: Oh yeah!
Kh. Krista: Traditionally it was an award piece. It developed during the Byzantine Empire and it’s actually one of the latest additions to our liturgical set of vestments for the priest. It’s actually worn by the priest and the bishop.
Frederica: Isn’t it a sign that you can hear confessions?
Kh. Krista: Well, it depends on each jurisdiction. It’s used differently in different jurisdictions. In the Greek Archdiocese, and in some places in the Antiochian Archdiocese, it is a sign that you have been blessed to hear a confession. In the Orthodox Church in America, it is actually still retained as an award piece and not given until a priest has served for about ten years, or thereabouts.
Frederica: Sort of like being made an arch-priest.
Kh. Krista: Exactly. Exactly, exactly. Well, there’s an interesting side point. A lot of people ask, ‘In the OCA there’s all of these different levels: you can have a jeweled cross, or a cross not jeweled, or a silver cross, or a filigreed cross or this.’ Well, there were 26 pay grades in czarist Russia.
Frederica: Oh man!
Kh. Krista: And so, because priests were civil servants, they had to have a corresponding garment or vesture with their 26 pay grades. So that’s why the Russian tradition of vestments is a little bit more regimented and stair-stepped, because of those 26 pay grades.
Frederica: And the Russians also have that phelonion comes up in the back. It has a high collar, and what’s that? Is that ancient, or is it a development in the 19th century or something?
Kh. Krista: It’s very interesting, there’s still a –
Frederica: Oh Nora’s come up with a white rose. What’s the name of this rose? You don’t know? Make up a name; what do you think it looks like?
Nora: I don’t know. Mommy?
Frederica: I don’t know. We have the nameless rose. That one. We’ll just call it ‘that one.’ Okay. [Laughter]
Kh. Krista: Well, the high-back phelonion, it can also be referred to as Athonite, there’s still a lot of speculation whether it started in Mt. Athos or whether it started in Russia and immigrated to Mt. Athos. I’ve had many people who tell me it started in Russia and many people who tell me it started in Mt. Athos. It’s actually one of the areas that I’m kind of researching right now to kind of figure out. It’s a more conical-shaped garment and doesn’t employ the kind of specific tailoring that we would say Greek style or low-back vestments do. And so because of that I like to kind of think of it as how guys do vestments, because it’s like a cone. And so if you had these monks on Mt. Athos and they needed to make vestments, this would be sort of the fastest and easiest way to get it done. It doesn’t require a lot of shaping and it also fits a wide variety of people.
Frederica: Oh, it doesn’t have to shape around the shoulders.
Kh. Krista: Because it’s a cone, so wherever it stops on the shoulders, it stops. Whereas the Greek low-back must be tailored to the person’s back measurement.
Frederica: So you just put your head through the hole in the cone and it stops where it stops. I never thought of that.
Kh. Krista: It doesn’t matter what size your neck is, or your shoulders; you can have a skinny guy wear it, a big guy wear it, and it just stops where it stops.
Frederica: It’s a one-size-fits-all.
Kh. Krista: It’s as close as we get to one-size-fits-all in the Orthodox Church.
Frederica: I never figured. I always thought it’s cold in Russia, so –
Kh. Krista: That’s what you always hear, but from a technical point of view, and again, part of this is my own theory, but from a technical point of view, it’s what you would do to solve a problem. A problem that you have a lot of monks coming through, you need to have different vestments. It’s just impossible to have everyone’s size for their own set of vestments in a monastery. And again, you know, you’ve got guys doing sewing. [Laughter] So I think this is sort of their approach. I am more of the camp that it probably originated in Mt. Athos.
Frederica: That makes a lot of sense; that’s good detective work. There you go. You were saying that, one of the things you were telling me about it how beautiful and how rich the, you call it illustration, of natural scenes of flowers and birds and all kinds of things. We’re not used to that. You were explaining that when people immigrated to America, they had, like, Roman Catholic vestment houses to buy from.
Kh. Krista: Exactly. That’s very important to understand, especially when you start talking about what our vestments look like now, as opposed to what they look like in Greece, even now or in Russia now. When you get vestments from the quote-unquote ‘old country,’ they usually tend to be more elaborate, more stylized, they’ll have more colors. Whereas we’re used to seeing one or maybe two colors in a brocade, they’ll have three, four, five colors in a brocade. And this is actually, for lack of a better word, it’s a purer expression of our tradition. It’s a more eastern approach to textiles. It’s more open, it’s more broad, it’s more varied.
Frederica: You were saying that people’s vestments didn’t necessarily match.
Kh. Krista: Exactly.
Frederica: You wouldn’t have a lot of different garments, they might be a lot of different colors; you’d sort of mix and match.
Kh. Krista: You would do a lot more mixing and matching. It’s very helpful to understand that our rubrics only specify light and dark. We do not actually specify any particular color. Now there are very local color traditions, a wide variety. For example, on the Isle of Patmos, they wear green on Palm Sunday for the palms, which I always loved that one, that’s a neat one. But here in the States, you know, in your own local parish, you may just wear gold. So there’s a lot of different – There’s a tradition to wear red on Pascha; and there’s also a tradition to wear white. And as far as the light/dark thing, this is kind of an interesting little side point, but natural dyes and the technology of synthetic dyes really bears a lot of research into, especially with Orthodox vestments. Synthetic dyes only came about in about the 1860s. But within a decade they had completely taken over the entire market, as you would, and they were the technology. So within ten years you went from things being of a natural dye to these synthetic dyes.
Frederica: There’s a pretty purple flower. Is that a fuchsia? Or an orchid?
Kh. Krista: I think this is like an orchid of some sort; it’s very beautiful.
Frederica: It’s pretty. Doesn’t fit in a pocket, I don’t think. No, it’s okay, yeah. Once it’s in the pocket, it might as well stay there.
Kh. Krista: So understanding that is very helpful. For example: In Lent in the US we are used to seeing that very blue-purple color used in Lent, and our priests switch to it. Well, historically that blue-purple is called porphyria, and porphyria is what it is referred to in the Old Testament. It’s also known as Tyrian purple. And it was only produced in Phoenicia, because it takes the crushed shells of mollusks to create the dye. It was phenomenally expensive and at many times in history there were sumptuary laws so that emperors or very, very high-ranking noblemen would have access to that blue-purple.
Frederica: So you weren’t allowed to wear it—even if you had the money, you had to have a certain noble rank?
Kh. Krista: Exactly.
Frederica: And there’s Lydia in the book of Acts.
Kh. Krista: Exactly, she’s a dyer of purple. Because she’s in Phoenicia so she probably would have been a very wealthy woman because it was a very, very lucrative trade. But so what you would have seen is closer to what we think of as burgundy or wine color. Because those dyes tend to come from what we call madder dyes. Madder-based dyes, M-A-D-D-E-R. And they were much more widely available. You would have found them a lot more places and they were more of a poor man’s dye. That you could have gotten. But in fact, as a sideline, black was created by over-dying and over-dying and over-dying with Tyrian purple. So black was the most expensive fabric.
Frederica: The most. Because it would have been just overuse of this terribly expensive – so the Tyrian purple is not a burgundy, it’s more of a -
Kh. Krista: It’s like a blue-purple. It’s really like a blue-purple, what we tend to associate with Lent. So when you have a lot of Orthodox immigrating the US in the 40s and 50s, you have a wave of clergy coming over the whole, you know, 20th century. Where can they get stuff for their vestments to be made? They have to go to a Roman Catholic and Episcopal supply houses. Even now we don’t have any Orthodox quote-unquote suppliers of fabric. I import the largest amount of my fabric from Greece because they have access to things that we don’t have mills for or a market for here in the United States. So this is where you start seeing a lot of these very rigid color styles cropping up. You have only gold or only green-gold or only red-gold, that’s because that’s all they had access to. So it caused this sort of regimentation in our use of vestment colors that we don’t actually historically have.
Frederica: And we retroactively invent reasons for it, like people often do.
Kh. Krista: Exactly. I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in different cities, different places, and they’re like, ‘Well, you must wear this color.’ And I like to say, you know, besides the fact that our vestments need to look a certain way, if anybody says Orthodox vestments must be, you know, this color, this style, it’s not really true. There’s not a lot of truth in there. We have a very, very broad and flexible tradition, and I really think we need to embrace that. One of the reasons I feel that it’s so important to embrace, is that I feel that the beauty that we have in the Orthodox Church in this day and age, in our churches, is an amazing evangelistic tool. I think we have a lot – I made this point in my lecture, but I think it’s interesting and I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately – I think we deal with a lot of ugliness on a daily and routine basis. We deal with so much ugliness, you know, strip malls and you’ve got fast food chains and housing tracts, and all this sort of thing. And we sort of think of it as just neutral; it doesn’t really affect us. But if you think of something beautiful, and take a moment to picture that in your mind, it does give you an emotion. It’s uplifting. It’s spiritually uplifting. So ugliness really is not neutral, it actually draws you down. And so I think people living in the modern world, they come into our churches and they see the icons and the music and the architecture and the vestments and all of this working together to create this beautiful Kingdom of God on earth, it’s an amazing evangelism message. You’ve just preached a sermon and nobody’s opened their mouth. I mean, it’s right there. So I think that’s why I’m so passionate about it. It’s not beauty for beauty’s sake. It’s really a part of our incarnational theology.
Frederica: Beauty opens us. It takes the heart by surprise and it opens it to the presence of God.
Kh. Krista: It does. And if you think about it, vestments in particular, because that’s my area that I know the most about, they really serve as incarnational theology. They’re taking the vestments of sinfulness of Adam and Eve, and we are transforming them. You know, and it’s an interesting point to make. I had a client make this point to me a few months ago. And he said to me, ‘Do you realize that you cannot actually receive communion in the Orthodox Church unless your priest is vested in an epitrachelion?’
Frederica: I did not know that.
Kh. Krista: He cannot serve, and you cannot receive. It’s not allowed. So you think about that: obviously there’s a reason that’s there and why that ties in.
Frederica: So that’s true: there’s a role for these vestments that we hadn’t really thought of. And as you say, it’s been sort of lost to Orthodox who come to America because we didn’t have the resources to support it. One of the other things you said that interested me, you said for resources, especially studying ancient examples, it’s Greece and India. And I thought, but the Greek Orthodox have been separated from the Indian Orthodox ever since the year 450 or 425, and I was amazed to realize that really the tradition of what liturgical garments go back to. That tradition goes back before that split. We’re talking about the earliest centuries of the church
Kh. Krista: The very earliest days, yes.
Frederica: And you said that it’s actually based on what people wore in the Roman Empire.
Kh. Krista: Exactly. Orthodox vestments are based on first and second century Roman dress. Which kind of makes sense: people would have been meeting secretly, so they would have probably worn just what they wore and slowly, over a century or two, it would have kind of become more regimented, in terms of always wearing the same thing. But two basic historical garments that are liturgical vesture based on are, one, called the paenula, P-A-E-N-U-L-A. It was a winter travelling cloak. It was just everybody’s cloak. It’s what you would have thrown on to go travelling or go out when it was cold. And it hung a lot lower in the front than a phelonion, but it’s got a lot of the same sort of a shape. Sometimes you hear things like, ‘Oh, is it the toga?’ The toga would have been only worn by the wealthy. You would not have really – poor men would have worn the paenula. The other piece is the pallium. And this is the one that we even see crop up a lot in the iconography in the Byzantine Empire when you see those lovely icons of an empress, and she’s got that really cool thing that looks like a jeweled collar and the long, skinny strip hanging down the front.
Frederica: Oh yeah, yeah.
Kh. Krista: Mm-hmm. Everybody’s usually seen that.
Frederica: It’s called a pallium.
Kh. Krista: Pallium. That actually has become what is now our epitrachelion that the priest wears. The orarian of the deacon. And there’s even some thought that it probably is the bishop’s omophorion. So those three garments are what, for the lack of a better term, I call the garments of office. They actually are an indication of your rank. And there’s actually all of these different little indications of rank in Orthodox vestments. A lot of people don’t’ realize that the black jibby or rasa or exodoson that the priest wears, the width of the sleeves actually denotes rank.
Frederica: Oh really?
Kh. Krista: Yeah, so the chanter’s is the skinniest –
Frederica: All these codes.
Kh. Krista: Yeah. There’s a lot going on. But the chanter’s is the skinniest, and the priest and the deacon’s are a little longer, and the bishop’s is even longer still. So there’s a lot of this in vestments.
Frederica: There’s an awful lot to learn here. [Laughing] But I was thinking about, as you said the impact of beauty and wonder, and the way that just coming into a church, the beauty just hits you, and I was thinking of when my little granddaughter, Hannah, was just a few years old, and she was standing next to me during the Great Entrance and here comes Granddaddy, wearing all these gold and vestments and flowing along, the candles and everything in front of him, and she turned to me and she said, ‘Papa has a yellow dress, just like Cinderella!’
Kh. Krista: [Laughing] That’s very true! But that sense of wonder should be with us. We really should walk into the church and have our breath taken away. It should stop us short. You know, just like God’s love is so all-embracing, this beauty is there as a symbol of his love, and a symbol of our redemption.
Frederica: And it’s nice to be able to put it on with the vestments, because I know a lot of times, your husband, my husband, priests don’t really feel like they can gin that up themselves. Sometimes they don’t have it; they’re fresh out on Sunday morning. And yet, when you walk out into the beauty and you put it on like a garment, the Holy Spirit meets us there and makes it happen.
Kh. Krista: Very true.
Frederica: And you make it happen, so thank you so much for your beautiful work and for your research into liturgical garments. Krista West, and what’s your website?
Kh. Krista: www.kwvestments.com.
Frederica: All right. We’ll see you there.