A Walking Tour of the Orthodox Church - Part 1

January 23, 2008 Length: 18:48

Today we walk through the temple and learn about the fabrics, vestments and colors that we encounter. This is part 1 of our tour.





Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop”! Today, I’d like to take you on a little trip—a walking tour of sorts through an Orthodox Church, focusing upon the garments and adornments that are the particular province of an Orthodox ecclesiastical tailor.

As we enter the church, we walk through the front doors and into the exo-narthex. At this point, we might take a deep breath and stop a moment to gather our thoughts—we’re leaving the hustle and bustle of our daily lives and getting ready to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven and we need to compose ourselves. You’ll notice that the exo-narthex is very simple and minimally adorned to facilitate this—we don’t need or want a lot of sensory stimulation as we pass from the outside world into the interior of the church.

As we move into the narthex, the first liturgical textiles we are likely to encounter are the cloths placed over the icon stands. These are long strips of brocade or velvet, usually finished with galloon around the entire perimeter. Galloon is a type of trim that is sewn to the edges and used in various ways to ornament Eastern Orthodox liturgical textiles. Galloon is one of the most distinctive features of Orthodox vestments and altar cloths. Sometimes, the icon stand cloth will have two rows of galloon and fringe at the bottom edge and it might have a large cross or embroidery as a focal point on the front. These cloths adorn the veneration stands upon which rest the icons and are thus most precisely termed “proskynatarion” covers. You may also hear them referred to as “analogian” covers given the fact that these same cloths may be used to adorn the stands upon which rest the Holy Gospel or other service books.  These cloths are fairly straightforward to produce, and as they are occasionally made by someone in the parish, rather than by a professional tailor, there is a wide variety in fabrics, trims, and overall look. Their general purpose is to embellish the icons and underscore the theology of the icons, acting in a similar fashion to a gilded frame setting off a famous painting. They make us take notice and they concentrate our focus upon the icon itself—their entire job is to draw our attention to the icon. Because of this, it is essential that they be beautiful. Of all the proskynatarion covers I’ve seen, one of my favorites was a beautiful set I saw in a small, neighborhood church in Thessaloniki. They were ivory satin and embroidered with vines and flowers in various shades of greens, gold, corals, yellows, and reds all branching up towards the icon. Works of great craft and artistry themselves, they made the icons they adorned even more exquisite and compelling.

As an aside, a small church or a mission can greatly benefit by ornate proskynitarion covers because they set the tone of the narthex and bring a great amount of beauty and focus to the entrance of the church, which can be vital in a less-than-ideal architectural setting or a temporary location. While you’ll see some parishes with proskynitarion covers in multiple sets of colors for various liturgical seasons, this is certainly not necessary. I’ll speak more on color traditions in another podcast, but suffice it to say that in the Orthodox Church, we have a varied and flexible tradition when it comes to color, which is great from a practical point of view because it allows us to be more concerned with the overall beauty and quality of the liturgical item rather than having a rigid color tradition to which we must adhere. I believe the “less is more” principle works very well here—better that your parish have one really lovely set of proskynatarion covers than five sets of ho-hum covers. The little neighborhood parish I visited in Thessaloniki obviously followed this rule for the covers I saw were an ivory background, something that we might associate with Pascha, but it was October when I visited and these were obviously the parish’s “everyday” covers.

Now, once we’ve made our entrance and venerated the icons, we move into the nave and start to notice our surroundings. If we glance over at the chanter’s stand, what we see there will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Some parishes might have tonsured readers wearing anterria or cassocks, other parishes might have their tonsured chanters wearing the exorasson, or “outer cassock”, and still yet other parishes will have their chanters in wearing street clothes.

To get technical, I should note that when the exorasson is worn by a tonsured chanter, he or she wears it over street clothes, not over an anterri, and it is worn only while chanting and not at any other time. Yes, I did say “he or she” as it is becoming increasingly common in some jurisdictions for women who are tonsured chanters to don the exorasson. At first glance, this may seem surprising, but upon deeper reflection we have two considerations: first, a chanter’s exorasson is a symbol of office, not of the person, and as such, it’s main function is to “de-personalize” the person, making the “personality” part of the person less visible and the “talent” or chanting part of the person more visible. Second, Orthodox nuns the world over wear the exorasson, underlining that the garment is not specific to male or female, but rather an indication of ecclesiastical office.

Now—if we’ve arrived on time, or even early, we may not yet see the priest or deacon. What will be at the center of our attention is the altar table since it is central to every Orthodox church. It is there in glory and majesty and vested in beauty. Once again, there are variations in how the Holy Table is “vested” or clothed, with three main styles being prevalent. The first, and most common, is the “top-style” cloth, a square or rectangular-shaped cloth made out of brocade or velvet, hanging down about 6-12 inches on each side of the Holy Table, hence the name “top” style since it only covers the top of the table. It is properly finished with galloon and fringe around the perimeter and occasionally a cross is sewn to the front of the cloth that is visible from the nave (the cross is optional, it is not a required feature). The second type of cloth, and almost as common as the “top style”, is the “button-style”, which is actually two cloths—an “under” cloth fitting the table closely down to the floor and fastened with buttons at the sides; with a “top-style” cloth placed over it. This is sometimes referred to as a “fully dressed” Holy Table since the entire altar table is completely covered in cloth and no wood or marble is visible. The third style of cloth, and least common, is the “Jacobean”, which is similar to the top-style, but hanging all the way to the floor and “pooling” (which means having excess fabric) at the corners, altogether a very lavish-looking adornment. I’m hard-pressed to choose a favorite amongst these, but I do love the button-style cloth—it’s very complex-looking and, quite regal and majestic—there’s something very rich and impressive about having a structure entirely wrapped in velvet and heavily embroidered, which this style often is. There’s also some nice symbology in that if the button-style cloth is unbuttoned and laid out on the floor, it is seen to be a “cross” shape in design.

As we gaze upon the Holy Table, it should be covered with the most magnificent textiles in the church; after all, it is here that the Holy Gospel rests, the “Artiforion” resides, and the Holy Sacrifice of the Divine Liturgy is celebrated. The cloth does not necessarily match the priest’s vestments since here again, the “less is more” principle is often practiced because altar cloths don’t really wear out the same way that vestments do. A well-cared-for basic altar cloth can last 50 or more years; one made from a real metal brocade could last over a hundred. In my own parish, we have only one set of cloths for the Holy Table: an elaborate, “button-style” in burgundy velvet with embroidered grapevines, sheaves of wheat, crosses and giant tassels at the corners.  I often have clients assume that its “required” to have altar cloths in all of the liturgical colors, but frankly, I would far rather see a parish take the money they would have spent on five basic brocade cloths and spend it on one or two real metal or silk brocade cloths because with the Holy Table “quality before quantity” is the golden rule—we want the Holy Table to look like the throne it is.

Another textile that might have caught our eye are the curtains for the Beautiful Gate, the central doorway in the iconostas which leads directly to the Holy Table. These are most commonly made of burgundy velvet and might be adorned with a large cross at eye level, but they can also be extremely elaborate, made from silk brocades, multi-colored, or embroidered in borders at the hem and sides. Of all the textiles in the church, this curtain is the least likely to change color with the liturgical seasons. One extraordinarily beautiful and all-purpose curtain should more than suffice for most parishes.

As we’re gazing upon the altar, we might see the head altar server behind the altar. He will most likely be wearing either an anterri or a narrow-sleeved exorasson in the same manner as a chanter would (that is, over his street clothes and worn only when he’s serving). In some parishes, the head altar server may be a tonsured subdeacon and if so, he will be vested in a simplified version of deacon’s vestments. If he’s not a tonsured subdeacon, then he might wear an altar servers robe exactly as the other altar servers do.

Now the Liturgy is well underway and I’m sure we’ve seen an altar server or two go by. We’ll notice that the altar server wears a less elaborate version of the deacon’s robe or sticharion (I’ll be covering deacon’s vestments in the next podcast). The sticharion is occasionally referred to as a “universal” garment, meaning that it appears in almost every ancient culture in some form or another and its important to note that everyone in the altar wears some form of it from altar server to bishop. This brocaded and gallooned sticharion that we now see the altar server wearing comes from a type of tunic that was worn in the ancient world and which eventually was made of brocade and decorated in the manner we commonly see today. In some parishes, it is the custom for the altar server to also wear an orarion or sash, but I do not recommend the perpetuation of this custom for several reasons: first, the orarion is a symbol of office, marking a subdeacon or deacon, and symbolically represents the commitment the subdeacon or deacon has made to the Church, a commitment which I don’t believe children should be asked to make due to their age and lack of maturity; second, practically speaking, the orarion is a cumbersome garment for a small boy—we’ve almost all seen a thin-shouldered altar boy madly trying to keep his orarion on his shoulders only to have it slip off moments later, causing an unnecessary distraction in the Liturgy; and third, oraria, even the type used for altar servers, are expensive to produce, using more galloon than an entire altar servers sticharion, and requiring a 10- to 15-foot strip of brocade. Having said all of this, keep in mind that it is the still custom in some parishes to use the oraria for altar servers and that the ultimate determination in this matter is at the discretion of the diocesan bishop.

At this point, you are probably started to feel a little overwhelmed—the terminology alone is enough to daunt the bravest—proskynatarion, sticharion, orarion—Whew! Then there’s brocades, galloons, fringes, and we haven’t even gotten to how colors are used! But here I have to stop and make an important observation—you are supposed to be overwhelmed! An Orthodox church building is a feast for the senses and especially the “queen of the senses” as the Byzantines referred to the sense of sight. Orthodox liturgical textiles are magnificent, multi-layered, complex, elaborate, exquisite, stunning, joyous, heavenly. Their purpose is two-fold; one, to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth and two, to overwhelm and absorb our physical senses so that our “nous”, or spiritual intelligence, is freed to concentrate more fully on Christ.

On the first point, we are called to make our churches as heavenly as possible. I’ve often wondered what heaven will look like and, while after all my pondering I still have no clear idea, I can unreservedly assure you that Heaven is not going to look plain! So, likewise, our churches should be outposts of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. This is why textiles, and indeed, all of the beautiful things in our churches are so important and should be made and cared for to the best of our ability. They are not simply stage decorations for an elaborate play—they have a spiritual significance and a practical part to play in our salvation. One of my dear clients had an amazing observation to make, one that had never occurred to me before—a priest cannot administer Holy Communion unless he is vested. This might seem rather obvious, but to put it more bluntly, you cannot receive Communion as an Orthodox Christian without the involvement of vestments. These material “objects” have a lofty purpose; in the words of Bishop Kallistos Ware, “Christians are true materialists because they see in material things the spiritual destiny of those things”. This was the absolute bedrock understanding of the early Christians—that everything material has a spiritual purpose. The two are intricately linked—material and spiritual, spiritual and material. There is no divide, matter is not evil. Rather, the material is an opportunity for transformation, for lifting up the everyday to the heavenly. The altar cloth, seen from a point of view of the material world, is just a tablecloth; but seen through the spirit, it becomes the ornamentation of the throne of Christ, shining forth with the holy light that was revealed upon Mt. Tabor.

On the second point, that of the beauty of the Church overwhelming and absorbing our physical senses so that our “nous”, is freed to concentrate more fully on Christ, I can give no better argument than the photos of Mt. Athos I have seen, most notably in a book called “Miracle on the Monastery Mountain”. Now, obviously, as a woman, I have never been to Mt. Athos, but I have a curious sensation whenever I see the photos of a darkened katholikon wreathed in smoke and priests vested in some of the most elaborate and exquisite vestments. It reminds me of an incident in C.S. Lewis’ “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”. Two children, named Edmund and Lucy, are visiting a cousin and whiling away a hot summer day. They see a painting of a ship in a back bedroom and as they look at the painting, it comes alive and they enter into the very scene, going through the painting and finding themselves back in the magical land of Narnia on a ship in the sea. The photos of katholika on the Holy Mountain remind me of the painting coming alive, of something so real and vivid and beautiful that there is no time to think, but simply be drawn in. The photo draws me in and in the process, I forget everything else. This is what the beautification of the church should do for us—draw us in towards something so real and vivid and beautiful that we are compelled to be a part of it. I tend to be a person who processes the world visually, which is both a blessing and a curse: a blessing when I have a photographic memory for a particular color or design, but a curse when I’m driving down the road and cannot shut out the various images and advertising ploys on billboards or roadside signs. So, when I enter the church and everything is so beautiful, I find it profoundly restorative—I can “rest” my eyes in the beauty and in the process, quiet my “nous” and be prayerful. There is nothing jarring or cluttered or ugly to cloud my vision. Ideally, the beauty frees us up to pray and approach Christ with an undivided mind and soul.

I had an unusual experience when I was in Thessaloniki a couple of years ago that really brought this home to me. Now, going to Thessaloniki is an experience in itself, but going with my husband, who has a degree in classics and a phenomenal memory for just about everything he reads, is something else entirely. Of course, we couldn’t leave Thessaloniki without seeing all of the churches, not just one or two. So, we saw churches, starting in the morning and going all day until the churches were either closed or it was time for Vespers. It was an amazing experience—every church we walked into was such a blessed harmony of form, line, careful and mathematical design—the Byzantines greatly prized mathematical skill— that it took my breath away. The arches, the ornamentation, the textiles, were absolutely beautiful. After a day or two of this, though, I felt that I simply could not take in any more beauty—that I might spontaneously combust and turn into a little pile of ashes on the floor. I felt physically stunned and dizzy, and then in an odd way, centered. I felt as if I could no longer see anything—my eyes were too full— and this caused me to go deeper into myself and I experienced a solitude and prayerfulness unusual to my previous experience. The beauty simply overwhelmed my physical senses and shut them down, allowing my nous to take over.

This is the goal of beauty in the church—to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth as best we can and to compel our nous to enter into communion with Christ. A lofty purpose, indeed, for mere textiles!

Please join me for a continuation of this walking tour in my next podcast.