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A Walking Tour Of The Orthodox Church - Part 2

February 05, 2008 Length: 19:54

Kh. Krista continues her informative tour paying particular close attention to what the Deacon and Priest are wearing. Don't miss her perspective on the importance of the beauty of the fabric close to the end!

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Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop”. This podcast is part 2 of the Walking Tour of Vestments. In the previous podcast, I walked through a church and explained proskynitarion or “analogian” covers, altar cloths, altar servers vestments, and chanter’s garments. Now, that we’re familiar with all of these, let’s continue to look at our liturgical vesture through the Liturgy:

Resuming where we left off, it’s now the middle of Orthros and we see the deacon come out for an litany. Let’s take a closer look at what he is wearing:

The large robe he is wearing is called the “sticharion” and it is worn almost to the floor. It is usually made from brocade or embroidered fabric and has some distinctive features—first, it’s a technologically simple garment in that it fastens only with a button and loop at the neck and buttons at the sides. If you were to lay a sticharion out flat on a table, it would be a cross shape with an opening in the center. There is a neck placket or “slit” so that the deacon is able to pull it on over his head. Galloon finishes the entire perimeter of the garment and extra bands of galloon decorate both the sleeves and the hem. At the sleeves, this galloon is a practical necessity: brocade is usually made 54” wide, which isn’t wide enough to make a sticharion without piecing some of the garment and the ends of the sleeves are a convenient place to position this seam. In the Russian tradition, there is also a galloon “bib” or square sewn on the sticharion around the chest area. This is another place on the sticharion that can be seamed, either for practical or decorative effect. One type of sticharion that I particularly like is one in which all of the fabric inside of the galloon bib and at the edges of the garment is velvet and then the rest of the sticharion is made of brocade. When this method is employed, it often includes very wide bands of galloon for the galloon “bib”, creating a very rich and complex-looking garment. Overall, deacon’s vestments are a wonderful canvas for displaying the beauty of brocades since there is a large sweep of fabric both in front and back and the garment is usually cut full.

The deacon also wears an “orarion”, which is worn one of two ways—in the Russian tradition, it is worn on the deacon’s left side, suspended from his shoulder, hanging to just above the hem of his sticharion in both front and back. In the Greek tradition, it is a longer strip of fabric, suspended from the deacon’s left shoulder, looping down to the hip on the right and then hanging to just above the hem in the front and back. In its very traditional form, it can have the words “Holy, Holy, Holy” or “Agios, Agios, Agios” embroidered in script along its length calling to mind the wings of the angels and which is echoed in the vesting prayer for the orarion: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Sabaoth; heaven and earth are full of thy glory.”  The orarion is most commonly made of brocade to match the sticharion or velvet in a complementary color and finished with galloon around the entire perimeter, double rows of galloon and fringe at each end, and seven crosses which are symbolic of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The deacon will wear his orarion in the way I’ve just decribed until the time for Communion and at that time, he will take the orarion off completely and start again, looping the middle of the orarion around his chest and bringing the ends around his back and up over his shoulders to cross at the front and be tucked under the waist loop. This is practical since he doesn’t want to have the loose ends of the orarion getting in his way as he assists with Communion.

On a side note, when the deacon is moving around during the Liturgy for his various duties, he will never let the end of his orarion hang down—he will always have it draped over his left arm or will hold it up with his right hand when he bids the people to prayer. This draping over the arm is quite an ancient practice and if you notice, there are many icons in which Christ, a bishop, or a saint is shown with fabric of some kind draped over the left arm. It was common practice in the ancient world for fabric to be folded and manipulated and draped, resulting in swathes of fabric which were always worn over the arm, never just hanging down loose, so here in the very deacon’s vestments we see today are the vestiges of not only very ancient garments, but of how they were actually worn. The last piece of the deacon’s vestments are the cuffs, or “epimanikia”.  They have a cross sewn to the center of each and fasten with cording run through metal loops sewn to each side of the cuff.

Subdeacons will wear the deacon’s sticharion or a simpler altar servers sticharion and their orarion is slightly narrower and less ornate than a deacon’s orarion, having three crosses instead of seven. The subdeacon wears the orarion crossed over his chest, not over the shoulder or looped over the hip as a deacon does. He will not be wearing cuffs, either. It is important to note and maintain the differences between subdiaconal and diaconal vestments because the subdiaconate, being a minor order, is a special ministry of the laity, while the diaconate, as one of the major orders of the church, participates in the sacerdotal ministry of the bishop and the priest. A subdeacon is not required to make the kind of life-long spiritual commitment that a deacon or a priest does, and therefore, his vestments reflect this by being simpler versions of the deacon’s vestments. We have an understanding of “levels” or gradations within our vestment tradition which is a vestige of a time when minor changes in a person’s garb could tell a tremendous amount about him. It is helpful to remember that in the ancient world, there weren’t the kind of various sub-styles of clothing that we have now—you didn’t have “preppy” Ancient Greeks or “rocker” Romans. Every one wore variations of the same kind of clothing (with a few exceptions like the military and the difference between men’s and women’s garments) and so garments were all on one continuum, if you will, with less prestige, or honor or office being at one end of the spectrum and more prestige, honor, or office being at the other end with various levels of prestige, honor, and office all along the line. Peasant to Emperor, there was a certain amount of similarity in dress. And when you have a lot of similarity of dress, it’s the little things that matter—the quality of materials, a particularly fine trim, more or fewer crosses or ornamentation—these are the things that separate the various offices.

Well, the Liturgy is moving along and we now are at the point of the Little Entrance. We see the altar servers, subdeacons, deacon, and finally the priest come out for the Little Entrance. This is a great time to get a view of the priest’s vestments since he is in the center of the community and highly visible. Let’s go over what he’s wearing:

Many priests will wear their anterri (or cassock) under their vestments, so they might have had this on when they arrived at the church in the morning. When they vest for the Liturgy, they start by putting on the sticharion. Wait a second, you say, we just talked about the deacon’s sticharion and the priest isn’t a deacon, so what’s going on?! Well, here we have another manifestation of the sticharion, what experts in garment history like to call a “universal” garment, meaning a garment that appears in some form in almost every ancient culture. As he puts on his sticharion, the priest recites this prayer, “My soul shall rejoice in the Lord, for he hath clothed me with the garment of salvation, and with the robe of gladness hath he encompassed me. As a bridegroom he hath set a crown upon me, and as a bride hath he adorned me with ornament, always, now and every and unto ages of ages. Amen.” I should note that this is the same vesting prayer the deacon uses for his sticharion.

For the priest, his sticharion is usually white, not made of brocade, but of either poly-cotton, satin, silk, or more uncommonly, linen, and finished with galloon to match his vestments. The sticharion is cut wide and full, which is practical since it helps keep the priest cooler—by the time he’s fully vested, he can be wearing anywhere from 7 to 15 pounds of garments on top of his street clothes, and the fuller the cut of the sticharion, the better the air circulation. The garment has a galloon neck placket and a cross sewn on the back. There are wide sleeves which are gathered in by means of a cord wrapped around the wrist. The white recalls the purity of the priesthood and the garment itself is a reminder of the priest’s baptismal garment, so it is rich with symbology. Having said all that, there are variations—in the Russian tradition, the priest often wears a white sticharion with white trim and he may only own one sticharion that is worn with every set of vestments, regardless of whether it “matches”. In the Greek tradition, the sticharion can be a color that harmonizes with the vestment set since the Greek priest usually has one sticharion for each set of vestments. Less common, although quite beautiful, is a type of sticharion in which the majority of the garment is white, and brocade matching the vestments is pieced in a wide band at the hem of the sticharion.


Over the sticharion, the priest places the epitrachelion, saying, “Blessed is God, who poureth out his grace upon his priests, as oil of myrrh upon the head , which runneth down upon the beard, upon the beard of Aaron, which runneth down to the fringe of his raiment, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.” This is the fundamental “garment of office” for the priest. The epitrachelion started out as a long band worn around the neck and hanging to just above the ankles in front and eventually was made into the form we see today with a shaped neck that fits closely around the priest’s neck and then buttons down the front to keep the two “sides” of the epitrachelion together. There are seven crosses and seven buttons, again, to call to mind the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (for those of you paying close attention and only noticing six crosses, the seventh is at the back of the neck and it is this cross which the priest kisses before placing the epitrachelion over his head). It also has double rows or banks of galloon and fringe at the bottom and here, the fringe symbolizes all of the souls under the priest’s pastoral care. If a priest makes a visit to the hospital, or blesses a home during Theophany season, then he wears his epitrachelion only over his exorasson, to demonstrate his priestly office.

Next to be vested, is the epigonation, or the diamond-shaped piece that hangs by the priest’s knee. The prayer for this piece is, “Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, O Mighty One, in thy comeliness and they beauty and proceed prosperously, and be king because of truth and meekness and righteousness; and thy right hand shall guide thee wondrously, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.” This piece is an “award” piece and technically-speaking is not a part of the vesture of a presbyter at all, but rather belongs to the bishop. The bishop awards the dignity of wearing the epigonation to certain priests in accordance with the tradition of his local church. In the Russian Orthodox tradition, the epigonation is awarded to senior priests as a mark of very high dignity. In the Greek tradition, the epigonation is awarded to priests of middle rank seniority. In the Antiochian tradition, the epigonation is awarded to any priest who has been given authority to hear confessions and grant absolution on the bishop’s behalf. Historically, epigonatia were highly embellished, looking every inch the award that they were! Now, epigonatia are most commonly made to match the set of vestments, but I would dearly love to see us return to the more historical style of the epigonation being a highly-embellished piece. In this tradition, a priest would most likely only own one epigonation and he would wear it with all of his vestments, regardless of whether it “matched”. I think this would be wonderful for a variety of reasons: first, it emphasizes the “award” nature of the epigonation, reminding us of its history; second, it is an excellent opportunity for cherishing and promoting our wonderful tradition of embroidered iconography, which many Orthodox Christians have never even seen, and third, it makes a wonderful and symbolic gift for honored priest, something that he would value and care for as an heirloom to be passed onto future generations.

The next two pieces are fairly small, but highly practical. The zone, or belt, serves to contain the fullness of the sticharion and keep the epitrachelion in place and when putting it on, the priest recites, “Blessed is God, who girdeth me with power and hath made my path blameless, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen”. The epimanikia, or cuffs, serve to contain the fullness of the sticharion sleeves and their prayer is two-fold: for the right hand, “Thy right hand, O Lord, is glorified in strength; thy right hand, O Lord, hat shattered thine enemies, and in the multitude of they glory hast thou crushed thine adversaries, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.” and for the left hand: “Thy hands had made and fashioned me; give me understanding and I will learn thy commandment, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”. While many Western scholars of liturgical garments think that cuffs came about rather late, around the 6th century or later, my personal investigation leads me to believe that they were used far earlier. There are quite a number of icons in which a saint or priest is vested in a white sticharion with what looks like decorated bands at the ends of the sticharion, but these could very well be cuffs. The reason being is this: prior to the advent of washing machines and dry cleaners, cleaning garments was often abrasive and harsh, the cleaning process itself causing quite a lot of wear-and-tear to the garment. The more highly ornamented a garment was, the less it was washed in order to preserve. Garments nearest the skin, like sticharia (remember, they’re based on everyday tunics) would have been washed most frequently. If you had a sticharion with lovely ornamentation at the ends of the sleeves, then every time it had to be washed, it would wear out a little more of the ornamentation. It isn’t too long before some intrepid tailor gets the idea to make the ornamented part a separate piece so that it can be taken off and set aside while the garment itself is washed, thereby keeping the ornamentation as pristine as possible for as long as possible. From the icons, it is often difficult to tell whether the ornamented section at the end of the sleeve is part of the sleeve or a separate piece, so it is unclear when cuffs really came into use.

The last, and most visible, garment in the priest’s vestments is the phelonion and the priest puts this on over his other garments, reciting, “Thy priests, O Lord, shall be clothed with righteousness, and thy holy ones shall rejoice with joy, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.” This large, flowing garment looks like a long cape with the front cut away. It has a galloon neck placket, just like the epitrachelion and sticharion and its border is always finished with galloon. There is a large cross or icon of Christ sewn to the back, just between the shoulder blades. This garment evolved from the “paenula”, a winter travelling cloak used by many in the ancient world. It is an impressive garment due to its size, its circular shape, and the consequent lavish use of brocade or embroidery. There are two basic styles of phelonia—“low-back”, or “Greek-style” in which the phelonion fits the shape of the shoulders and neck and “high-back” called either “Athonite”, “Russian”, or “Ukranian” style, in which the top of the phelonion rises like a cone, not shaped to the shoulders or neck. When the “Athonite” style phelonion is used, it often has a “one-piece” epitrachelion in which there is one large band of fabric which hangs around the priest’s neck, finished with three crosses in place of the “standard” two bands connected with buttons. Athonite-style vestments refer not just to the cut of the garments, but also the the aesthetic style of the brocades used, and these are almost always lavish and ornate with large motifs. The one-piece epitrachelion shows these kind of brocades to best advantage, which is most likely why it is employed with the Athonite-style phelonion.


Vestments in general come in many colors and styles—everything from heavy, embroidered velvets to multi-colored floral brocades, to lightweight “summer” vestments with grapevines and crosses embroidered onto a lightweight, unlined fabric. It is a testament to the marriage of beauty and tradition in the Orthodox Church that there are so many variations of what is essentially one style of vestments. In over 2,000 years, our vestments have changed only fractionally by garment history standards.

However, I have seen something creeping into our tradition during my time as a tailor that worries me and would you believe it, of all things, it’s a cross! Countless times have I heard a client say, “I don’t really care about the fabric as long as it has crosses on it!” It’s almost as if to say that the quality of the fabric or its inherent beauty or the color doesn’t matter—just put that cross on it and we’re good to go! If you took this line of reasoning to its logical end, then I should be able to buy sheets of plastic at the hardware store and fasten electrical tape crosses all over them and have the world’s most durable and economical vestments. But we would never do this as Orthodox Christians because we understand, even if it’s just on a gut level, that this would be somehow wrong, that we need beauty, that beauty is important in our worship.

This is why the single most important factor in vestments is beauty.  Vestments should be a physical manifestation of a spiritual reality, the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. They should make you joyful when you look upon them, they should take your breath away and awe you by their beauty. If we count vestments among our Orthodox “arts”, then I have to agree with the renowned iconographer, Photios Kontoglou when he proclaims, “Byzantine art begins where ordinary art ends, for ordinary art slavishly copies natural phenomena, in order to evoke shallow emotions in souls that are devoid of all spirituality.” Now, Kyrios Kontoglou doesn’t mince words here, and he is speaking particularly of iconography, but what he has to say should be a clarion call for those of us in America who are dulled by ugly vestments in which symbols stand in for beauty and craft. Just because a fabric has a cross on it, doesn’t mean it is beautiful; in fact, some of the ugliest liturgical brocades I’ve seen have the greatest numbers of crosses! It is an anti-Orthodox, Latin approach to the artistic, that a symbol can be something that the thing itself cannot be (in this case, the brocade)—the brocade is somehow “good” and “proper” simply because it has a cross on it even if the fabric itself is more poorly made or garishly-colored than my kitchen towels!

Vestments do not derive their power from the fact that they symbolize the Kingdom of Heaven but rather because they manifest the Kingdom of Heaven. We cannot substitute mere symbols for transcendent beauty! We are called to no ordinary faith and no ordinary beauty, but rather a faith and a beauty that brings us ever closer to the Kingdom of Heaven and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.


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