Bishops’ Vestments

February 16, 2009 Length: 22:14

Khouria Krista West explains the origins of Bishops' vestments.





Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop”. Today I would like to give a brief history of bishops vestments within the Orthodox Church and then speak in a little detail about the vestments I recently made for Metropolitan Jonah’s enthronement.

As I’ve mentioned in previous podcasts, the first few centuries of the Orthodox Church do not provide much illumination about the beginnings of vestments. What we know about the origins of Christian liturgical dress come primarily from two sources: the first being our iconographic tradition and the second being the secular dress of late antiquity and the Byzantine Empire. Garment or “costume” history is a discipline in which a historian studies artwork such as vases, murals, mosaics, diptychs, friezes, and other images in order to understand the dress of a particular period. Just as our WWII memorials depict soldiers in 20th-century, period-appropriate dress, so do works of art from various periods of history depict Roman senators in correct senatorial dress or Egyptian slaves in correct servants’ costumes. When it comes to garments, we learn by looking. There is one caveat, however, when it comes to studying iconography in order to better understand our liturgical garment tradition—while there are icons in which the dress is correct to the period (for example, St. Peter being shown in the dress of the late Roman empire), there is another iconographic tradition in which a saint is depicted in what the iconographer thought was historical dress. So, you can have an icon from the 18th century which depicts a saint of the 3rd century wearing a 15th-century garment because that’s what the iconographer thought was historically accurate.

Now while we learn by looking, the study of garment history and liturgical garments in particular can be somewhat ephemeral (textiles don’t last the way pottery and metalwork does) and require an understanding of multiple disciplines.  In my mind, the study of Orthodox liturgical garments still remains an area that has not been adequately approached using a multi-disciplinary method. There are a few books written on liturgical garments, but most are by writers of the Western Church, many of whom hold to the notion that the Western Church’s garments somehow developed in a parallel fashion to Orthodox garments. I find this position untenable because it does not take into account certain historical events such as the Schism of 1054.  It is more historically accurate that changes in Western vesture would happen after the Schism when there was a lack of communion and communication between East and West. So, while there are some books on the history of Western liturgical garments which include a chapter on Eastern Orthodox liturgical garments, there are very few reference works devoted primarily to the subject of Orthodox liturgical garments.

Consequently, this makes the study of the history of Eastern Orthodox bishop’s vestments a little challenging and it’s actually where I first began researching Orthodox liturgical dress. A number of years ago, I wanted to know about the origins of the omophorion, the large, wide band of fabric that the bishop wears draped around him and which comes to a “V” in front. I thought it would be as simple as picking up a book and looking for “Omophorion” in the index. Well, ten years later, I’m still dreaming of that illusory index and find myself searching for bits and pieces of information amidst doctoral dissertations, books of icons, and just plain making lots and lots of vestments. So I will have to ask you to forgive any oversight or error in my rather unconventional research of Orthodox vestments.

So let’s begin at the beginning with the icons of the Apostles:
The most noticeable garment in the icons depicting the Apostles is the sticharion or tunic (sticharion is Greek; tunica is Latin) with “clavi” or stripes running vertically or horizontally. These “clavi” were very important in the ancient world and could denote social, political, or financial status. It’s really quite simple—when everyone wears the same basic garments, most of which were variations on a tunic and a cloak—you need ways to differentiate various levels of society. Nowadays, we see someone in a Mercedes-Benz or carrying a Chanel purse and we know that they are financially well-to-do. But in the ancient world, there weren’t brands like Mercedes-Benz and Chanel and if everyone is hanging out at the Forum together wearing the same basic clothes, you need some visual cues. Enter the clavi—the Cliff Notes of the ancient garment world. In addition to the placement of the clavi, the quality of the clavi could denote social status—really nice clavi could be dyed with Tyrian purple, one of the costliest dyestuffs in the ancient world or be woven of especially fine wool or have elaborate embroidery. 

To see the Apostles depicted wearing a sticharion with clavi is the iconographer’s way of telling us that these men command respect. This is an interesting visual cue if you know ancient garments—the Apostles are depicted in “respectable” clothing, but we are not giving them respect due to the width or fanciness of their clavi, or their social or political status, we are giving them respect and veneration because of their service to our merciful Lord Jesus Christ. They look hieratic, holy, deeply spiritual in their long, white tunics.

As time went on and priest’s vestments became a more standardized uniform of phelonion and epitrachelion (and most likely, zone or belt out of practicality in order to restrain these flowing garments), the bishop’s vestments didn’t look that much different than a priest’s. The bishop wore everything the priest did with the addition of the omophorion, that long, wide strip of fabric with big crosses sewn onto it. It’s usually depicted in icons as a sort of crooked “Y” with the two arms of the “Y” over the bishop’s shoulders and then the long vertical base of the Y slightly off to the right (which is actually the bishop’s left).

We know from the icons of early hierarchs that the polystavros, or “many crosses” design, which to our eyes can look like a geometric free-for-all of squares within squares within squares, was reserved for bishops. (It wasn’t until much later that your garden-variety priest could wear the polystavros.)

As an aside, the polystavros design is actually a nod to an Old Testament reference—in the book of Exodus, the high priest is to wear a “checkerwork” design. Orthodox vestments most decidedly do NOT come from Levitical dress, but the early church Fathers were steeped in the study of the Old Testament (the New Testatment was, after all, NEW) and they would have known Exodus like you or I might know the Beatitudes. If they saw a bishop wearing a phelonion in a polystavros or checkerwork design, it would have resonated with them in both a visual and an intellectual way. Talk about a thinking man’s brocade! There’s also another interesting textile history tidbit here—checkerwork designs are considered universal in the history of textiles. Checkerwork, usually woven, appears in almost every ancient culture in one form or another, so by the bishop wearing checkerwork, there is an identity with all mankind. Some of the earliest weaving discovered has been shown to have these sorts of patterns, rather than just be one plain color of fabric. I’ve done a fair amount of handwork of various types over the years and I can attest to the fact that when you’re working for months on one particular project, having a design keeps the work interesting and beautiful. It also displays skill since any kind of design has to be thought through and planned out before the cloth is taken in hand.

So, to put all of this together, if you were standing at a Hierarchical Liturgy in around the 6th century in Constantinople, the priests at the altar would be wearing the phelonion, epitrachelion, sticharion, and zone or belt. They may or may not have had cuffs at this time (my personal opinion is that they would have because to my way of thinking the cuffs would have both restrained the flowing sleeves of the sticharion AND would have made laundry a cinch since it’s far easier to clean a little cuff than launder an entire sticharion). The priests’ phelonia may have been in woven patterns, probably either wool or silk, but not the polystavros design. The bishop standing in the middle of the church would have been wearing his polystavros phelonion, coordinating but not matching epitrachelion, sticharion, and zone. On top of everything, he would wear a white wool omophorion with black or burgundy crosses, worn in the “Y” method I’ve described above. If this was a neighborhood church, then most likely each of the priest’s vestments would be slightly different patterns and colors. The bishop’s vestments might be finer or more elaborate than the priests. His cuffs might be embroidered with an icon of Archangel Gabriel on the left and the Theotokos on the right so that he became a “living icon” of the Annunciation every time he moved his hands.  But, essentially, it was very clear from the practical theology of the vestments that the bishop was the head presbyter. He wasn’t separate from the other priests, he just had more responsibility, as the heavy woolen omophorion would have symbolically shown.

So the really interesting garment piece in this scene is the omophorion, since it is what distinguishes the bishop from the priests. Most other writers on the subject tend towards the theory that the omophorion just “evolved” over time, maybe coming from a clavi that got wider and wider, but I don’t agree with this. I’m going to give you my opinon of where it came from, but there’s a bit of back story: Like many Americans and particularly American converts to Orthodox Christianity, I began my research into Byzantine textiles and vestments with a bias. My bias went something like this, “Greeks are really wonderful people and I love the food, but they are so (insert eye roll), disorganized and never on time. It’s just no wonder that Byzantium fell.” But after reading my first book on garment history, I realized that I needed to be more aware of the world of Byzantium in general and I began reading various texts on Byzantine life. Originally, I only meant to read one book, but I became so fascinated with Byzantine culture, that I’m still reading and am now officially a “Byzantinophile”. I learned all sorts of facts like the fact that when Agia Sophia was built, it wasn’t its beauty that caused such a marvel, but rather it’s mathematical precision. Wow, I thought, the average person on the street was mathematically-educated enough to visualize complex engineering feats right before their very eyes. I read about the mechanical marvels at the Byzantine court, from metal lions that roared to mechanical birds that sang. I began to discover that the Byzantines were no lightweights when it came to a practical and systematic approach to education and life in general—in fact, they seemed to thrive on order and knowledge. Then I began to read doctoral level research on the silk industry in Byzantium and discovered that there are methods of silk-weaving practiced in Byzantium that no-one is able to re-create today due to their complexity. Well, Microsoft, I thought, take that!

After all this reading, the whole idea that the Byzantines would have settled for an omophorion just sort of evolving seemed absurd. Add to this that Byzantium was created as the New Rome, and revered many of the customs and traditions practiced in Rome, and I was beginning to develop a theory that Orthodox Christian vestments didn’t just come out of the garments of late Antiquity, but they were specifically designed to reference the garments of late Antiquity. Who was one of the most important men of late Antiquity? A Roman senator. And what did he wear for his cermonial dress? The toga, sometimes with a decorative border. Now, toga wearing is not for the faint of heart—the toga is an 18-foot long piece of wool that had to be draped in a very precise fashion to be worn properly. There was a hierarchy of toga-wearing with undecorated natural wool worn by ordinary Roman citizens and various decorated or colored togas, such as the “toga picta” worn by victorious generals and later by emperors and consuls or the “toga candida”, which was worn by candidates for public office. Over time, the toga became abbreviated and by the early sixth century was the “toga contabulatum”, which was worn folded in a particular manner, which resulted in a sort of crooked “Y” with the two arms of the “Y” over the consul’s shoulders and then the long end of the toga slightly off to the right, which is actually the consul’s left. Is this starting to sound familiar?

Just like in the icon of the Apostles in which they are clad in earthly sticharia with earthly clavii to show their heavenly realty of being the revered Apostles of Christ, so early bishops were clad in earthly garments of respect and office to show their heavenly calling and the respect due to their office. This is visual theology, in which the resurrection of Christ results in the recreation of man and matter. We still have sticharia and clavii and togas, but with the Resurrection they become the new sticharia, the new clavii, the new togas with their respective symbology no longer tied to earthly pomp and circumstance, but to heavenly glory. It strikes me that the Byzantines, with their reverence for Rome, and their new-found hope in Christ would make this connection. There is also artwork that bears out this theory, most notably a diptych of a Roman consul in about the early 6th century who is wearing an toga contabulatum that looks identical to an omophorion. It is draped the same way and in this carving, we can see the transition from toga as large piece of fabric folded accordion-style, then draped over the body, to a single width of fabric just draped over the body without folds. Hold this diptych up to the icon of Christ the High Priest and the similarities in the garment are undeniable. The omophorion being made of wool is also significant because togas were always made of wool. High-quality wool is very expensive, both then and now, so a toga was a lavish garment both in its size and its quality. Wool also drapes in a very particular way, which is quite different from silk or linen. This is where my tailoring knowledge informed my research—I knew from handling thousands of yards of wool over the years that the cloth being depicted in both the icons and the diptych of the consul was most likely wool.

The bishop would have been vested in this manner until about the middle Byzantine period and here there comes a fascinating shift which results directly from the fate of Byzantium. During the Middle Byzantine Period, the power of Byzantine emperors began to decline due to various socio-political events and the people of Byzantium began to place more emphasis on the power of heaven rather than the power of the emperor. The idea of the court of Byzantium being a mirror image of the Heavenly Court became widespread and there was a freer interchange of symbology between earthly and heavenly. It was about this time that the garment previously exclusive to the emperor, the sakkos (plural: sakkoi) began to replace the phelonion in the attire of the bishop. All of the other garments such as the sticharion and epitrachelion continued to be worn by the bishop, but the phelonion was laid aside in favor of the imperial sakkos. In construction, the imperial sakkos is a highly-ornamented version of the sticharion, essentially the same cut, but made shorter and from heavier brocades rather than lightweight linen.

Today, we most commonly see our bishops attired in sakkoi with omophoria, now referred to as the “great” omophorion to distinguish it from an abbreviated form of the omophorion, the “small” omophorion. During Divine Liturgy, the bishop removes the great omophorion and replaces it with the small omophorion so that he is less encumbered for communion. These two omophoria are almost always matching in brocade, galloon, and crosses since they are essentially the same garment.

This past fall, I had the great honor and blessing to make the vestments for Metropolitan Jonah’s enthronement. This was an exciting and challenging project, partly because Metropolitan Jonah is quite aware of the history of bishop’s vestments, partly because it was so high-profile—who wants to make a mistake with 2,000 people watching?, and partly because it’s not every day I’m asked to sew for the primate of a major Orthodox jurisdiction! So, I conferred with Metropolitan Jonah and together we chose a real metal brocade called “Methodios”. It’s a magnificent brocade with a polystavros feel to it with Byzantine crosses within interlocking checkerwork frames. The color was predominantly gold with burgundy accenting, since I knew this would be the most versatile color for almost any service. It’s both an austere and exquisite brocade due to its larger negative spaces and the complexity of the geometric design. I made all of the smaller pieces like the epitrachelion, the zone, and the cuffs from burgundy velvet and by doing so, not only referenced the icons of early hierarchs like St. Basil the Great and St. John Chrysostom, but put the golden brocade of the sakkos into high relief against the deeper burgundy. I chose a galloon that was quite simple, just gold with a burgundy stripe, but this time I wanted something that didn’t compete with the brocade, but set it off. The fact that the galloon looks a lot like clavi pleased me as well.

The epigonation was quite special since it was a hand-embroidered replica of an 18th-century epigonation in Greece. It has a burgundy velvet background, an icon of Christ in the center, and wonderfully detailed vinework around the entire piece. The crosses for the entire set of vestments were also hand-embroidered because this is considered the height of quality and workmanship in the vestment world. They were incredibly intricate and even the smallest 3” size I used on the cuffs had hundreds of stitches.   

The omophoria were made entirely of white wool in keeping with historical tradition. Overall, I wanted the vestments to have the look and feel of “real” clothing, not something that looked fresh off of a 1960s movie set. I didn’t want flashy or garish, but rather, I wanted there to be a quality to the work that the closer you got to it, the more real it became.

In addition to the Metropolitan’s vestments, I was asked to make the subdeacon’s and protodeacon’s vestments. These needed to match the Metropolitan’s vestments, but with a few slight differences. Right about here, I’m guessing that those of you who have listened to some of my other podcasts are remembering everything I’ve ever said about my dislike of matchy-matchy vestments, so I do feel some explanation is in order:

Just as we have a hierarchical structure in the Church, so some of our services “rank” above others and when we have something like an enthronement service, the vestments need to reflect this. Having all of the sets be of good quality and matching is very visually pleasing. My greatest worry with setting up the expectation that all vestments in any service should match is both financial (it’s very costly to have all matching vestments) and historical (in the Byzantine court, matching was used for great effect on special occasions, not as an everyday occurrence). But if ever there was a service for matching, this was it, so I made the other vestments from the same brocade as Metropolitan Jonah’s.

Working on episcopal vestments for Metropolitan Jonah was a great blessing in so many ways, but especially in that I was a link in the chain of an almost 2,000-year-old tradition. These garments that lay on my 21st-century cutting table while my electric lights glowed had their origins in a place almost halfway around the world and centuries away. It was both startling and comforting to feel connected to people such a long ways from me and yet so close. I was reminded of St. Paul’s exhortation: “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.”