Review of W. T. Woodfin, The Embodied Icon: Liturgical Vestments and Sacramental Power in Byzantium

Review of Woodfin, Warren T. The Embodied Icon: Liturgical Vestments and Sacramental Power in Byzantium. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

The Embodied Icon is an essential study of the liturgical (and imperial) vestments that were used in the Byzantine Empire and by the Eastern Orthodox Church.  Woodfin lays out, in a clear and concise manner, the types, decoration, and function of sacred clothing, as well as how these served in liturgical settings and also in the balance of power in the empire.

The book is divided into two parts, with a total of five chapters (plus extensive appendices):

Part I: Liturgical Vestments in the Orthodox Church

1. The Vestments of the Byzantine Rite Described

2. Moving Pictures: Embroidered Vestments and the Iconography of the Church Interior

3. Litiurgical Mystagogy and the Embroidered Image

Part II. Liturgical Vestments in Byzantine Society

4. Earthly Rivalry: Imperial and Ecclesiastical Dress

5. As it is in Heaven: Vesture and the Unseen World

Chapter 1 describes the liturgical clothing worn by the three orders of Orthodox church clergy: deacon, priest, and bishop.  The details of the vestments of the offices of deacon and priest will not be elaborated on here, but a few details deserve mention.

A unique feature of the sacred dress of the deacons was the orarion, a long, narrow sash usually worn over left shoulder, but sometimes wrapped around body and over shoulders. The orarion was often inscribed with the words “Holy, holy, holy” (Isaiah 6:2-3), which represented the idea that the deacons were dressed as and representing the angels of heaven in the liturgy.

Regarding the manner of vesting the liturgical garments, Woodfin relates that the deacon “enters the sanctuary with the priest before the service, carrying his vestments with him. The deacon first asks the priest’s blessing on his sticharion (long, white linen robe) and orarion, then recites formulaic prayers as he dons his sticharion…” (pp. 8-9).

From another source, I found the following instructions for deacons:

They are to pray as they vest: “Let us pray to the Lord. My soul shall rejoice in the Lord, for He has clothed me with the garment of salvation; He has covered me with the robe of gladness; as a bridegroom He has set a crown on me; and as a bride adorns herself with jewels, so has He adorned me.”

As their vestments are generally a less elaborate version of what the bishops wore, I will not include details regarding what the priests wore. Regarding their manner of vesting: “The priest vests himself before participating in liturgical functions. He blesses the vestments and recites prayers while putting them on. He vests himself in the sanctuary, concealed from the view of the laity” (p. 13).

The sacred garments that the bishops donned for the liturgy include the following:

  • sticharion — long white tunic/robe — usually more ornate than that of deacons and priests (can be black or other colors as well)
  • anterion (cassock) — long garment worn under the sticharion
  • epitrachelion (stole) — similar to the deacon’s orarion, but worn around the neck with both ends hanging parallel in the front
  • phelonion — an outer garment worn like a cape over the shoulders — often decorated with crosses
  • omophorion — bishop’s outermost garment, a long wool or silk cloth wrapped around the shoulders, hanging in front and draped over left shoulder — often embroidered with crosses or other images
  • epimanikia — embroidered wrist cuffs
  • epigonation — a stiffened, embroidered handkerchief hung by a loop from the zone (belt)
  • mitra (mitre) — liturgical headcovering, usually a tall or domed hat

Regarding the manner of vesting for bishops, some traditions maintain that the bishop should come into the church in procession, already wearing his liturgical vestments. Other traditions declare that the bishop should enter the church wearing a large cloak (mandyas) over his street clothes which is to be removed after his entrance, and is then vested by the deacons (either in public or in the nave), who say prayers on his behalf. At a certain point in the liturgy (the alleluia before the Gospel), an official removes the bishop’s omophorion and then replaces it after the dismissal. The omophorion is a symbol of the bishop’s authority (when he wears it, he is imitating Christ).

Chapter 2 analyzes the embroidered images found on many liturgical vestments and their relationship to the iconography of the church. Some of the highlights from this chapter include the following:

Vestments were often decorated with images representing Christ and other intercessory figures, Eucharistic themes, and the twelve feast-day cycle, which consists of twelve episodes from salvation history.

At some point, the bishop began to be vested on a throne in the center of the church, in a manner that the congregation could see each piece of clothing up close and witness their symbolism.

The images on the vestments may have served as a sort of amuletic protection to the bishop in his ministry. The images were understood to serve as a conduit for the power of the figures they represented.

The images on the bishop’s vestments often match the icons on the iconostasis, the screen that separates the laity from the holy sanctuary of the church.

The images emphasize the bishop’s role as he stands in the place of Christ as the representative of the church.

Chapter 3 looks at the theology of the liturgy and how that theology played into how images were used, with special attention to how they functioned on liturgical vestments.

In the Middle Ages, Byzantine churchmen expounded on the Eucharistic rite in their writings, including associating symbolic meanings with the various priestly vestments. If not for these writings, we may never have known the symbolism and function of the images.

There was a connection between the iconography on the garments and the symbolism attached to each sacred vestment. For example, the omophorion (the outermost garment which was draped around the shoulders) was often embroidered with images of Christ as the Good Shepherd and was understood to represent the lost sheep rescued by Him.

The epitrachelion (worn around the neck with both ends hanging in front) was seen as representing the rope around Christ’s neck by which he was led to the high priest. Also, the right side of this sash was understood as representing the reed they put in Jesus’s hand and the left side is the burden of the cross upon his shoulders. Some traditions vary on the details here, but in general the epitrachelion symbolized the instruments of Christ’s scourging and death. Furthermore, it represented the grace of the priesthood poured out upon the priest — like ointment poured upon Aaron’s head that ran down his beard and vestments. This was understood to be the priesthood of Christ, the yoke that he took upon himself.  Despite the latter tradition, however, anointing is never depicted on the epitrachelion itself.

A more clear parallel between the embroidery and symbolic value of a garment is the orarion of the deacon which, as previously mentioned, represents his angelic ministry and is inscribed with the cry of the seraphim, “Holy, holy, holy!”

Woodfin explains that the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church was understood to be a re-enactment of Christ’s life from the Annunciation to the Ascension (following the feast cycle). The divine plan was represented in iconography on the walls, curtains, and clothing that were all a part of the ritual. As the clergy performed the ceremonies, lay persons were meant to meditate on these scenes depicted before them.

The priest or bishop in his ministry represents both the angel of the Lord and also Jesus. The vestments that the celebrant (officiator) puts on aid in his representation of Christ — and he sits on Christ’s throne. The bishop puts on Christ’s image. As Woodfin states, “Through the mediation of the vestments, the celebrant is both a representation of Christ as eternal High Priest in heaven and as the incarnate Word on earth.” He assumes Christ’s dual role as both priest and sacrifice, both offerer and offering. Following the path of the Great Exemplar, the bishop leads the way to salvation. “By clothing the celebrant in the images of Christ’s incarnate life that parallel the sanctifying grace of the Eucharist, the minister is shown as an effectual agent of theosis” (p. 119).

It is clear from the imagery on the vestments that deacons did not represent Christ, but the angels. In the Divine Liturgy, the procession of the gifts (sacramental bread and wine) represented Christ’s journey to his crucifixion and ascension into heaven. At this point, the liturgy parallels the worship of the angels in heaven (the deacons) as the bishop approaches the throne of God.

Chapter 4 goes further into the details and history of imperial and ecclesiastical dress.

Woodfin notes that the imperial costume was supposed to have been given to Constantine the Great by the hand of an angel and could not be lent or given to others. The emperor wore clothing that represented the burial garments of Christ — the emperor was seen as representing Christ or “the image of God,” and served in his position as Christ on Earth.

Ecclesiastical clothing borrowed in many ways from imperial clothing, but avoided directly imitating the vestments of any particular political rank. Church officials wanted to project an image of exalted status, but not get mixed up in imperial politics.

Chapter 5 is entitled “As it is in Heaven: Vesture and the Unseen World” and describes how in the art of the time, it is apparent that people saw a connection between the clothing of the imperial and ecclesiastical hierarchies and the heavenly hierarchy.

The emperor was often depicted in art as possessing a rank higher than that of the archangels, and even higher than Michael. Although on Earth he was considered the representative of Christ, when he was depicted as being in heaven, he was Christ’s servant.

In the liturgy on Earth, the emperor had a quasi-sacerdotal role without actually being a priest — he wore a holy garment over his imperial regalia.

Priests/bishops were seen as similarly equivalent to Christ, but in vestment and in art, they were portrayed as similar in function and likeness to Christ, as opposed to the bishop being equated with the archangels. Christ himself is often depicted in the role of priest.

Deacons represented angels and assisted in the earthly liturgy as angels assist in the heavenly liturgy.  For the purposes of comparison, we see that Christ was often depicted as a bishop officiating in the heavenly liturgy whereas angels do the work of the deacons. These functions are depicted in art as well as in the liturgical vestments.

In the liturgy, the bishop stands in Christ’s place at the altar in the sanctuary. According to Woodfin, the iconography “insists not just on the resemblance of the bishop to Christ, but on their equivalence” (p. 196). It is interesting to note that it was not only the patriarch of Constantinople that was seen as representing Christ, but each bishop fully represented him. The vestments reveal the unity of the church on earth and in heaven.

A few highlights from Woodfin’s conclusions:

— Images added to the vestments of clergy are an attempt to give visual form to symbolic thought.

— “As with the epitaphios at the Great Entrance, the function of such images was to lay bare the meaning of the very mysteries they hid from the direct view of the faithful.”

“In rhetoric, ritual, and art, the emperor and the clergy were more and more closely tied to the heavenly models they were believed to reflect.”


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