Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"An Icon of the Kingdom of God: The Integrated Expression of all the Liturgical Arts – Part 8: Vestments"

A few readers have sent in links to this particular article written by Andrew Gould and found on the Orthodox Arts Journal. The article -- part of a larger series on the "the integrated expression of all the liturgical arts" -- relates to vestments. Some readers might find it rather refreshing that, while there is some discussion about artistic particulars -- such as particular colour qualities for instance -- there is no sense here of needing to justify the use of ornate liturgical vestments themselves; in fact, I do not think I extend the argument too much to say that it is essentially a given. Here is an excerpt:

Russian Phelonion, 17th century, Ottoman fabric

In the New Jerusalem, there is no distinction between indoors and outdoors. It is a city as well as a garden. The sun does not shine by day, nor the moon by night, for the Lamb is the light of the city of God. (Rev 21) Therefore, the church can also be compared to a natural landscape. The architecture comprises the trees and stones, the lamps the stars in the sky, or perhaps fireflies nearer the ground. The word ‘choros’, which now refers to the liturgical space under the dome, comes from a usage in ancient Greek poetry to refer to a forest clearing where lovers meet for trysts. The space under the dome is indeed a bright clearing, a meadow for love trysts between God and man. In a forest meadow, beauty of a special sort can be seen. There are flowers, butterflies, and songbirds. These creatures exhibit a brightness of color and iridescence unique in the landscape. God in His wisdom saw fit to bestow this beauty only upon the most delicate, fleeting, and short-lived creatures, perhaps so they do not overpower the more subtle coloration and patterns of His wider creation.

The aesthetic qualities of vestments are closely akin to these delicate creatures. The bright colors, satin luster, and energetic patterns of fine vestments can indeed rival the wings of a butterfly or the petals of a flower. How appropriate, therefore, that vestments are also the most fleeting of liturgical arts. Fine vestments are so costly to make, so easy to damage, so soon to wear out. And they are never meant as permanent elements in the design of a church, but come and go like flying birds. Vestments cannot be admired hanging still. They must be worn to reveal their beauty. As a vested priest moves about the church, through sunbeams and candlelight, he shines with a scintillating light, different from every moment to the next. What an astonishing metamorphosis! A priest in a black cassock always looks the same. The cassock reflects no light and reveals no movement. It is a garment designed for the dignity and constancy of the priestly office. But fully vested, the priest emerges from the iconostasis like the New Adam, a vision of mankind transfigured.

Sakkos of Patriarch Nikon, 1653, Ottoman Fabric

It is hard for us today to imagine the beauty of medieval Orthodox vestments. A few Byzantine vestments survive in museums, and they are astonishingly unlike the monochrome vestments in use today. The richest Byzantine vestments were primarily peacock-blue in color, and completely embroidered with radiant icons in thread wound with silver and gold. Many more examples of 16th and 17th-century Russian vestments survive. They were made of spectacular damask imported from the Ottoman Empire or from Italy. The Russians chose these damasks because they were the richest fabrics the world had ever seen...

You can read the entire article over there, but I did want to conclude by sharing this Russian phelonion dated to 1652.

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