New York Exhibition Showcases Clothes Designed for Heaven

Textiles (like this 17th-century silk) were woven with crosses in the Ottoman Empire even after the fall of Byzantium (Photo: METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART)
Textiles (like this 17th-century silk) were woven with crosses in the Ottoman Empire even after the fall of Byzantium (Photo: METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART)

A New York exhibition shows how liturgical vestments embodied a language of belief

I had grown used to seeing in museums gryphons and suchlike fabulous beasts woven into textiles that had been produced more than 1,000 years ago in Syria and other lands of the Islamic world but then used to make liturgical vestments and the linings of reliquaries. But I had not realised that, after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, textiles incorporating the Cross continued to be produced in the Ottoman Empire for use by Orthodox Christians there and in Muscovy.

Some of are on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in a fascinating exhibition, Liturgical Textiles of the Post-Byzantine World, on until the end of October. I have not seen it, but a New York professor, Warren T Woodfin, has written some interesting things about it.

He rightly stresses that figured vestments were not “merely a means of self-aggrandisement by the clergy; rather, they point beyond themselves to the mysteries of the liturgy as a dramatic reenactment of the life of Christ and microcosm of the divine kingdom”.

St James, dressed as for the divine liturgy, painted in Greece by Stephanos Tzangarolas in 1688.
St James, dressed as for the divine liturgy, painted in Greece by Stephanos Tzangarolas in 1688.

Looking at an icon such as that of St James painted in Greece by Stephanos Tzangarolas in 1688 (pictured), a Westerner recognises that the saint is dressed as for the divine liturgy, but the vestments do not quite match those of the Latin Church.

Like Latin vestments they had derived from the ordinary formal wear of the late Roman Empire. So the Roman paenula, a sort of cloak, developed into the chasuble, which the priest wears at Mass in the Latin Church. In the Greek Church it became the phelonion, which in the picture of St James is covered with a starry, floral motif resembling a field of crosses.

Beneath that, St James wears a garment patterned with different coloured flowers (the sticharion, the equivalent of the Latin alb). This derived from the plain linen tunic that everyone wore. In the West, as a liturgical garment, it was consciously connected to the metaphorical whiteness worked by the cleansing waters of baptism. As the priest put it on before Mass each day, he would say a prayer beginning Dealba me, Domine, et munda cor meum: “Make me white, O Lord, and cleanse my heart.”

This invokes a passage in the book of Revelation about those who have mystically washed their clothes in the blood of the Lamb. Verbally it also recalls the familiar Psalm 51, recited at the Asperges, the sprinkling of holy water: Lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor: “ Thou wilt wash me, and I shall be washed whiter than snow.”

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SOURCE: The Telegraph

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