Origins of Orthodox Vestments: Ancillary Vestment Pieces

Having surveyed the origins of the most significant pieces of Orthodox liturgical vesture, it now remains to consider a few auxiliary garments.

Zone (Belt)

Zone (Belt)

The first of these is the zone, or belt, presently used by both presbyters and bishops. It is likely to remain impossible to establish this garment’s precise time and place of origin since in any visual representation a zone would be hidden by over garments and it is rarely mentioned in any early documents. This is an understandable omission, for such a small detail of clothing, while practical and necessary, is easily overlooked. However, we can presume the zones early usage due to the fact that many ancient forms of the tunic had folds held in place by some kind of girdle or belt, a necessary measure for the management of a voluminous garment. The zone almost certainly came into use as a practical garment but in time it took on symbolic significance. 
Its theological meaning was firmly rooted by the time of St Germanos (Patriarch of Constantinople from 715-730) who states, “The belt signifies that [the priest] wears the mortification of the body and chastity, having girded his loins with the power of truth: The humble zone stands as a perfect example of how practical garments came to be imbued with theological symbolism in their evolution from daily wear to liturgical usage.

Epimanikia (Cuffs)

With the epimanikia, or cuffs, we find yet again a lack of precise information as to initial usage. We do know that they were first used by bishops who in later centuries then awarded the dignity of their use to presbyters and deacons. They were perhaps a fairly late addition as they are not mentioned in St. Germanos’ On the Divine Liturgy (eighth century) or any earlier documents; their first mention as a liturgical garment is not until 1054 in a letter written by Peter of Antioch. However, this absence of mention may simply be due to the fact that unadorned cuffs could have been used in much the same way as the zone, that is to contain the voluminous sleeves of the tunic for practicality and, so may have not been considered a specialized garment associated only with vestments until they began to assume a highly embellished and decorative form which was more suitable to the character of an award piece. 
In the mosaics of San Vitale, Justinian is shown with bands around the sleeves of his tunica talaris, which could either be a decorative element of the actual tunic itself or removable cuffs worn to narrow the sleeves. Christ is depicted with similar bands, as is Melchizedek and the Evangelist Mark. In fact, it is interesting to note that in the mosaics of San Vitale, every single figure, whether male, female, or angelic, is depicted wearing some kind of banding at the wrist to gather in the full sleeves of their tunics (the only exception is the depiction of the four angels in the apse). At Sant’ Apollinare in Classe the titular saint is shown with the same bands as those at San Vitale and the Emperor Constantine IV wears a more elaborate version of the cuffs that more closely resemble the epimanikia in use in modern times.


As with the omophorion, the origins of the epigonation have been a subject of much debate among scholars. Many authors trace its origins to a handkerchief or to the maniple of the West, but this appears unlikely. All evidence points to the consistent use of the epigonation as an award piece, given as a mark of service or favor. The piece was originally referred to as an encherion. From the earliest depictions of epigonatia in iconography, they are shown to be highly embellished, usually by heavy gold and metal embroidery and the use of jewels. This lozenge shaped, stiff, lavishly ornamented piece is far removed from any square, limp handkerchief. Additionally, the purpose of a handkerchief or napkin does not readily suggest its adoption as a garment that is to be granted specifically as an award. We find a very compelling alternate theory of the origins of the epigonation, however, if we consider the garments of the Byzantine court, specifically the cloak-like garment of courtiers, called the paludamentum, which was worn in the sideways fashion of the ancient pallium, resting upon the left shoulder and fastened at the right with a fibula. On this paludamentum was an often elaborate piece of decoration in the form of a lozenge situated over the right hip of the wearer, called the tablion, which was an integral feature of Byzantine male court dress from the fifth to tenth centuries.
The most exquisite and elaborate decoration of the courtier’s costume was often reserved for the tablion and in this the tablion exactly corresponds to the epigonation’s use among the Church’s vestments as that of a highly ornamented award piece. Due to its limited size and its use as an award piece, some of the finest examples of Orthodox embroidered iconography are found on epigonatia, many of which are on display in museums and monasteries to this day. Central motifs can include Christ, the Theotokos, or any of the Great Feasts, and surrounding this primary motif are often intricate vine work and floral designs. It seems certain that the epigonation was first bestowed upon bishops and “had become a regular item of liturgical dress….” and then much later, most likely after the eleventh century, was awarded to presbyters for distinctive service. Its modern usage underscores this ancient practice in that it is awarded to presbyters in various Orthodox jurisdictions for either the completion of formal theological training, the blessing of hearing confession, or in recognition of a lengthy and distinguished period of priestly service.
In the epigonation may also be found the origins of the Russian nabedrennik , another presbyteral award piece, similar in size but in a horizontal, rather than trapezoidal, orientation and usually lacking the elaborate decoration that may adorn the epigonation. J.W. Legg, in his Church Ornaments and their Civil Antecedents, is the only author I have found that argues for the origin of the epigonation in the tablion. While Legg’s view is considered by one respected scholar “an intuitive leap without underpinnings from visual or textual sources” (Warren Woodfin, “On Late Byzantine Liturgical Vestments and the Iconography of Sacerdotal Power,” doctoral dissertation, 1999, p. 30), as a tailor I find Legg’s argument cogent and compelling given the perfect correspondence in size and usage between the epigonation and tablion, especially given the fundamental design differences between a garment that is supposed to drape (e.g., a handkerchief) and one that is supposed to be rigid (e.g., a tablion or epigonation). Draping and rigidity are completely opposed tailoring goals and require very different modes of construction.

Further Development of Bishops’ Vestments

The last, significant piece of Orthodox Christian vesture that needs to be examined in a study of the origins of Church vestments is the bishop’s sakkos. Up until the Middle Byzantine period (AD 867-1204) the bishop was vested in sticharion, epitrachelion, zone, epimanikia, epigonation, phelonion, and omophorion. Sometime around the eleventh to twelfth century, the episcopal phelonion underwent a new development and began to be made from polystavros material, a woven fabric with a geometric design of crosses (“polystavros” means “many crosses” in Greek). The use of this fabric for phelonia was the exclusive right of bishops, and, originally, only for the bishops in the sees of Caesarea, Ephesus, Thessaloniki, and Corinth. By the fifteenth century, St Symeon of Thessaloniki refers to use of the polystavros as a privilege of all metropolitans  and from that point its use trickles down to all bishops and then, eventually, to presbyters as well. With this extension of the polystavros phelonion from certain episcopal sees to the entire episcopacy and thence to the entire presbyterate, we see how the award of vestments takes place and why, over time, vestments that originally were the prerogative of the episcopacy are now worn even by deacons (e.g., epimanikia).
Regarding the sakkos, sometime during the same period there comes a fascinating shift, which results directly from the political fate of Byzantium. During the Middle Byzantine period the power of the emperors began to decline due to various socio-political developments, and the populace of Byzantium began to place more emphasis upon the power of heaven than upon the earthly power of the emperor. The idea of the court of Byzantium as a mirror image of the Heavenly Court became widespread and there was a freer interchange of symbology between earthly and heavenly. It was during this time that the garment previously exclusive to the emperor, the sakkos, began to replace the phelonion in the episcopal liturgical attire, first of patriarchs, then gradually of all bishops. Just like the polystavros phelonion, there was a trickle-down effect: at first, only the patriarch was allowed the wearing of the sakkos, as is mentioned by Theodore Balsamon in the twelfth century, but by the fifteenth century, St Symeon of Thessaloniki recounts that all archbishops were allowed its use. 
All of the other historic 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 with its connotations of spiritual authority now eclipsing even the highest earthly authority. In construction, the bishop’s sakkos is a highly ornamented colobium. It is similar to the deacon’s sticharion, but is worn shorter, most likely a necessary feature due to its use of heavy and ornate fabrics and also possibly so that any ornamentation on the sticharion and epitrachelion might be seen, an example of the layered fashion much beloved of the Byzantines. The sleeves of the bishop’s sakkos are often shorter as well, the better to display the elaborately embellished epimanikia worn on the sleeves of the sticharion underneath. Today, we most commonly see a bishop attired in sakkos with omophorion, now referred to as the “great” omophorion to distinguish it from an abbreviated form, the “small” omophorion. In the course of the Divine Liturgy, the bishop removes the great omophorion and replaces it with the much shorter small omophorion so that he is less encumbered for the Anaphora prayers and Communion. These two omophoria are nearly always matching in fabric and decoration since they are essentially two forms of the same garment. The episcopal miter, the heavily ornamented crown featuring metal-thread embroidery and iconographic depictions, was a quite late addition to Orthodox Christian practice. Originally, the use of headgear during a liturgical service was reserved as a special right of the patriarch of Alexandria and the use of the miter was only taken up by other bishops when the patriarch of Alexandria was translated to Constantinople in the seventeenth century.


With this overview of ancient garment history, culminating in the standardization of Orthodox liturgical vesture in the early Byzantine Roman Empire, we clearly observe a methodical and ordered development, particularly in the transformation of Roman imperial, ceremonial garments into Orthodox ecclesiastical garments. Contrary to popular and some scholarly opinion, Orthodox Christian vestments did not emerge from a random evolution, but rather are the result of a focused development stemming from a conscious endeavor to redeem the garments of the pomp of the world and transform them into the glorious, heavenly garments of salvation. Our beautiful vestment tradition is no mere accident of history but rather an important facet of the story of salvation and, as such, can not be relegated to the realm of aesthetic preference, but must take its proper historical and spiritual place as a visible testament to our theology, an expression of the love and mercy of God, and the proper adornment of the Church of Christ.
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  1. Sisters Bless
    I am a Protodeacon in the Serbian Orthodox Church in America. I have asked several Clergy why their is no specific Pray when you are vesting yourself with your Orarion, as this is the Symbol of his office. Do you have ant knowledge as why this is.
    I pray that you all are healthy. Please pray for the World.
    Slave of Christ-God
    Protodeacon Triva Pavlov
    a sinner

    1. Dear Father Triva, many priests wonder why there is no such prayer. Some fathers read “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Sabaoth; heaven and earth are full of Thy glory; hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord, hosanna in the highest” while putting on orarion.

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