On Breaking and Cutting the Bread, or Why Did the Knife Appear?

The knife has been used for cutting the Bread for a long time. Priests in Constantinople started to use it in the early 8th century. Until that time, the Bread had been broken by hand. That was why they would cut it in four while baking, so that it could be more conveniently broken into the required four parts.

Due to the fact that the Proskomedia (Prothesis) emerged relatively late, the knife (the spear) began to be used simultaneously with the custom of cutting the Lamb out of the prosphora instead of using the full prosphora.

The earliest mention of the antidoron, i.e., of cutting the Lamb out of a round loaf, can be found in the 11th-century copy of the Explanation of the Liturgy by Herman of Constantinople.

An 11th-century Ochrid fresco of St. Basil the Great celebrating the Liturgy, located in St. Sophia Cathedral, still shows a round loaf of bread on the diskos. However, a mosaic depicting the Eucharist in St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev clearly shows a knife in the scene of the Holy Offering!

The Eucharist. A mosaic in St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev. 11th century.

The mosaic of the Eucharist, located in St. Michael Golden-Dome Monastery (12th century) contains images of the knife, the spoon, and the star. In fact, the star can be seen in the mosaic of St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, too. In addition, a fresco in St. Cyril Church in Kiev (13th century) also shows a brush to sweep breadcrumbs from the Holy Table and the diskos.

Having mentioned the star, we have to point out that this liturgical item has been known since the 5th century and was discovered in the treasure of the Zion Monastery (6th century) along with other utensils. Interestingly enough, the Star was often placed directly onto the diskos and could not be removed.

What Did the Spoon, the Star, and the Spear Symbolize in Various Centuries?

When the Antiochian liturgical practices, brought to Constantinople by St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom, became widespread, many liturgical utensils acquired symbolic meanings and many rituals of the Eucharist were reinterpreted as sacred mysteries. Soon, the Chalice came to be perceived as the Theotokos who gave her blood to the Savior. The diskos was originally interpreted as the Throne of the Eternal One, and later as the Bethlehem crib Baby Jesus lay in. Accordingly, the Star that kept the veil from touching the Lamb on the diskos, symbolized the star that had led the Magi to the place where Jesus had been born. The Spear, as mentioned earlier, became a symbol of the weapon with which the Savior’s chest was pierced on Golgotha. The Spoon was taken to symbolize the tongs with which the Angel put a special spiritual coal of prophecy into Isaiah’s mouth. Regardless of the actual shapes of the vessels, this symbolism was maintained over centuries.

We can see on a mosaic of St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev that the diskos acquired a leg, which made picking it up from the table easier. Thanks to that leg, the diskos acquired an additional meaning and started to point at the two natures of Christ: the divine and the human.

A jug with two handles sometimes transformed into a cup with two handles. We can see some of those in St. Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod and in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. They were brought there from Constantinople.

Two-Handled Cup (krater) from St. Sophia Cathedral. Novgorod. 11th century.

Chalices became more and more exquisite and grew longer legs to match the aesthetic concepts of their time. They were adorned with precious gemstones, enamel, filigree, chiseling, and engraving.

Two-Handled Cone-Shaped Chalice, 11th century.
Two-Handled Chalice, 10th century.

Other liturgical items became more adorned, too.

Although there were such lavishly adorned vessels in the magnificent cathedrals and wealthy monasteries, other Russian sketes and poor monasteries used wooden chalices and diskoses. Rural parishes could only afford tin vessels for the Eucharist.

Nowadays, gilded brass chalices, diskoses, stars, and spoons are the most widely used Eucharist vessels.

The Church emphasizes the importance of those vessels’ contents. Although the Church does her best to adorn these vessels to honor the Mystery of Eucharist, She remembers that there is no earthly wealth that can communicate the glory of Him who truly sanctifies liturgical vessels as well as his faithful servants with his Body and Blood; who unites with us as the Eternal Offering for every person and as a loving Brother who pours his Blood of everlasting life into our veins.

Translated by The Catalog of Good Deeds

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