About Vestments

Kenneth asks: At what point in history did bishops start wearing uniforms and crowns?

Answer: The earliest vestments, the alb and the variants of the chasuble (as well as the deacon’s dalmatic), can be traced back to the time of the Apostles and in fact have Old Testament origins. Crowns and more ornate versions of the liturgical vestments would not develop until after the conversion of the Roman Empire by St Constantine the Great to Christianity in 313. Fourth century councils would legislate on the use of certain vestments by various classes of clergy, which have come down to the traditional vestments Orthodox wear today!

As you can see from this miracle-working icon of St Nicholas during the iconoclastic period (around 400 years after the legalization of Christianity), the traditional Bishop’s vestments were already well set by then. st-nicholas-o-streidas

Kenneth responds: Yeah nice piece of proof (if its genuinely that old) on uniforms. Nothing on crowns though, or specifically gold vestments (Peter said he had no gold).

Quote “The earliest vestments, the alb and the variants of the chasuble (as well as the deacon’s dalmatic), can be traced back to the time of the Apostles and in fact have Old Testament origins.” Ok prove that for me please. You are saying the Apostles wore those garments? Trace that proof for me thanks”.

Nota Bene: My Western Rite side is about to come out.

Well, putting aside the old testament origins of priestly vestments, Christian vestments can certainly be traced back to the Apostles, as they were part of the garb of Greco-Roman society in the early centuries of Christianity (example: the chasuble). As the society changed, the vestments didn’t, as clergy were not to adapt to the latest fashions.

As for the “gold”… well, as much as I hate to be the one to say this… a lot of it isn’t real.

While in many cases vestments (which were the property of the Church, not the Bishops) would often be refitted and adorned with goldwork by emperors over the centuries, for regular clergy, that’s not really the case. Here’s an example.

That comes from my zona (or cincture– it’s a liturgical belt) with lovely gold cross patternwork. I have a whole red vestment set like that. My wife made it: the cost? $9.00/yard. Now I can already see you say “that’s modern, though, they didn’t make cheap goldwork back then” except that’s not actually true either.

As for the crowns, you’re also off the mark there. Don’t believe me? Try “orthodox bishop mitre” on eBay.

How much do you really think adding a sterling silver-plated cross adds to the cost? (Hint: not much.) One could argue that silver-plating is still new, and it would have been pure silver on the cross. How much would that add? (Hint: still not much.) Most of the cost of these items are due to craftsmanship, not materials.

I will add the horrendous massacre caused by the Soviets in the 20th century. Were they interested in stealing the vestments from the Church? Maybe the crosses off the hats, but mostly they “liquidated” chalices and gold coverings on images of Christ and the Saints, not vestments, because they knew the value of the solid metals. In other words, the most expensive items in the Churches to steal weren’t the vestments by any means.

Now, there are occasional cases where you will find some clergy spend thousands for real goldwork for special occasions. Such clergy are usually condemned by the people, a sign that Orthodox Christians in general are not big fans of seeing clergy decked in gold and jewels. We want to see the best for the service of the Lord: we are far less interested in covering our clergy with bling.