Monday, November 5, 2012


Warren T. Woodfin, The Embodied Icon: Liturgical Vestments and Sacramental Power in Byzantium. Oxford studies in Byzantium. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xxxv, 339; 16 p. of plates. ISBN 9780199592098. $125.00.

Reviewed by Jennifer Ball, Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, City University of NY (

Version at BMCR home site


The Embodied Icon: Liturgical Vestments and Sacramental Power in Byzantium explores the rise of embroidered vestments in the Byzantine Orthodox Church and the progressive elaboration of the subjects rendered. The book begins with basic descriptions of the garments and their subjects, moving into their meanings not only within the liturgy but also within society at large. Ultimately Woodfin argues that embroidered liturgical vestments need to be understood within the larger system of Byzantine dress that controlled secular, especially imperial and court dress; perhaps more significantly, he also argues that these textiles fall within the Byzantine world view which saw everything on earth as a reflection of the heavenly sphere. The five chapters are supplemented by three appendices: a list of extant embroidered vestments, a list of descriptions of vestments from Byzantine literature, and, finally, prayers concerning vesting from the Textus Receptus. This book is densely packed with reference material in addition to the evidence used to support Woodfin's scholarly arguments, making it very useful for the Byzantine scholar, as well as to dress and liturgical historians.

The Embodied Icon brings a subject to light that has been essentially ignored for over forty years; Byzantine church embroideries were last fully explored in Pauline Johnstone's 1967 book on the subject (The Byzantine Tradition in Church Embroidery). The reader should not assume that church embroidery was, therefore, unimportant to the Byzantines or that the topic has been ignored due to a lack of surviving examples; Woodfin compiles eighty examples of surviving embroidery in his appendix. In part, these objects have been ignored because they are textiles , but in addition, Woodfin points out that scholars have assumed that liturgical dress was static. While the field of subjects used in embroidered vestments was limited to a small number of feast scenes, the Deesis, and Eucharistic scenes, Woodfin demonstrates that the use of embroidered ornamentation itself is a remarkable change in the history of Byzantine vestments more generally. Embroidery on ecclesiastical garments not only increases over time but it also becomes more elaborate in its referents and role in the liturgy.

The introduction presents the main arguments of the book and reviews the state of the field. Of special note are Woodfin's descriptions of the technique of embroidery. He carefully and clearly describes the major embroidery stitches with the eye of one who has studied these objects closely, likely with the aid of a microscope. Importantly, the embroiderer's craft comes to life and does not require specialized knowledge of the reader ; Woodfin makes his subject accessible to the broader field of Byzantine studies and demonstrates why these objects matter outside of the sanctuary of the Byzantine church.

As the title suggests, in Chapter 1, "The Vestments of the Byzantine Rite Described," Woodfin defines and illustrates the liturgical vestments used by the Byzantines for each rank, deacon, priest, bishop, and patriarch. Embroidery begins to be used regularly in the eleventh century, becoming increasingly complex and more frequently used as the Byzantine Empire draws to a close in the fifteenth century. Woodfin uses economic metaphors to argue for an'inflation' in the use of embroidery: the higher the office, the more embroidered insignia was used over time. The analysis using the inflationary model here was too brief leaving open questions as to the connection between this phenomenon and the wealth of the church itself especially in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries when the Empire was coming into hard times. This chapter is, however, a sound orientation to anyone who is unfamiliar with vestments. Here again Woodfin gives us a much- needed update as the most recent complete study of vestments dates to 1907.1 Karel Innemée's 1992 text is extremely useful, but more limited in its scope looking at Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian vestments.2

In Chapter 2, "Moving Pictures: Embroidered Vestments and the Iconography of the Church Interior," Woodfin takes up the iconography found on these vestments. It is difficult to argue, as Woodfin does, that vestments are dynamic, because the iconography is almost immutable from the eleventh through fifteenth centuries. Furthermore, Woodfin points out that the embroidered images mirror painted images on the walls around the officiants as they performed their liturgical duties, making them feel even more staid. However, he helps the reader see these vestments in conversation with their surroundings, and even with each other. For example, he shows how the cuffs of a bishop, epimanikia, depict the Annunciation with the Archangel and Virgin framing the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, being prepared between his hands enacting the Incarnation.3 Woodfin also addresses how these vestments would have looked on bodies during the mass, flat and heavy but easily visible to the congregation. He argues that the incorporeality of figures in Byzantine wall paintings, typically depicting saints at the lower levels near the clergy, is visually parallel to the clergy in their stiff garments, a well-observed detail that brings these objects to life in the reader's imagination.

Chapter 3, "Liturgical Mystagogy and the Embroidered Image," begins the meatiest part of Woodfin's arguments. He argues that these vestments allowed the clergy to actually become Christ through liturgical reenactments that were echoed by the iconography and positioning of the garments. He argues that the embroidered imagery supported mystagogical interpretations of the Eucharist and other rites performed. For example, the Great Entrance, which recalls the Entry into Jerusalem, among other things, is led by a sakkos-wearing clergyman covered with feast scenes that reference the Eucharist. Notably festal scenes that fit in chronologically, but are not Eucharistic, are omitted from the garment. For someone not well versed in Byzantine mystagogy, such as this reviewer, I was pleased that Woodfin lays out the symbolism of the liturgy and the deeper meanings.

Part II, "Liturgical Vestments in Byzantine Society" containing chapters 4 and 5, leaves behind the progression of the first three sections. Woodfin goes into a broad analysis of this embroidered decoration outside of the church, and in Byzantine society more generally. The story of Byzantine liturgical embroideries would not be complete without this meta-analysis in which Woodfin demonstrates the centrality of the iconography of the Byzantine liturgy outside of the church. Woodfin contends in one of the most convincing parts of the book that the iconography of vestments is aware of and borrows from imperial and court dress. The inflationary model used to describe the embroidery earlier in the book here finds a parallel phenomenon in court insignia. Woodfin in this chapter adds to several recent studies on Byzantine secular dress, including my own, importantly reminding us not to separate the sacred from the profane as the Byzantines themselves likely did not.4

While much of Byzantine studies focuses on the primacy of the emperor, Chapter 4 "Earthly Rivalry: Imperial and Ecclesiastical Dress" reminds us that the Emperor's rule was limited by the Patriarch and that Church and State were sometimes in competition, especially when inside the walls of the church. The Emperor was often presented in the image of the angels, as the Patriarch was presented in the image of Christ in the Byzantine rite, particularly that of the Eucharist. Woodfin describes the iconographical system inside the church as a rival the Imperial system, lending further support to the dynamism of these embroidered garments.

In Chapter 5, "As it is in Heaven: Vesture and the Unseen World," Woodfin explains that the Emperor's garments express his position at the top of an earthly hierarchy. The episcopate, however, was inextricably linked with heaven, mirroring Christ (the Patriarch/bishops) and his angel supporters (priests/deacons). The Emperor when inside the church too became one of these angels, playing the role of deacon in his actions and dress. Not only do the vestments point to place of the episcopate in this theological system, which notably supersedes the earthly and imperial one, but also the Emperor, when partaking in the liturgy too is part of this Heavenly hierarchy.

Woodfin's book analyzes liturgical embroideries putting them in their broadest context and arguing for their understanding outside of the church. He successfully upends the old view that Imperial iconography survived after Byzantine times in Byzantine liturgical garments, as if appropriated at the fall of the Empire, by showing the continuous dialogue between imperial and ecclesiastical vestments dating back to the eleventh century. His careful attention to the objects themselves and his deep knowledge of Byzantine liturgical texts is one of the strengths of this text. Furthermore he calls on modern, more theoretically minded studies of dress and painting to shore up his understanding of these objects. Despite his contemporary understanding of the semiotics and anthropology of dress, he unfortunately continues to use the term "costume," which has generally been abandoned by dress historians for being misleading and narrow. This is a minor complaint, however, about a book that will not only serve as a great resource but will also reorient many readers' view of liturgical garments to one that shows them in conversation with the complicated language of Byzantine dress more generally.


1.   Joseph Braun. Die liturgische Gewandung im Occident und Orient nach Ursprung und Entwicklung, Verwendung und Symbolik Freiburg im Breisgau, 1907.
2.   Karel C. Innemée. Ecclesiastical Dress in the Medieval Near East. Leiden, 1992.
3.   Woodfin, p. 100-1.
4.   Recent studies on dress include Jennifer Ball. Byzantine Dress: Representations of Secular Dress in Eighth- to Twelfth-century Painting New York: Palgrave, 2005, and Maria Parani. Reconstructing the Reality of Images: Byzantine Material Culture and Religious Iconography (11th-15th centuries). Leiden: Brill, 2003.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.