By Roland Betancourt | University of California, Irvine
The Thessaloniki Epitaphios, on display at the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki, is an embroidered liturgical textile composed of silk, gold, and silver thread on linen (2.00 x 0.70 m). On stylistic grounds, the textile has been dated to around 1300, emerging out of a major textile workshop in Thessaloniki given the excellence of its embroidery. The work finds its closest stylistic and iconographic parallels with the monumental wall-paintings of the Virgin Peribleptos (now St. Clement) in Ohrid, commissioned by Andronikos II Palailogos (r. 1282–1328); the paintings from around 1290 in the church of the Protaton Monastery on Mount Athos; and, the related frescoes from 1303 in the parekklesion of St. Euthymios in Thessaloniki.
Beyond the stylistic resonances with the Protaton, there are other convincing Athonite connections to the textile, including a series of mid-16th-century frescoes of the Celestial Liturgy from the monasteries of the Great Lavra and Dochiariou, which echo its size and dimensions as well as its plausible use in the liturgy. Furthermore, a podea (an apron hung before an icon) in the treasury of Hilandar Monastery on Mount Athos has been associated with the same workshop as the Thessaloniki Epitaphios. These various Athonite associations suggest a potential monastic use and a connection between Athos and Thessaloniki that is corroborated by the broader contextual history between the two sites during the 13th and 14th centuries.
Discovered by Nikodim Kondakov in 1900 in the modern church of the Panagia Panagouda in Thessaloniki, the exact provenance or place of origin of the embroidery is unknown. Contextual evidence suggests that it was produced for the church of St. Panteleimon in Thessaloniki, which served as the katholikon of the Monastery of the Virgin Peribleptos, built around 1295–1315, and home to some of the key religious figures of the period. Given the quality and caliber of the object, it is likely that the textile was commissioned for the consecration of this church.
The Thessaloniki Epitaphios is unrivaled in the quality of its embroidery and its impeccably preserved state. Set inside a thick border of circumscribed crosses, there are three different scenes adjacent to one another and divided by a thin, decorative strip of embroidery.
In the center, there is the scene of the threnos or Lamentation, depicting the mourning of the sacrificed Christ. His recumbent body rests solemnly on a bier surrounded by angels, each labeled as “Angels of the Lord” (ἄγγελλος ΚΥ). The first two angels in the procession are dressed as deacons: the first carries a rhipidion (liturgical fan) depicting a seraph upon it, and the second carries one that reads “Holy, Holy, Holy” (ἅγιος ἅγιος ἅγιος), a detail that also runs down the carmine band on their garments. The angels following them are each labeled as well, but depicted as fully angelic bodies, clad in gold thread rather than the deacon garb, suggesting a blurring here between the earthly and celestial liturgies. While the first two are somber and sober in their approach, the third and fourth angels are distraught: the first stretches out covered hands toward the dead Christ while looking behind to the fourth angel who covers their mouth and clutches the side of their face in horror and grief. Below the Christ, other ranks of angels include two Thrones (winged wheels covered in eyes), a seraph (a face surrounded by six wings), and a cherub (depicted like a seraph, but with only four wings and holding a staff in the right hand). Both the seraph and cherub are labeled, “Holy, Holy, Holy” around their figures. At the four corners are depictions of the four Evangelists, labeled by name: John, Mark, Luke, and Matthew (moving clockwise from the top left), all looking toward the Christ.
On the left and right scenes, the Communion of the Apostles is depicted: the communion with the wine is shown on the left and that with the bread on the right. The two scenes are very similar in their iconography, yet they are compositionally mirrored. In both scenes, six Apostles approach Christ, who is surrounded by two deacon-angels similar in appearance and attire to the ones in the Lamentation scene at the center. The center-most angel in both scenes carries a circular rhipidion featuring a seraph, just as in the central scene of the textile. The scene on the left with the communion of the wine is inscribed in the top-right corner with the words of institution: “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant” (Matthew 26:27-28), though the text features phonetic variation from late-medieval Greek. Likewise, the right scene with the communion of the bread is inscribed in the top-left corner with the words: “Take, eat; this is my body” (Matthew 26:26), with similar phonetic divergences.
What is an epitaphios? While a textile known as an epitaphios is used today in the Eastern Orthodox Church on Holy Saturday, where it is deposited upon a tomb erected in the center of the naos, the uses of similarly named textiles in the Late Byzantine Church are less known. Particularly, the term epitaphios is used interchangeably with the Great Aër. Although aër usually refers to smaller textiles used to cover the chalice and paten, more precisely known as the poterokalymma (chalice veil) and the diskokalymma (paten veil), the Great Aër is a textile comparable in scale to the Thessaloniki Epitaphios. At that time it was also referred to as an epitaphios since it usually depicted the figure of the dead Christ upon the tomb and was used to cover both the chalice and paten (i.e. the body of Christ) upon the altar. The textile was carried around the shoulders, over the head, or by several figures during the Great Entrance, when the Holy Gifts (the bread and wine) were brought into the sanctuary at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Faithful in the Divine Liturgy. Depictions of the Great Aër or epitaphios can be found in several monumental wall-paintings depicting the Celestial Liturgy, particularly at the moment of the Great Entrance, as seen in the church of St. Demetrios at the Markov Monastery in Skopje, Macedonia from 1375, and the church of St. Anthony in Vrontisi, Crete from 1425–50.
How is the iconography of the Thessaloniki Epitaphios unique? While other examples of epitaphioi depict the dead Christ, often surrounded by angels, the overall iconographic arrangement and composition of the textile is unique. Most notably, the epitaphios is oddly long in width, standing at 2.00 x 0.70 meters, when compared to its squarer counterparts. One scholar has even suggested that the Thessaloniki Epitaphios was composed of two little aëres, depicting the Communion of the Apostles, united with a Great Aër, depicting the Lamentation, in order to justify its odd proportions. Nevertheless, the textile demonstrates a great deal of coherence and uniformity that challenges this reading, suggesting that the composition is intentional. This unique composition is likely to be the result of the usage of this particular textile during the Great Entrance. Most notably, the Communion with the wine and bread are inverted in their reading from left to right, an odd iconographic composition that is heightened by the placement of Christ at the far ends of the textile, rather than at the center abutting the Lamentation. While the Great Aër/epitaphios is a large textile, often spanning the bodies of several participants, the more intimate scale of this example suggests that its usage was somewhere between the chalice and paten veils and the Great Aër. Therefore, the scale, composition, and iconography of the textile suggest a particular and unique form of use.
How was it used? It is likely that the Thessaloniki Epitaphios was wrapped around the shoulders of those carrying the rhipidia or even the chalice or patent as is attested in several mid-16th-century frescoes of the Celestial Liturgy from the Great Lavra and Dochiariou monasteries, as well on the so-called ‘Pulcheria’ Panagiarion at the Xeropotamou Monastery on Mount Athos, Greece from the 14th century. This usage would have brought together the scene of the Communion of the Apostles in their expected order in the front of the wearer’s bodies, resolving the oddities of the epitaphios’ iconographic program and composition.
The closest extant textile to the Thessaloniki Epitaphios is the recently discovered Valadoros Epitaphios at the Benaki Museum in Athens, which bears a striking stylistic, compositional, and iconographic resemblance to the threnos scene. These two textiles are directly connected, and it is plausible, if not likely, that they were produced for the same church.
Betancourt, Roland. “The Thessaloniki Epitaphios: Notes on Use and Context.” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 55 (2015): 489–535.
This essay offers a comprehensive look at the Thessaloniki Epitaphios, providing a synthesis and summary of the research to date on the piece, while also providing an analytic study of the iconographic oddities of the textile and its function within the liturgy.
Bouras, Laskarina. “The Epitaphios of Thessaloniki Byzantine Museum of Athens No 685.” In L’art de Thessalonique et de pays balkaniques et les courants spirituals au XIVe siecle, Recueil des rapports du IVe colloque Serbo-Grec Belgrade 1985, edited by Radovan Samardžić and Dinko Davidov, 211–231. Belgrade: Institut des Études Balkaniques, 1987.
This essay provides an introductory survey to the Thessaloniki Epitaphios and its historical context.
Johnstone, Pauline. The Byzantine Tradition in Church Embroidery. London: Tiranti, 1967.
A classic study of religious embroidery in the Byzantine tradition that catalogues the various terms and terminology associated with different types of textiles and their uses, while placing them in the socio-economic context of their production.
Muthesius, Anna. Studies in Silk in Byzantium. London: Pindar Press, 2004.
A survey of silk in Byzantium across matters of trade, industry, ritual, and intercultural exchange. The book features a chapter on the Thessaloniki Epitaphios, providing a technical examination of the textile alongside images.
Schilb, Henry. “Byzantine Identity and its Patrons: Embroidered Aëres and Epitaphioi of the Palaiologan and Post-Byzantine Periods.” PhD Dissertation, Indiana University, 2009.
This dissertation provides a detailed analysis of the typological differences between aëres and epitaphioi in the late- and post-Byzantine periods as distinctions between the two were concretized. It is a comprehensive survey of the extant exemplars of these textiles.
Woodfin, Warren T. The Embodied Icon: Liturgical Vestments and Sacramental Power in Byzantium. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
This book offers a survey of liturgical textiles in Byzantium, taking into consideration liturgical evidence, church history, and theology. The text animates these objects to understand them on the body of their wearers and users during the course of the liturgy and its ancillary rites.
This contribution was sponsored by the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at Hellenic College Holy Cross.