By Roksolana Kosiv | Lviv National Academy of Arts, Andrei Sheptytskyi National Museum in Lviv, Ukraine
The epitaphios from the church of the Archangel Michael in the village of Zhyrivka near Lviv is the only 15th-century Ruthenian work of this type and one of few surviving examples of medieval church embroidery in this region of Eastern Europe. The epitaphios (from Greek Ἐπιτάφιος – “above the tomb”) is a cloth with an image of the body of Christ. It is used in Lenten services two days before Easter, symbolizing the burial of Christ. The 15th-century Zhyrivka epitaphios entered the collection of the National Museum in Lviv in 1913 in exchange for a new epitaphios that was bought to the church. Since 1913, when the museum opened to the public, and until the beginning of Russia’s full-scale aggression against Ukraine in 2022, the Zhyrivka epitaphios was on permanent display for all to see, study, and appreciate.
The Zhyrivka epitaphios depicts a seven-figure scene of the Lamentation of Christ, including Theotokos, St. John the Theologian and four Archangels. The scene is symmetrical; the Virgin Mary sits on the left and St. John stands on the right of the reclining figure of Christ. Two angels stand behind the body of Christ to either side. The object was embroidered with colored silk, as well as gold and silver metal threads on a plain purple silk. On the back lining, there is a Latin inscription indicating that the epitaphios was renewed in April 1775, apparently transferred to another support – a patterned raspberry damask, which we see today. Presumably, the inscription “положенїє въ гробъ гда нашего іс ха” (entombment of our Lord Jesus Christ) on the front was also embroidered at that time. Only the Lamentation scene and the ciborium with a hanging lamp remained from the original embroidery. Probably, after that “renovation”, the epitaphios diminished in size; there are missing parts of the embroidery along the bottom which indicates that the edges of the original silk were damaged. There is no inscription of a troparion or a liturgical prayer on this embroidery, which is typical for most Byzantine epitaphioi. After the restoration in 2011–2013, the Zhyrivka epitaphios measured 61.5 x 111.8 cm (the 18th-century damask was transferred to a new plain silk base, thus the epitaphios became bigger).
The Zhyrivka epitaphios drew the attention of researchers as early as the end of the 19th century. It was exhibited at the Archaeological-Bibliographical Exhibition of the Stauropegion Institute in Lviv in 1888, and the following year it was first published in an album of the exhibition edited by Izydor Sharanevych. As a key object of Ukrainian church art, it has been published repeatedly since the late 19th century. In 1934, the epitaphios was presented at a retrospective exhibition of Ukrainian art in Warsaw.
The Zhyrivka epitaphios represents an abbreviated version of the Lamentation of Christ scene where only the Theotokos and St. John the Theologian are depicted as historical characters. In this example, the emphasis is on the symbolic liturgical significance of the iconography. The Virgin Mary holds the head of her Son on her lap and presses her cheek against His, which is an expression of deep spiritual grief and finds parallels with the iconography of Virgin Eleusa, where the Christ Child presses his cheek against the cheek of his mother. The Eucharistic meaning of the scene is emphasized by the angels with rhipidia (liturgical fans), which recall deacons during the consecration of gifts at the Liturgy. The body of Christ lies on the stone of anointing, like on an altar table. The ciborium with a lamp signifies the ciborium above an altar and the “eternal” lamp that is lit when the consecrated gifts are kept on the altar.
Similar abbreviated iconographies of the Lamentation scene are known on several late 14th–15th century epitaphioi from Eastern European cultural centers. These include the Cozia epitaphios of 1396, the Byzantine epitaphios of Metropolitan Photios (1408–31) (State Historical Museum, Moscow), the Russian “Puchezhska” from 1441 (Moscow Kremlin Museums), and the 15th century “Blue” epitaphioi (Sergiev-Posad Museum). Like the Zhyrivka epitaphios, these works depict the hands of the Savior one next to the other below his chest (except Cozia epitaphios). The epitaphios of Metropolitan Photios has a similar dark red silk background and the same size of the central scene. This testify that these epitaphioi were made after some common pattern or patterns, presumably of Byzantine origin. However, the differences in the proportion of figures, colors and the embroidery techniques means that they belonged to different workshops.
On the Zhyrivka epitaphios, the gesture of the right hand of Christ resembles a blessing. This can be related to the liturgical prayer, which mentions that Christ offered himself as a sacrifice and blesses this sacrifice as a high priest. By the end of the 15th century, the scene of the Lamentation on epitaphioi acquired a more historical characters, often with dramatic expression. In the 16th century, multi-figure scenes of the Lamentation with women myrrhbearers, Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus become widespread in the Eastern Christian context. Thus, the iconography indicates that the Zhyrivka epitaphios should be dated to the 15th century.
The Zhyrivka epitaphios find analogies in the icon painting from the Lviv and Peremyshl dioceses of the Ukrainian (then Ruthenian) Church. It is related to several 15th century icons, where certain disproportion in the figures (shorter lower parts), similar drawing techniques, and warm vibrant colors also occur. Like on the icons of that time, there are few golden and silver planes on the epitaphios. This indicates that the embroidery and icon painting workshops shared models and techniques at that time.
The embroidery of the epitaphios shows a complex technique called “by counting the stitches” and “following the shape” with silk, gold, and silver metal threads. The golden and silver threads are attached with silk in the same hue. According to the results of chemical analyses conducted by Myroslava Drul, flat silver wire was used for the silver metal thread, which is wound around the silk thread in the same hue. For the golden thread, gilded silver wire was used.
We assume that originally the Zhyrivka epitaphios could have belonged to a church in Lviv. In the 15th century, the use of epitaphioi in Ukrainian churches was likely not widespread, so its initial ownership by an ordinary parish church is questionable. The Zhyrivka epitaphios poses a question about the possible role of Metropolitan Photios (a Greek by origin, consecrated as Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Rus’ in 1408) who visited Halych and Lviv twice, in spreading the use of this type of epitaphioi in the churches of his metropolitanate. Probably, the epitaphios initially belonged to the group of “great veils”, which had liturgical functions. As far as can be traced, the ritual use of the epitaphioi in Ukrainian churches becomes widespread in the 17th century. This is indicated by records in liturgical books, occasional written testimonies, and preserved works (most of the extant 17th-century epitaphioi are painted in tempera on canvas).
The Zhyrivka epitaphios attests to the development of medieval church embroidery in the regions of modern Ukraine, which on the one hand was related to icon painting of that time, and on the other hand, represents the spread of a common artistic and liturgical tradition that was adopted from Byzantium and transformed in a local context.
Sharanevych, Izydor. Отчет из археологическо-библиографической выставки в Ставропигийском институте и опись фотографически снятых предметов той же выставки. Львов, 1889. Табл. XXII [Report from the Archaeological-Bibliographical Exhibition of the Stauropegion Institute and a description of photographed items from the same exhibition]. Lviv, 1889. Plate XXII.
The Zhyrivka epitaphios was published for the first time in this volume.
Swěnzizkyj-Swiatyzkyj, Ilarion. Die Ikonenmalerei der galizischen Ukraine d. XV – XVI. Jhr. Sammlungen des ukrainischen Nationalmuseums in Lwow. Lwow, 1928. Il. 25.
Book authored by the director of the National Museum in Lviv, Ilarion Svientsytsky, in which the Zhyrivka epitaphios is included.
Schilb, Henry. “Byzantine Identity and Its Patrons: Embroidered Aeres and Epitaphioi of the Palaiologan and Post-Byzantine Periods.” PhD Dissertation, Indiana University, 2009.
The most comprehensive research about the 14th–15th century epitaphioi with the catalog. The Zhyrivka epitaphios is not mentioned here.
Kosiv, Roksolana. “Воздух-плащаниця ‘Оплакування Христа’ XV ст. з Жирівки поблизу Львова: призначення, іконографія, художні особливості”. Збереження й дослідження історико-культурної спадщини в музейних зібраннях: історичні, мистецтвознавчі та музеологічні аспекти діяльності. Міжнародна наукова конференція. 25-27 вересня 2013 р. Львів: Національний музей у Львові імені Андрея Шептицького [“The 15th century Aer-epitaphios ‘Lamentation of Christ’ from Zhyrivka near Lviv: purpose, iconography, artistic features”. Preservation and research of historical and cultural heritage in museum collections: historical, art history and museological aspects of activity. International scientific conference. September 25-27, 2013. Lviv: Andrei Sheptytskyi National Museum in Lviv]. (2013): 278–285.
The most complete information about the Zhyrivka epitaphios.
This contribution was sponsored through the Research Fellowship on the Cultural Heritage of Ukraine, 2023.