Chasuble, Introduction

3 November 2011

The chasuble (phelonion) was used both by the clergy and laity before the 5th century, but as an overcoat worn on journeys. It was bell-shaped, without sleeves, and covered the whole of the body, with a hole in the upper part for the head to pass through. The earliest writers to describe the phelonion as a sacred vestment are pseudo-Germanus and the Patriarch of Constantinople Nicephorus (9th century), who sent as a gift to Pope Leo III, among other vestments, “a chestnut-brown phelonion”. To begin with, this vestment was worn by both presbyters and bishops, the only difference being that that of the bishop was white, decorated with crosses (polystavrion*) and with triangles and L-shaped motifs. During the 12th century, the authors (Balsamon, Zonaras) tell us, it was a garment special to the Patriarch. After the 15th century, its use became general among bishops. It always had a woven polystavrion decoration and was white, the colour symbolising, according to some liturgiologists, the clothing of baptism. The decoration with crosses speaks of the glory of the Cross. After the Fall of Cosntantinople, the phelonion gave place to the dalmatic (sakkos) in the case of bishops; this often bore the same decoration with crosses. The phelonion remained the distinctive vestment of priests. The usual scene depicted on chasubles is, as here, the Great Deisis, or it may be the Theotokos flanked by prophets, as in the case of another phelonion of the Vatopaidi Monastery.