Epitaphioi, Introduction

3 November 2011

The epitaphios is a liturgical ornament which is used today in the Good Friday service. During Vespers it is brought in procession out of the sanctuary and placed under a canopy – or on a simple table on Mount Athos – which stands in the centre of the church, for the veneration of the faithful. In the course of Matins of Easter Eve, after it has been carried in procession outside the church, at the end of the Te Deum, it is placed on the altar, where it remains until Ascension Day.

The epitaphios of Vatopaidi belongs to the purely liturgical type which is derived from the large aer. Its decoration shows the dead Christ, depicted as a eucharistic allegory of the Lamb of God, “King of all things, attended by the angelic powers” – to quote from the Great Entrance*.

In the worship offered by the angelic powers the community of the faithful, which, in the vision of Revelation is shown gathered round the altar on which is the Lamb, “who was, and is, and is to come”3, participates through the Liturgy. As in the Revelation, the Christ of the aer also has an eschatological meaning: it is the image of the Coming which will take place before the host of men and of angels. It is this theology which is encapsulated in the Vatopaidi epita­phios. Angel-deacons are shown ministering with the flabella in the four corners of the ornament, and all the angels “stood around the throne”4, where the Lamb ‘stood … as it had been slain”5. But the heavenly powers will also be present at the Second Coming. The dead Jesus, the king of Glory, who lies on the altar, is at the same time the Saviour who has sacrificed Himself, and the Judge6.