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In the Ortho­dox Church the cler­gy vest in spe­cial cloth­ing for the litur­gi­cal ser­vices. There are two fun­da­men­tal Chris­t­ian vest­ments, the first of which is the bap­tismal robe. This robe, which is worn by bish­ops and priests at the ser­vice of holy com­mu­nion and which should always be white, is the “robe of sal­va­tion”: the white gar­ment in which every Chris­t­ian is clothed on his day of bap­tism, sym­bol­iz­ing the new human­i­ty of Jesus and life in the King­dom of God (Rev 7:9ff).

The sec­ond fun­da­men­tal vest­ment for Chris­t­ian cler­gy is the stole or epi­tra­che­lion which goes around the neck and shoul­ders. It is the sign of the pas­toral office and was orig­i­nal­ly made of wool to sym­bol­ize the sheep—that is, the mem­bers of the flock of Christ—for whom the pas­tors are respon­si­ble. Both bish­ops and priests wear this vest­ment when they are exer­cis­ing their pas­toral office, wit­ness­ing to the fact that the min­is­ters of the Church live and act sole­ly for the mem­bers of Christ’s flock.

As the Church devel­oped through his­to­ry the vest­ments of the cler­gy grew more numer­ous. Spe­cial cuffs for dea­cons, priests, and bish­ops were added to keep the sleeves of the vest­ments out of the way of the cel­e­brants dur­ing the divine ser­vices. When putting on their cuffs, the cler­gy read lines from the psalms remind­ing them that their hands belong to God.


A spe­cial belt was added as well to hold the vest­ments in place. When putting on the belt the cler­gy say psalms which remind them that it is God who “girds them with strength” to ful­fill their ser­vice. Only the bish­ops and priests wear the litur­gi­cal belt.

All orders of the cler­gy wear a spe­cial out­er gar­ment. Dea­cons, sub-dea­cons, and read­ers wear a robe called a stichar­i­on. It is prob­a­bly the bap­tismal gar­ment, dec­o­rat­ed and made more elab­o­rate. Dea­con and sub-dea­cons also wear a stole called the orar­i­on, prob­a­bly orig­i­nal­ly a piece of mate­r­i­al upon which were inscribed the litur­gi­cal lita­nies and prayers (orare means to pray). The dea­con still holds up the orar­i­on in a posi­tion of prayer when he intones his parts of the divine ser­vices. The sub-deacon’s orar­i­on is placed around his back in the sign of the cross.

Priests wear their white bap­tismal robe over which they have their pas­toral stole, cuffs and belt. They also wear a large gar­ment called a phelo­nion which cov­ers their entire body in the back and goes below their waist in front. This vest­ment was prob­a­bly devel­oped from the for­mal gar­ments of the ear­ly Chris­t­ian era and, under the inspi­ra­tion of the Bible, came to be iden­ti­fied with the call­ing of the priest­ly life. When putting on his phelo­nion, the priest says the lines of Psalm 132:

Thy priests, O Lord, shall clothe them­selves in right­eous­ness, and the saints shall rejoice with joy always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

The bish­ops tra­di­tion­al­ly prob­a­bly also wore the phelo­nion over which they placed the omo­fori­on, the sign of their epis­co­pal office as lead­ing pas­tor of the local church. When the Chris­t­ian empire was cap­tured by the Turks in the fif­teenth cen­tu­ry, how­ev­er, the Chris­t­ian bish­ops of the East were giv­en civ­il rule over all Chris­tians under Turk­ish dom­i­na­tion. At that time, since there was no longer a Chris­t­ian empire, the bish­ops adopt­ed the impe­r­i­al insignia and began to dress as the Chris­t­ian civ­il rulers used to dress. Thus, they began to wear the sakkos, the impe­r­i­al robe, and the mitre, the impe­r­i­al crown. They also began to stand upon the orlets (the eagle) dur­ing the divine ser­vices and to car­ry the staff which sym­bol­ized more their sec­u­lar pow­er than their pas­toral office. At that time as well, the word despota (vla­dyko or mas­ter)—a title for tem­po­ral rather than spir­i­tu­al power—was used in address­ing the bish­ops, and the cler­gy began to grow long hair which was also a sign of earth­ly rule in for­mer times. In the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, dur­ing the reform of Patri­arch Nikon, the Russ­ian Church adopt­ed these same forms for its bishops.

In the Church some of these new insignia were “spir­i­tu­al­ized” and giv­en a Bib­li­cal mean­ing. Thus, the mitres became signs of Chris­t­ian vic­to­ry, for the saints receive their crowns and reign with Christ (Rev 4:4). The eagle became the sign of the flight to the heav­en­ly Jerusalem since it is the clas­si­cal Bib­li­cal sym­bol of St. John and the fourth gospel (Rev 4:7; Ez 1:10). The staff became the sym­bol of Aaron’s rod (Ex 4:2), and so on. It should be under­stood, how­ev­er, that these par­tic­u­lar insignia of the bishop’s office are of lat­er and more acci­den­tal devel­op­ment in the Church.

In rela­tion to the bishop’s ser­vice in the Ortho­dox Church, the use of two spe­cial can­de­labra with which the bish­op bless­es the faith­ful also devel­oped. One of these can­de­labra holds three can­dles (trikiri) (at right) while the oth­er holds two can­dles (dikiri) (at left). These can­de­labra stand for the two fun­da­men­tal mys­ter­ies of the Ortho­dox faith: that the God­head is three Divine Per­sons; and that Jesus Christ, the Sav­iour, has two natures, being both per­fect God and per­fect man.

Bish­ops and priests in the Ortho­dox Church also wear oth­er spe­cial gar­ments. There are, first of all, two pieces of cloth: one square (nabe­dren­nik) and one dia­mond-shaped (epig­o­na­tion or pal­it­sa). The for­mer is worn only by priests as a sign of dis­tinc­tion, while the lat­ter is always worn by bish­ops and is giv­en to some priests as a spe­cial dis­tinc­tion of ser­vice. Prob­a­bly these cloths were orig­i­nal­ly “litur­gi­cal tow­els.” Their sym­bol­i­cal mean­ing is that of spir­i­tu­al strength: the sword of faith and the Word of God. They hang at the sides of their wear­ers dur­ing divine services.

There are also cler­i­cal hats which car­ry spe­cial mean­ing in some Ortho­dox Churches—the point­ed hat (sku­fya) and the cylin­dri­cal one (kamilav­ka). The kamilav­ka is nor­mal­ly worn by all Greek priests, but only by some cler­gy as a spe­cial dis­tinc­tion in oth­er nation­al Ortho­dox church­es. The kamilav­ka may be black or pur­ple; monks, and so the bish­ops, wear it with a black veil. The sku­fya is worn by monks and, in the Russ­ian tra­di­tion, by some of the mar­ried cler­gy as a spe­cial dis­tinc­tion, in which case the hat is usu­al­ly pur­ple. Also in the Russ­ian tra­di­tion cer­tain mar­ried cler­gy are giv­en the hon­or of wear­ing a mitre dur­ing litur­gi­cal ser­vices. In oth­er Ortho­dox church­es the mitre is reserved only for bish­ops and abbots of monas­ter­ies (archi­man­drites). Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, espe­cial­ly in the West, the use of cler­i­cal head­wear is declin­ing in the Ortho­dox Church.

Final­ly, it must be men­tioned that bish­ops and priests wear the cross. The bish­ops also wear the image of Mary and the Child (pana­gia—the “all holy”). In the Russ­ian tra­di­tion all priests wear the cross. In oth­er church­es it is worn litur­gi­cal­ly only by those priests giv­en the spe­cial right to do so as a sign of dis­tinc­tion. As the var­i­ous details of cler­i­cal vest­ments evolved through his­to­ry, they became very com­plex and even some­what exag­ger­at­ed. The gen­er­al trend in the Church today is toward sim­pli­fi­ca­tion. We can almost cer­tain­ly look for­ward to a con­tin­u­al evo­lu­tion in Church vest­ments which will lead the Church to prac­tices more in line with the orig­i­nal Chris­t­ian bib­li­cal and sacra­men­tal inspiration.

The Ortho­dox Church is quite firm in its insis­tence that litur­gi­cal vest­ing is essen­tial to nor­mal litur­gi­cal wor­ship, expe­ri­enced as the real­iza­tion of com­mu­nion with the glo­ri­ous King­dom of God, a King­dom which is yet to come but which is also already with us in the mys­tery of Christ’s Church.