Orthodoxy in England: Symbols of Bishop's Ministry on
the Byzantine Silk from the Tomb of St. Cuthbert
by Yurie Klitsenko
The Earth and Ocean Byzantine silk was found with the other textiles in the tomb of St. Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne, when it was opened in May 1827. It shows the personified Earth emerging from the waters with ducks and fishes. The Earth holds in its hands a sash filled with fruits. The rounded frame contains various fruits including grapes and pears (H.Granger-Taylor, 'The Earth and Ocean Silk from the Tomb of St. Cuthbert at Durham' Textile History, 20.2, (1989).
Discussing the iconography of the silk fragment Granger-Taylor came to following conclusions: "In the case of the Earth and Ocean silk, there need not originally have been Christian overtones, even though it was eventually put into the grave of western saint. The silk was not made for church use. This Durham textile would have been considered a fitting gift to St Cuthbert's shrine, not because of its imagery, but because of its outstanding quality".
In my opinion the Earth and Ocean textile could be a part of bishop's vestments, because in Church tradition waters and fertility are symbols of bishop's ministry.
The cosmic symbolism of vestments is mentioned in the Bible. In Psalm 104 the Creator "wrapped in light as with a garment" covers the earth with deep "as with a garment" (Ps 104. 2, 5-6). The earth and the heavens are likened to garments: "Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you endure; they will all wear out like a garment. You change them like clothing, and they pass away" (Ps. 102. 25-26).
According to the Wisdom of Solomon "upon Aaron's garment was the whole universe" (Wis.18. 24).
Philo of Alexandria and Josephus Flavius compare the high priest's vestments with the components of the universe (C.T.R.Hayward, The Jewish Temple. A Non-Biblical Sourcebook, London, 1996; M.Barker, The Gate of Heaven. The History and Symbolism of the Temple in Jerusalem, SPCK, 1991).
"Now such was the raiment of the high priest; and both it and its parts have a meaning which must not be passed over in silence. For the whole is in fact a representation and copy of the cosmos, and the parts are representations of its several portions" (Philo, Life of Moses II.117).
"The tunic of the high priest signifies the earth since it is made of linen, and the blue color signifies the vault of heaven… And I believe that the ephod represents the nature of the universe which God thought good to make of four components; it was woven with gold signifying sunlight which beams upon all things. And he arranged the breastplate in the midst of the ephod after the manner of the earth, for it also has the most central place. And he surrounded it with a girdle, thereby signifying the ocean, for this too comprehends everything (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, III.184).
Water has a double meaning in temple symbolism. As well as being an image of fertility, it can also be an image of chaos. Having power over these waters was a sign of the Messiah. Thus Psalm 89.25 (LXX 88.26) 'I will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers, and he shall cry "You are my Father…"'. The power of these chaotic waters was symbolised by Leviathan, and so the high priest's girdle was said to represent the skin of a snake, Leviathan defeated. According to Josephus the high priest's girdle was 'loosely woven so that you would think it was the skin of a snake…… and the girdle which was around the high priest represented the ocean.' (Jewish Antiquities III.154,185).
Old Testament tradition links high priest's vestments with the defeat of the forces of chaos (C.H.T.Fletcher-Louis, The High Priest as Divine Mediator in the Hebrew Bible: Dan 7. 13 as a Test Case, Society of Bible Literature 1997 Seminar Papers). According to jewish legends the sacred garments were made of the skin of Leviathan (L.Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews).
Interpreting the Old Testament liturgy, Philo remarks that the high priest takes with him to the holy of holies the whole cosmos, depicted on his vestments: "In this way the high priest is adorned and sent forth for his holy task, so that whenever he enters offering the ancestral prayers and sacrifices the whole universe may enter with him by means of those copies which he bears upon himself" (Life of Moses II.133).
The Church teaches that the salvation of the universe is connected with Lord's incarnation. Christ saves the universe through his human nature, which is the microcosm and includes the components of the universe.
Christ "put on Adam" when he "put on the body" and the whole aim of the Incarnation is to "reclothe mankind in the robe of glory". The "robe of glory" is recovered by Christ's baptism in the Jordan (S.Brock, Clothing Metaphors as a Means of Theological Expression in Syriac Tradition, Studies in Syriac Christianity: History, Literature and Theology).
In Eastern Orthodox liturgy that idea is represented by vesting the bishop in the church nave and by the bishop's ascent into the sanctuary.
St. Symeon of Thessalonike wrote that the ceremony of vesting the bishop represents Christ's incarnation. According to Theodor of Andida in entering the church and putting on vestments the bishop represents Christ appearing at the river Jordan for the bishop stands on the patterns in the marble floor which are called "rivers" ("potamoi").
When the bishop goes to the episcopal ambo in the center of the church nave, the protodeacon reads the first vesting prayer:
"Thy soul shall rejoice in the Lord, for he hath clothed thee with the garment of salvation, and with the robe of gladness hath he encompassed thee. As a bridegroom he hath set a crown upon thee, and as a bride hath he adorned thee with ornament".
As each vestment is put on, the first deacon says "Let us pray to the Lord" and the protodeacon recites each appropriate vesting prayer.
The Bishop bears cosmic symbols. The heaven, the earth and the waters are depicted on the "great eagle rug" which is used for bishop's ordination. Bands on orthodox bishop's mantle are called "rivers" ("potamoi").
The rivers and fertility are biblical messianic symbols of the transfigured universe (M.Coloe, God Dwells with us. Temple Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, 2001).
The Temple waters in Ezekiel's and Joel's visions produce abundant food. The Targums emphasize that the Messiah will usher in a time of fruitful abundance: "How beautiful is the King Messiah who is to arise from the house of Judah. The mountains will become red from his vines and the vats from wine: and the hills will become white from the abundance of grain and flocks of sheep" (Targum Neofiti to Genesis 49. 9-12).
In John 4 the movement from "living waters" to "the fields are already white for harvest" symbolize the effectiveness of Jesus' mission to the world: "But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life… Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest" (John 4. 14; 35).
Fishes and fishing are usual symbols in Jewish, Early Christian and Byzantine art. Discussing the mosaic pavement of the synagogue from Haman Lif in Tunisia, E.R.Goodenough has identified the two large fishes with ropes protruding from their mouths as representations of Leviathan, who, according to Job, could not be caught with a hook, nor could its tongue be pressed down with a rope (L.Roussin, The Beit Leontis Mosaic: An Eschatological Interpretation, The Journal of Jewish Art, # 8, 1981):
"Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook, or press down its tongue with a cord? Can you put a rope in its nose, or pierce its jaw with a hook?
Can you fill its skin with harpoons, or its head with fishing spears?" (Job 41. 1-7).
The fishermen with harpoons are represented at the iconographic parallel to St. Cuthbert's silk in a Byzantine church floor mosaic at Nikopolis, Greece (E.Kitzinger, 'Mosaics at Nikopolis', Dumbarton Oaks Papers, # 6, 1951). In Church art fishing is allegory of apostolic mission of preaching the Gospel.