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The Epitaphios

Józef Naumowicz
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University, Warsaw, Poland

(Old Chruch Slavonic: плащаница, Old Greek: ἐπιτάφιος, epi-taphios, i.e. ‘over-tomb’; also: cloak, epitaphios, shroud)—a decorative cloth with a painted or embroidered image of the deceased Christ lying in the tomb, which is carried during Holy Week in a procession that represents the funeral procession of Jesus, then displayed to be worshipped and kissed, and at the beginning of the Paschal Vigil carried to the altar. The decoration of the epitaphios and the celebrations associated with it evolved and took shape gradually. The silhouette of Jesus lying in the tomb on the epitaphios is similar to the image on the Turin Shroud, hence various theories have been put forward regarding the possible connection between the two fabrics.

Epitaphios in the Orthodox Liturgy

Generally, scholars agree that the epitaphios appeared towards the end of Byzantium, in the 12th–14th centuries. It is more difficult to determine its origin. The most reasonable thesis is that it may originate with the cloth used to cover the divine gifts deposited on the altar during the Divine Liturgy. Simeon of Thessalonica (1410–1429) referred to this large veil—usually called aer (Old Greek: ἀήρ, Old Chruch Slavonic: воздух, air),—as epitaphios, and reported that it often featured the image of Jesus in the tomb: it bears the image of a naked and dead Jesus (orig. γυμνὸν ἔχει καὶ νεκρὸν εἰκονισμένον τὸν Ἰησοῦν; Expositio de divino templo, Hawkes-Teeples 2011, 126); it denotes the shroud (Old Greek: σινδόνα), which surrounds the dead Jesus anointed with myrrh (orig: ἐσμυρνησμένον νεκρόν) and is called epitaphios (orig: ἐπιτάφιος)and hence clearly and profoundly as in a painting (orig: ὡς ἐν πίνακι) instructs on the Mystery (De sacra liturgia 110, Hawkes-Teeples 2011, 234; see →The Shroud in the Liturgies). This type of decorative epitaphios was also used in the morning prayer of Holy Saturday (Old Greek: ὄρθρος, Old Chruch Slavonic: оўтреня): there is no Divine Liturgy on this day, so it was not used to cover the gifts on the altar, but to wrap the Gospel Book, which the priest solemnly brought to this prayer. In some centres there were already special epitaphioses for the Holy Week liturgy. The earliest surviving examples date from the late 13th or early 14th century. One of the most remarkable works is known as the Epitaphios of Thessalonica from around 1300, made of silk, linen, gold and silver, in the centre of which the deceased Christ is depicted surrounded by angels. Also important are the first surviving textiles of this type from the monasteries of Vatopedi (1354) and Pantocrator (c. 1397) on Athos (Le Mont Athos 2009, pp. 150, 226). An element of the Holy Saturday morning liturgy also became a procession in or around the church, during which the celebrant carried the Gospel Book and above him was carried the epitaphios, like a canopy. At the end of the procession, the priest would lay the epitaphios on a tomb prepared in front of the iconostasis and place the Gospel Book on it. The cloth with the image of the dead Jesus took on the same role as the icon of a particular saint in other cases: it expressed the content of the Good Friday celebration (Kosiw 2009, pp. 435–458). With the adoption of the Jerusalem Typikon in the Greek and Slavic Orthodox world, the rite of elevation of the epitaphios, performed at various times during the last days of Holy Week, was moved from Holy Saturday to the end of Vespers (Old Chruch Slavonic: вечернѧ) of Good Friday and was then placed in the middle of the sanctuary for veneration and kissing (Getcha 2012, pp. 216–233; Ross-Pazdyk 2014, pp. 34–39; Tofiluk 2003, pp. 11–28). Epitaphioses had a more elaborate composition and depicted various scenes: the removal of Christ from the cross and the deposition in the tomb; Christ lying in the tomb; Christ in the tomb adored by angels; Christ in the tomb surrounded by angels and other figures (the Mother of God, the Apostle John, St Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, St Mary Magdalene), and the words of the troparion The Noble Joseph were written around the main scene (Karczewski 2021, p. 51).

Researchers do not completely agree whether the epitaphios used in Holy Week is derived from the large veil (epitaphios/aer) used during the Divine Liturgy. However, the analogies between the two fabrics are significant: on the one hand, an image of the dead Christ is common on frescoes from the late Byzantine period and afterwards showing the Great Entrance; on the other hand, the oldest epitaphios contain Eucharistic motifs (on the famous cloth from Thessalonica, a central image with angels mourning the dead Christ is surrounded by two scenes of the Communion of the Apostles), and the borders of many epitaphios are embroidered with verses of troparions related to the Great Entrance, to the covering and uncovering of the gifts on the altar (Woodfin 2012, pp. 125–126 and 193; Tofiluk 2003, p. 28). It has also been suggested that the appearance and development of epitaphios may be indicative of the presence of the Shroud in Constantinople (Arranz 1976, pp. 29–55). This would be supported by the fact that the oldest epitaphios only depicted the figure of the dead Christ, as did the Shroud of Turin. However, the existence of such a burial cloth containing the image of the body of the deceased Jesus is not attested in Constantinople, while the influence of the Mandylion brought from Edessa in 944 is possible, which, according to tradition, showed the face of Christ (suffering in the Gethsemane in the face of agony—as one tradition indicated) reflected on a cloth, dating from apostolic times. This image of Jesus, revered also in the liturgy, became popular in Byzantine iconography and may also have been a model for the decoration of liturgical fabrics, even if it only depicted the face of Christ and not his entire body laid in the tomb.

Parallels have also been drawn between epitaphios and the image of the Man of Sorrows that appeared in the 12th century in Byzantine circles, showing a dead Christ with crossed arms and a crown of thorns (Belting 1989, pp. 97–129). Images of this type, depicting Christ after being taken down from the cross, lying on his back as his body is prepared for burial, appeared both in churches of the late Byzantine period—especially in the apses of chapels where proskomedias were celebrated—and in Western art, where they were given the names like Anointing the Body of Christ or Mourning Christ (Dobrzeniecki 1971, pp. 7–219).

Jesus’ Burial Rite in the Latin Tradition

The observance of Good Friday also in Western Christianity commemorates the death of Jesus, and includes the rite of Christ’s symbolic burial, which in the Western rite has taken a different form. Instead of epitaphios, the shrouded cross or veil-covered Blessed Sacrament (consecrated hosts, usually placed in a monstrance) is carried in procession and placed in the tomb. Hence, Jesus is adored not in the image of the epitaphios, but in the sign of the cross (Latin: adoratio crucis) and the Blessed Sacrament. The tomb also has a different character and appearance: sometimes, modelled on the Jerusalem tomb carved in the rock, it remains permanently in the church; most often it is made especially for Holy Week. In some countries, there is a tradition, known since the late Middle Ages, of also placing in the tomb the figure of the dead Jesus partially wrapped in a shroud (Eastern tradition does not know figures of Jesus, only images of him painted or embroidered). Unlike the rite of epitaphios, which is almost universal in the Orthodox or Greek Catholic churches, the Western tradition is more free-form, varied and has also undergone development.

In the West, the oldest testimonies, dating back to the 10th century, concern the deposition of the cross (Latin: depositio crucis) do grobu. in the tomb. The first source testifying to this is the Regularis Concordia, approved at the Synod of Winchester (c. 970), which proposes this rite: On one side of the altar, which is empty, let there be some likeness of the tomb (orig. quedam assimilatio Sepulchri), protected all around. When the adoration of the cross has been completed, the deacons shall wrap it in a shroud (orig. involvant eam sindone) in that place where it was adored; then they shall carry it to the tomb, there depositing the cross as if they were making a burial of the body of our Lord Jesus Christ (orig. depositaque cruce ac si domini nostri Ihesu Christi corpore sepulto). On the night of the resurrection, before the celebrations begin, the cross will be removed from the tomb and placed in its usual place, and a person in a white alb will enter the tomb, acting as an angel. When the celebration of the resurrection begins, three people dressed in capes, representing the three Maries coming to anoint the body of Jesus, will approach the tomb. Then the “angel” sitting in the tomb will lift the veil and show them the place where the cross will no longer be there, only the lying cloths in which the cross was wrapped. The deacons will take the linen (Latin: linteum) and stretch it in front of the clergy, as if showing that the Lord is risen and no longer wrapped in this linen (Regularis concordia, PL 137, 493–495). Regularis concordia recommended the rite of depositio crucis and the visitation of the tomb by women on the morning of the resurrection (Latin: visitatio sepulcri) to be celebrated in English Benedictine churches; these were quickly adopted in other countries north of the Alps as well. These dramatisations of the Holy Week liturgy, widely attested between the 11th and 14th centuries, are believed to have given rise to modern theatre (Berger 1976).

In addition to the rite of the laying of the cross, still known today in some Oriental liturgies—Armenian, Coptic and Syriac—the custom of placing consecrated hosts in the symbolic tomb also emerged in the West (the Latin liturgy does not use leavened bread, as in the Orthodox and most Oriental liturgies, but unleavened bread, which can be kept and thus can be worshipped apart from the eucharist or, after consecration, given at the next Mass). The first confirmation of this is found in The Life of Statement Ulrich, Bishop of Augsburg (†973, the life written shortly afterwards): after the communion of the faithful on Good Friday, [the bishop] would bury in the tomb what remained according to custom (orig. consuetudinario more quod remanserat sepulto), and on the morning of the resurrection he would come to the church of St Ambrose, where on Good Friday he had laid Christ’s body by covering it with a stone (orig. ubi corpus Christi superposito lapide collocavit), to open the “tomb” and take the hosts (Vita 4, Waitz, 392, v. 33 and 50). This rite of placing the consecrated host in the tomb spread throughout northern and central Europe by the end of the Middle Ages (numerous testimonies of depositio (et elevatio) crucis or depositio crucis et hostiae from the German-speaking area: Lipphardt 1975). At the end of the 14th century the rite reached Portugal and later became popular in Spain as well (Solange 1960).

In the 16th century, after the Reformation, some of the liturgical dramatisations of Holy Week were removed as part of the reforms of the Council of Trent, but the tradition of the Tomb of Christ was preserved, as evidenced by the Roman Missal promulgated by Pius V in 1570.  Referring to this Missal, the Krakow Canon Hieronim Powodowski, in his Agenda (1591), described the veneration of the cross at the tomb (Latin: circa sepulchrum) of Jesus: this cross, veiled and incensed, is carried in procession from the altar to the vicinity of this tomb, where the priest gradually unveils it, singing Behold the Tree of the Cross, while after communion the cross and the host are laid down. The priest takes the larger host that has been left, suitably closed and covered with a veil (orig. hostiam maiorem relictam, honeste inclusam et velatam) and carries it with the cross in front of the procession to the tomb, where he deposits first the body of Christ, then the cross itself in the appropriate place (orig. reponit primo corpus Christi, deinde loco competenti crucem ipsam), and seals the tomb (Agenda…, 90–99, 102–103). On the night of the Easter Vigil, at midnight or in the morning, the priest with a procession comes to the tomb and the opening of the tomb is performed (Latin: apertio sepulchri): after a prayer and the removal of the seals and linens (Latin: sigillo et linteis), the priest sprinkles and perfumes the tomb, takes from it the cross or the image of the Resurrection (the figure of the Risen? orig. crucem seu imaginem resurrectionis) hands it to the ministers to carry it in procession, raises (orig. elevans) the Blessed Sacrament and carries it to the high altar, where the priests, standing on the top step of the altar, raise (orig. elevantes) the cross with Christ (orig. crucifixum) and intone the antiphon three times: The Lord Has Risen From the Tomb (Agenda…, 150–152). Agenda… states that the host carried to the tomb is enclosed, probably in a monstrance, and covered with a veil. After the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church began to emphasise more the role of the host in the Good Friday celebration: instead of placing it in the tomb, it was placed surrounded by a veil on the tomb or on a special elevation so that it could be seen and venerated by the faithful. Henceforth, adoration at the Tomb of Jesus is focused on it. As in the Orthodox Churches, the burial of Jesus is commemorated by a procession with an epitaphios containing the image of the deceased Saviour, so is in the Catholic Churches the Body of Christ carried in a monstrance covered by a transparent veil. As in the East the epitaphios containing the image of Jesus remains at the centre of the tomb, so does in the West the figure of the lying Jesus and above it the monstrance with the Body of the Lord. Both traditions are united by adoration of Christ, who died for us and for our salvation.

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Sources of Images

1. Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Theodosia_Poulopos_-_Epitaphios_-_1599.jpg (public domain)

2. Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plastenica_Trebisov_baziliansky_monastyr_bozkanie_1999.jpg (Misko3, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Józef Naumowicz

Historian of early Christian literature, lecturer at Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw and at the Higher Metropolitan Seminary in Warsaw. Author of numerous books.

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