A Brief History of the Flabellum

Flabella (plural) or flabellum (singular) are liturgical or ceremonial fans that could be made of various materials, from feathers to metal. Most Catholics will be familiar with these at least by sight, if not by name, by virtue of the iconic historical images of the popes who were frequently seen accompanied by a pair of flabella, one on each side, made from ostrich plumes and the tips of peacock feathers.



The origins of flabella go deep into history and well beyond Christendom, making appearances in the ceremonies of ancient times. While many are aware of their traditional use as honorific symbols in relation to the pope, what you may not be aware of is their liturgical use beyond this.

Liturgically speaking, the origins of flabella were, like so many things, practical in nature -- essentially an instrument used within the sacred liturgy to keep insects away from the priest and the sacred species. Their early use in Christian liturgical worship for this purpose is testified to by the fourth century "Apostolic Constitutions" which instructs accordingly:
"Let two of the deacons, on each side of the altar, hold a fan, made up of thin membranes, or of the feathers of the peacock, or of fine cloth, and let them silently drive away the small animals [sic] that fly about, that they may not come near to the cups."
We see the echoes of this original function best preserved today in the Byzantine liturgy when, at the ordination of a deacon,  he takes the "hagion ripidion" (flabellum) and waves it over the gifts at the appropriate point in the divine liturgy. This can be seen here:


Turning back westward, during the middle ages it was most commonly used from the Secret until the end of the Canon of the Mass, but this usage fell by the wayside in the Latin rite toward the end of the middle ages. However as noted earlier, it didn't disappear entirely. There was of course the aforementioned papal use and a similar sort of honorific use also by the Patriarch of Lisbon. In addition, their use continued (at least in theory) in the Dominican and Carmelite rites whose rubrics still accounted for them. Here is an example of their use in the context of the Dominican rite:



Outside of these rites, they can also be spotted from time to time elsewhere, such as in the procession of the relics of St. Liborius in Paderborn:



Also in Malta:


In the extant medieval inventories of various European cathedrals, flabella routinely show up within them and a few ancient examples have managed to survive the ravages of time.

Flabellum ca. 860-870 A.D. Abbazia di Saint-Philibert di Tournus, Borgogna

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