The Flabellum of Tournus - A Rare Surviving Example of the Liturgical Fan in the West

Speak of "flabellum" and naturally one's mind turns toward the great feathered fans which are traditionally carried beside the popes. Historically the flabellum has its origins in ancient times, thought to originate in ancient Egypt, being used for practical as well as ceremonial purposes. 

Gradually they would make their way into Roman and ultimately Christian use, both as marks of honour and also for the practical liturgical purpose of fanning away insects from the chalice with its sweet contents (if not also to cool). The one time, more common usage of this item in the Latin rite is sometimes attested to in other liturgical art, such as the altar of Ursus in San Pietro in Valle or the ciborium of San Prospero in Perugia. 

Liturgical flabella as shown depicted on the face of the Romanesque altar of Ursus in the Abbey of San Pietro in Valle

The flabella of the ciborium of San Prospero can be seen in the upper corners just above the peacocks.

We have shown various examples of flabella before in our article, A Brief History of the Flabellum, so I will point readers back to that article for some further context, however, my purpose today is to show yet another rare example of liturgical flabella -- which, according to the Apostolic Constitutions, might be "made up of thin membranes, or of the feathers of the peacock, or of fine cloth."

Flabella of parchment, feathers and metal

The flabellum I would show you today is known as the Flabellum of Tournus and is dated to the ninth century taken from Abbey of St. Philbert in Tournus. This particular flabellum uses very fine parchment (i.e. thin membranes) to form the base of the fan itself, and is further decorated with images of the saints and also a dedicatory inscription to the Blessed Virgin and St. Philbert. 

The handle of the flabellum is made from carved walrus ivory and bone which is further decorated with images of the Garden of Eden, of the Blessed Virgin, Ss. Peter and Paul and so on. 

Suffice it to say, the use of flabellum, liturgically speaking, would become a rarity in the Latin rite ultimately, showing up only from time to time in places such as the Dominican rite, but their use -- in metallic form -- still forms a standard part of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy. 

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