A Russian Vestment Set Made of Reindeer Fur and Mammoth Bone

Typically our focus here at LAJ is on Catholic liturgical art, specifically Western liturgical art. This isn't for the reason that Eastern Christian (be that be Eastern Catholic or Orthodox) art is of no interest to us -- far from it. No, it is rather because in the Latin West we are dealing with a need to re-discover and recover the value of our own Western liturgical patrimony and, as a result, we have made that our primary focus.

That said, sometimes something will come to our attention which is of such unique interest that we feel compelled to set aside that core mission and focus for a time, and today's item of interest certainly qualifies as one of those as far as we are concerned.

What we have here today is the Eastern/Byzantine equivalent of the chasuble, called the phelonion (derived from the Latin word, paenula). Essentially it is another variant on the chasuble and whereas in the Latin West we saw the sides of the chasuble trimmed away in order to free up the arms, in the Greek/Byzantine East the trimming instead took place on the front of the vestment for presumably the same pragmatic reasons as in the West.  What is of particular interest here, however, is not the shape, but rather the materials in which it is made: reindeer fur. 

The context here is important in order to understand what you are seeing here. This particular set of vestments came from a Russian Orthodox mission found in an extremely remote, north-eastern peninsula of Russia called Kamchatka:

Whether one wants to consider this set of vestments as a kind of manifestation of "inculturation" or simply pragmatism and "localism" (i.e. using the local resources available), either way it is a fascinating item of liturgical art. 

The vestment in question is crafted from the hide and fur of the reindeer found within the region -- something that no doubt also found use in the historical clothing of the region as well. The mitre that one sees here is also noteworthy, being made of bone -- apparently the bone taken from the remains of a long extinct wooly mammoth.  The white fur shown on the vestment has been contrasted with the darker brown fur in order to create the designs. Even the "chain" and cross worn around the neck is fashioned from fur.

This particular set was used by the Russian Metropolitan, Nestor Anisimov during his time as the head of the Kamchatka Mission in 1911-1916.

While none of the churches depicted in this article are actually specifically tied to this set of vestments, I wanted to include them to give a slight sense of the liturgical context in which they would have been used. In any modern context, or in an urban church, these vestments likely wouldn't be appropriate, but in a remote, missionary region made up of rustic, wooden churches (such as those seen below), they make manifest sense and count as an act of using what they had at their disposal for divine worship.

Do you like Liturgical Arts Journal's original content? You can help support LAJ in its mission and vision to promote beauty in Catholic worship either by: 

You choose the amount! Your support makes all the difference.

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.