Clothes do not exactly make the saint, but they do often categorize one. That is why students of icons must know something about the garments typically worn by saints in icons.
Today we will take a look at what the well-dressed metropolitan wears. But first we need to know a little Russian church history.
Originally, the highest office in the Russian Orthodox Church was that of metropolitan, and the first had his seat at Kiev, now in the Ukraine. He had the title “Metropolitan of Kiev and All Russia.” Then, in 1316 the Metropolitan Peter/Pyotr moved his headquarters first to the city of Vladimir, then in 1322 to Moscow, and thus became “Metropolitan of Moscow and All Russia.”
In 1589 the Metropolitanate of Moscow and All Russia was raised to a patriarchate, and so the new holder of the office was “Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.” Peter the Great, who made some efforts toward pulling Russia out of the Middle Ages (not without lots of kicking and screaming on the part of religious conservatives) abolished the Patriarchate in 1721, and replaced it with the “Most Holy Governing Synod,” that body which became notorious for acts such as its censorship of Russia’s great author Leo Tolstoy. During this period, the bishop of Moscow was just “Metropolitan of Moscow,” not Patriarch.
Then, in 1917, the Patriarchate was restored, only to be abolished again by the Soviets in 1925, then restored again by Stalin in 1943. So today there is again a “Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.”
But back to the early metropolitans, one of whom was Metropolitan Alexei, (1354-1378), formally titled “St. Alexei, Metropolitan of Moscow and All Russia.” That is the fellow we will look at today. He was a very noted Metropolitan, as one might guess from his being made a saint, and he is found as a secondary figure in many icons, but he is also shown alone, as in this example:
As you can tell, if you have been paying attention to previous postings here, this is easily identifiable as an icon of the late 19th to early 20th century by the arched border and by the geometrically incised and painted gold border. And in fact we can narrow down the date of this particular icon, because it was a presentation icon, a gift to the Tsarevich (literally “son of the Tsar”) Alexei in the year 1913. Yes, the unfortunate boy, son of Tsar Nicholas II, who was to be murdered by the Leninists. But why was this particular saint’s icon given to the Tsarevich? Because Metropolitan Alexei was the “name saint” or “angel saint” of the Tsarevich Alexei, the saint from whom his name was derived and the saint whom he would traditionally celebrate on his annual “angel day,” the day of commemoration of that saint in the Church calendar.
We can also easily tell that this is an icon of the State Church, not an Old Believer icon, because it is painted in the realistic, westernized manner that came gradually to be favored by the State Church after the great schism in the Russian Church in the middle of the 1600s, when the Old Believers refused to accept various innovations in Church liturgy and ritual.
All of that, however, is background. Today we want to look at what the Metropolitan Alexei is wearing.
On his head is one Russian form of a bishop’s crown or mitre. That long, white cloth stole ornamented with crosses around his shoulders and hanging down in front is the omophorion (literally, “shoulder-borne”), Russian omofor, which you know from previous postings is also worn by bishops in general. Hanging from his waist (seen here at the left of the icon) is a large, ornate, stiffened, diamond-shaped ritual cloth object with tassels hanging from it, called an epigonation in Greek (literally “over-knee”), Russian palitsa (literally “club”). This is also worn by bishops in general, a kind of status award. His blue robe is the sakkos, underneath which, just above his feet, can be seen another garment, the stikharion.
Finally, from Alexei’s neck hangs both a metal cross and an oval panagia (literally “all-holy”) a kind of medallion usually bearing an image of Mary.
In his right hand is the staff of office for a bishop, called in Russian the pateritsa or the zheslo. The Russian-form staff usually has a downward-curved, T-shaped top, while the Greek generally has two serpents curving upward at the top. It is the equivalent of the crosier in western churches, the stylized staff of a shepherd.
In short, the garments of a metropolitan are essentially those of a bishop. It is just a higher office.