The workshop of church embroidery and vestments
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Vestments are the beauty of worship

01 Sep

What were church fabrics like 400 years ago and are they different from modern ones? What is, for example, buried velvet? The search for an answer to these questions led me to the Krutitsky courtyard, to a cozy old merchant’s house, where the showroom of the Aksamit church vestments workshop was located. Grigory and Natalya Nasibulov, the leaders of the workshop, can take a guest through the halls for hours, talking about each dress.

– How are drawings and ornaments that decorate fabrics born?

– Many of them have historical prototypes. Here is the Byzantine motive: “Let every breath praise the Lord.” It has been recreated from a fresco where a priest was painted in a robe with this pattern. First, we made an embroidery with birds and griffins on the basis of this drawing, and then ordered the fabric. We also have fabrics made according to samples of ancient vestments preserved in churches, from the Moscow St. Danilov Monastery to small churches in the Russian outback, for example, in the Kostroma region. Recently, using a reproduction from the Historical Museum, we made a fabric with a very complex ornament. Brocade, created according to drawings by the famous artist of the early 20th century, one of the brightest representatives of Russian Art Nouveau, Sergei Vashkov, is very popular with priests. And he, in turn, also traveled to Russian cities, collecting materials. This is the continuity.


– You order many fabrics from Italy. Why?

– Those types of church fabrics, to which we are accustomed, began to be made in Russia only in the 18th century. Before that, there was an aksamite – a cloth completely woven with golden loops, altabas … In churches, they served more poorer in linen vestments. And velvet and brocade were brought from Italy, Turkey, Iran. Thanks to this, for example, at the Italian factory with which we work, some designs of fabrics that were sent to Russia for vestments in the 17th century have been preserved! And we order there, for example, buried velvet with ancient ornaments. They served in such vestments during the time of Patriarch Nikon and even earlier! True, modern technologies have nevertheless made their own adjustments: today chenille is going into production, which a non-specialist can hardly distinguish from velvet. He has a slightly different pile. In Russian church art there are more parallels with European art than one might think – as well as in architecture. For example, in Milan and Verona we saw locks with the same cogs as in the Moscow Kremlin. One to one! Because the same architects worked. By the way, the M-shaped prongs had a practical purpose: a beam was placed in the center of the prong, a roof was arranged on these beams, which protected the defenders of the city or castle from enemy arrows.

– Italians once adopted the art of making precious fabrics in China …

– The Great Silk Road passed through Milan from China. Thanks to this, the Italians learned how to make silk fabrics. To do this, they had to commit a criminal act: to kidnap several silkworm caterpillars. And now the process is reversed: the Chinese have bought up whole areas in Italy where textile factories are located. People from the Middle Kingdom now live and work there.


– You started work 25 years ago. Probably, in those years you had to start your creative search literally from scratch?

– Yes, in those years there was nothing in the churches. Some vestments were sewn from tablecloths by diligent parishioners. Feloni, made by the Sofrino enterprise, which opened in the 70s from the fabrics of the plant named after Sverdlov, were the ultimate dream for the priests. However, in some places there were still beautiful old vestments. I am a costume designer by training, I graduated from the theatrical art school. Metropolitan Pitirim of Volokolamsk blessed me to sew vestments, in whose church I acted as an altar. Vladyka gave me the “Handbook of a Clergyman” – there were patterns. From these patterns I sewed the first felonne … with a flat bottom edge: the pattern was inaccurate. Then I figured out what’s what. He ripped open old shabby vestments, took off templates. In the Pukhtitsa monastery, Abbess Varvara blessed me to learn to sew and embroider from the sisters. I was inspired – and it started.

– Where did you place orders for fabrics?

Синее облачение, расшитое крестами и узором с колосьями и дубовыми листьями

– I found several factories: the Darnitskiy in Kiev, the Rakhmanovskiy silk factory in the Moscow region … I understood from their products that they can make church fabrics. We began to negotiate, create the first samples … We found two ancient vestments in the Danilov Monastery, made a sketch from them … And then it turned out that before the revolution, the Rakhmanov Combine was the factory of the merchant Zaglodin, which specialized in fabrics for vestments! They even found a catalog of church fabrics and products. At Zaglodin’s shroud they made, and banners – the so-called “scattered manufactory” operated: work was handed out to embroiderers in the huts, and then the products were assembled at the enterprise. We reproduce some of this catalog even now. For example, shirts for artos – today this tradition has not survived, and before the revolution a very special shroud was used for artos. Even Olovyanishnikov placed orders with Zaglodin. Some of their ecclesiastical fabrics were awarded a medal at an exhibition in Paris! Now we are working with several factories – domestic and foreign. By the way, we also cooperate with the Rostovskaya enamel factory. For example, we have a club with the image of the Resurrection of Christ. By the way, the Greeks also buy enamel elements for decorating vestments from this Russian factory.

– You recently made a copy of the banner that was the banner of the Greek liberation movement. How did this happen?

Красное велюровое облачение, которое расшито крестами

– Several years ago I was on Athos and met there with Archimandrite Nektarios, who serves in the mountains of the Peloponnese. I gave him an embroidered bookmark from our workshop. Having examined it, the priest began to ask me to do some work for his church. It was difficult to understand which one: he did not speak Russian, and I did not speak Greek. It was clear only that the work was great. I refused in every possible way, but the priest was persistent, and I gave up. It turned out that he was asking us to copy a banner for his church, which is a historical and spiritual relic of the Greek people and is kept in the Agia Lavra monastery in Patras. At the beginning of 1821, when the Greeks rebelled against the Turks, Archbishop Herman of Old Patras blessed the rebels with this banner and swore them in. The banner became their banner of liberation, in fact, the first banner of the Greeks after centuries of national enslavement. Faith in him was so great that even the Turkish sultan promised big money to those who “will get this damned rag.” We have prepared a sketch, Father approved it. The work went on for three years and, at last, was crowned with success. In Greece we were received with honor, Father Nektarios was very happy. He even blessed us to read the Symbol of Faith and Our Father at the Liturgy, which is honored only by the most honorable guests. Based on this gonfalon, we made another one, which we presented to the church of the Krutitsky courtyard.

– Do you work in the technique of manual or machine embroidery?

– Mostly machine. But machine embroidery can hardly differ from manual embroidery. Usually, with machine embroidery on the computer, a certain segment is selected, for example, a hand, and it is filled. But you can draw every stitch. This is a very painstaking work, comparable in time to hand embroidery, but the result is worth it.

– In the assortment of fabrics by the Axamit workshop, you can see multi-color options: for example, gold brocade with red and blue flowers. For what period of the liturgical year are they intended?

Облачение из ткани по эскизу Сергея Вашкова
– Before the revolution, there was no such clear division of vestments by color, as we are used to today. In the sacristy of the Church of the Resurrection of the Word at the Danilovskoye cemetery, which was not closed during the Soviet years, I saw many old vestments brought there from different churches, including the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. There were also many-colored vestments, for example, a phelonion of buried purple velvet on a gold background, which was used on ordinary Sundays, not only for fasting. In one of the museums in Yaroslavl, at an exhibition dedicated to the merchants Olovyanishnikov, we saw a blue and silver vestment, on the shoulder of which was depicted St. Nikolay. In our days, in the days of the saints, they serve in yellow, and in blue – on the Mother of God. And there – please! Finally, in Greece, in Bulgaria, and today they serve in multi-colored vestments. So it can be assumed that the tradition of strictly adhering to the correlation of the colors of the vestments with the periods of the liturgical year was formed not so long ago.

– Actually, there are different historical versions regarding the tradition of serving on Easter in red vestments. A little more than a hundred years ago, on the Resurrection of Christ, they served in white vestments …

– Some people associate the transition to red vestments with the vestments that were sewn for the churches of the Russian Empire for the 300th anniversary of the House of Romanov – the anniversary was celebrated in May … On the shoulders of these light burgundy vestments were embroidered a cross, palm and oak branches and the inscription: “This is victory.” I first saw such vestments in the Temple of the Great Ascension, when I served there as an altar boy, in my youth, and I really wanted to repeat it. There were “Romanov” vestments both in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, and in many other churches throughout Russia – they were ordered specially for the anniversary celebrations, funds were released from the treasury. We made their remarks more than once, the priests appreciated them.

– It’s hot summer now. What vestments would you recommend to priests?

– In the heat, they usually take vestments without lining. In the old days, vestments could weigh up to 20 kg, apparently, people were stronger then, and now light fabrics are becoming more and more in demand. Not necessarily linen: both silk and modern polyester, which is similar to cotton, are good. The vestment can be completely without a metal thread, while it is very voluminous, perfectly holding its shape. We have a fabric from Italy that looks like it is covered with lace – the priests really like it. The good thing about Italian fabrics is that they are mostly natural.


– Some priests on the Internet are against the standing shoulder …

– This is a debatable question. Many priests rejoice that, thanks to the high mantle, the Russian phelonion is well ventilated. A priest I know who served in Australia for many years says it’s easier in the heat with a high shoulder. The mantle can be made softer, harder. For this, special non-woven materials made from cotton fibers are used. The vestments have three symbolic meanings: the royal robes of the Savior, military armor and the Holy Sepulcher. The high mantle of the phelonion bears all this symbolism.

– You recently visited the sacristy of Milan Cathedral.

– It was a miracle! Literally by chance, we met our friends in Milan, whose acquaintance turned out to be the sacristan of the cathedral (a former policeman, now a Catholic monk). It was he who led us to the sacristy, and showed us what tourists usually do not see. We were, of course, amazed at how clear and thoughtful everything is, how carefully the vestments are kept. For example, we saw that it is better to store them horizontally. Vestments of the 17th century are in special semicircular drawers of the “carousel” type, arranged with paper and cloth – a useful example of the handling of vestments. For example, they have preserved the vestments in which Pope Pius 9 crowned Napoleon. They keep it all, cherish it. We also once had such a scrupulous attitude. For example, at one time I was struck by the pre-revolutionary vestments from the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, on which there was a label: wardrobe such and such, shelf such and such.

– Do Italians serve in old vestments?

– Not often. The Pope ordered to serve in the most modest vestments, made of simple fabrics, without jewelry – they say, so closer to the people. We also see this tendency sometimes, but there it became mandatory. But vestments and utensils are the beauty of divine services!

Interviewed by Alina Sergeichuk

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