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Plaschanitsa, Winding Sheet

On Good Friday Christians commemorate the death and burial of Jesus Christ. Just as Roman Catholics turn to the customs associated with the holy sepulchre to help them focus their devotions, the Orthodox turn to an object called the epitaphios or "winding sheet." This icon, or religious image, depicts Jesus' burial. Unlike most icons the image is painted or sewn onto a piece of cloth rather than something solid, like a piece of wood. Among the Orthodox the winding sheet is most commonly known by its Greek name, the epitaphios, or its Slavonic name, the plaschanitsa.

Orthodox Christianity constitutes one of the three main branches of the Christian faith. It developed in eastern Europe and the countries surrounding the eastern half of the Mediterranean Sea. Most members of this ancient faith tradition still hail from these eastern countries although nowadays Orthodox Christian communities can also be found in western Europe, the United States, and other western countries. Orthodox Christians follow a different church calendar than that commonly adhered to by Western Christians, that is, Roman Catholics and Protestants (see also Easter, Date of).


The ceremonies surrounding the epitaphios have evolved over time. From ancient times to the end of the Middle Ages, the city of Constantinople, now known as Istanbul, Turkey, served as the capital of the Orthodox Byzantine empire. Records from as far back as the seventh century indicate that, like their counterparts in western Europe, Christians in Constantinople practiced the Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday. Indeed Christian officials from that city claimed to possess the horizontal beam of the true cross, the actual cross on which Jesus had been crucified (see also Tree of the Cross). Over the next few centuries, however, Eastern Christians shifted this observance to the fourth Sunday in Lent. Today Orthodox churches still observe the fourth Sunday in Lent as the Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross.

The shifting of the Veneration of the Cross to another date may have created a gap in Orthodox Good Friday observances. Nevertheless, it took the ceremonies surrounding the epitaphios another several hundred years to take shape. Some suggest that the epitaphios itself was inspired by the presence in Constantinople between the tenth and thirteenth centuries of a shroud believed to be the same one in which Jesus was buried (see also Shroud of Turin). Scattered historical records suggest that this revered religious relic was displayed for public veneration on Good Friday. Other scholars reason that the epitaphios evolved from a ceremonial cloth used to veil the chalice containing the wine and the platter holding the unconsecrated bread of the Eucharist as they were brought to the altar. One mystical tradition interpreted this ceremonial cloth, called an aer, as a symbol of the stone that closed the door of Jesus'tomb. It further saw the eiliton, a second ceremonial cloth on which the chalice of the Eucharist rested, as representing the burial shroud of Christ. By the fourteenth century the once-plain cloth used for the aer had been replaced by cloths embroidered with the image of Christ in death, thus reinforcing the old symbolic interpretation.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Orthodox authorities began to interpret one element of their Good Friday services - the clergy's procession throughout the church with the Gospel book - as representing Jesus' funeral procession. During the fourteenth century, influenced by this interpretation, Orthodox priests began to wrap the Gospel book in the aer for this procession. By the fifteenth century the aer used for this purpose had acquired a new name, the epitaphios. In the sixteenth century the clergy began to carry the epitaphios above the Gospel book during these processions, using it as a kind of canopy. It is still carried in the same manner at today's Good Friday services.

Current Ceremonies

Orthodox churches frequently schedule three services on Good Friday. Many parishes offer the Royal Hours during the morning, a service originally associated with Maundy Thursday. In Greek Orthodox churches parishioners who arrive at church during the morning may help to decorate the kouvouklion, an object that serves as Christ's funeral bier, with flowers. During the afternoon service, which commemorates Jesus' burial, the epitaphios and Gospel book lie side by side on the altar. At the end of the service the celebrant processes around the church carrying the Gospel book while others hold the epitaphios over it like a canopy. The procession ends at the kouvouklion. The priest lays the epitaphios down on the kouvouklion and then places the book on top of it. Clergy members and lay people approach the epitaphios one by one, bowing deeply before it and kissing both the cloth and the book. Clergy members offer each worshiper a flower from the kouvouklion. The bowing and kissing may be repeated up to three times. Parishioners take these flowers home with them and place them in the home ikonostasi, a special shelf or niche used to hold icons and other religious paraphernalia. The epitaphios remains on display in the church, inspiring worshipers to pray and to meditate on the death of Christ (see also Sin; Redemption; Salvation).

Religious services begin once again in the evening. Because Orthodox religious authorities follow the Jewish tradition of beginning each new day at sundown, these services are technically considered Holy Saturday rather than Good Friday observances. The high point of these evening services comes when clergy members pick up the funeral bier and lead the worshipers, each one carrying a lit candle, in a procession around the interior of the church. Some processions actually exit the church and circle the church grounds or go around an entire city block before returning to the church. In Greece and other predominately Orthodox countries these processions make even longer trips through village and city streets. In some towns the procession includes a tour through the local cemetery where the bearers guide the bier over gravestones. In the Greek capital city of Athens the head of state and other political leaders play important roles in this Good Friday procession.

Those carrying the bier halt just outside the door of the church, so that to gain readmittance everyone must duck under the epitaphios. This mode of reentering the church is thought to confer a blessing. Before passing under the epitaphios worshipers blow out their candles, a gesture that signifies the death of Christ, and clergy members sprinkle rosewater, representing tears, on the congregation.

Further Reading

Hopko, Thomas. The Orthodox Faith. Volume Two, Worship. Syosset, NY: The Orthodox Church in America, 1972. Monti, James. The Week of Salvation. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publications, 1993. Rouvelas, Marilyn. A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America. Bethesda, MD: Nea Attiki Press, 1993. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954. Wybrew, Hugh. Orthodox Lent, Holy Week and Easter. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1997.
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002
References in periodicals archive ?
He notes, seminally, that in one of the dialogues attributed to Plato, Menexenus, Socrates quotes at quite some length a eulogy on the death of worthy Athenian soldiers composed by Aspasia, to whom he further attributes the authorship of an earlier, more memorable epitaphios, the so-called "Pericles's Funeral Oration" recorded by Thucydides.
The chapter on Bellini draws heavily on the earlier discussion of shrouds, with a persuasive reading of the Louvre's deeply strange Christ Blessing as an Epitaphios cloth brought to life.
They are Narrative of the Coup of John the Fat; Description of the Church of the Holy Apostles, Constantinople; Epitaphios for his brother John; dossier on the patriarchate, Fourth Lenten Sermon 1215, Ethopoliiia of a mathematician, letters, and synodal documents.
In the Easter play, Comoedia de Christi resurrectione, a women's chorus laments over Christ's grave in Greek, with Bion of Smyrna's words from his Epitaphios. In the triumphant finale, the male Anachorite chorus chants the "Christos aneste" (Christ is risen) hymn of the orthodox liturgy, while the boys' choir sings the vernacular "Christ ist erstanden!" In his final work, De temporum fine comoedia, the nine Sibyls prophesy in Greek the end of the world, while the Anachorite chorus retorts in Greek, Latin, and German with words taken from the relevant Orphic hymn by the composer.
People arrived early to worship and decorate the Epitaphios, the ceremony marking the death and resurrection of Christ.
Early Greek epideictic assumed three distinct forms: epitaphios, hymnos, andparadoxos.
Krotoszynski, Jr., An Epitaphios for Neutral Principles in Constitutional Law: Bush v.
Hystoria y relacion verdadera de la enfermedad felicissimo transito y sumptuosas exequias funebres de la Serenissima Reyna de Espana dona Isabel de Valoys nuestra Senora: con los sermones, letras y epitaphios a su tumulo, dilatado con costumbres y cerimonias varias de diferentes nasciones en enterrar sus diffuntos [...].
Mourning and democracy: The Periclean epitaphios and its afterlife.
The commemorative epitaphios logos, for example, patriotically cherry-picks Athenian military struggles; defeats become "learning experiences" or disappear.