«Orthodoxy - is not a squalidity, it is the beauty of life; Orthodoxy does not make us dress in gloomy grey-and-black-and-brown colors».
Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill

Interview with A. L. Dvorkin

Many people wonder about Christian symbols applied onto their clothes. Is it allowed to put images of crosses, excerpts from the Holy Scriptures on mundane things, does this contradict the Orthodox canons? Can laymen wear such clothes, or is it allowed only to the priests? Can wearing Christian symbols be considered a missionary work? And finally, does an Orthodox Christian in general have the right, by dressing themselves in a special way, to single themselves out like that, and is this a confession of their religious belief?

These most frequent questions were answered by Alexander Leonidovich Dvorkin, Ph. D., Candidate of Theology, Professor at the Orthodox St. Tikhon Humanitarian University (PSTGU), President of the St. Irenaeus of Lyons Center for Religious Studies, President of the Russian Association of Centers for the Study of Religions and Sects (RACIRS), Vice-President of FECRIS.

- So, is it allowed to wear crosses on your everyday clothes?

- First of all, I would like to point out that the canons have nothing to say on that matter. Neither for, nor against it. However, since this practice is known, and the tenets do not prohibit it, we can assume that it is quite allowed. If this practice seemed dubious or wrong to someone, these opinions would have found their way into canonical books. True, for the first 4–5 centuries of Christianity there were the saints who, for various reasons, spoke against the images of Christ and the saints. But they were against images in general, and not just on clothes. However, no Christian ever objected to the images of the cross.

We know from archaeological artefacts and artistic heritage (for example, see images of soldiers of Emperor Justinianus and court ladies of Empress Theodora on mosaics in the Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna) that Christians have adhered to this practice since antiquity: they wore images of the cross on themselves, and they often sewed them onto clothes or decorated their festive clothes with ornaments in the form of crosses. This practice was known both in the East and in the West.

Oftentimes the cross sewn on clothes meant a special vow or a special mission of its bearer. For example, monks wore crosses and other sacred images on their clothes. Indeed, they are still found on monastic paramans and vestments. It is necessary to note that for the first thousand years of Christianity, monasticism was not perceived as a special social category belonging to the clergy. It was purely a laity movement. That is, the monks were laymen who took on additional (apart from baptismal) vows of serving the Lord.

The fact that crosses on clothes in the Orthodox world were quite mainstream, is backed up by this paradoxical example. When the first crusaders at the end of the 11th century began to appear in the Orthodox Byzantium (let me remind you that by this time the majority of people still perceived the Church as one), they were met with a sharp resentment coming from the populace of the empire. They were criticized for their barbarism, for greed, for boorishness, for aggressiveness, inclemency, inability to keep a word, for lack of hygiene, for strange food tastes – so, in a word, for everything. However, there was NO SINGLE objection or reproach that they sew a cross on the right shoulder of their clothes. To be more precise, they were reproached, but that criticism was of a different kind, i. e. how could people who have the image of the Cross of Christ on themselves behave in this way? That is, it was not the cross that caused the outrage, but the fact that the Christians who bore it failed to behave accordingly.

- Is it appropriate to wear images of hosts of heaven, as well as saints, on mundane clothes?

- This question is answered by the canon of the Second Council of Nicaea, which says that the image of the Sacred Cross (and the place where it was depicted) should become a model for the icons. Word for word it was: “As the sacred and life-giving cross is everywhere set up as a symbol, so also should the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the holy angels, as well as those of the saints and other pious and holy men be embodied in the manufacture of sacred vessels, tapestries, vestments (highlighted by me, A. L. D.), etc., and exhibited on the walls of churches, in the homes, and in all conspicuous places, by the roadside and everywhere, to be revered by all who might see them. For the more they are contemplated, the more they move to fervent memory of their prototypes.”
There is a reason to believe from the text of the canon that it speaks not only about sacred vestments, but also about solemn, festive clothes of Orthodox Byzantines, as well as the clothes of monks and others who accepted certain vows of the laity.

- Is it permissible to apply excerpts from the Scripture onto clothes?

- So, we have found out that the clothes can bear an image of the Cross or icons. Let us recall how the word “icon” is translated from Greek. Eἰκόνα means an image. So, the clothes can have images of the Holy Cross or the saints. But what is Holy Scripture? It is the verbal image of God. Therefore, I see no obstacles to placing quotations from Holy Scripture on clothing.

- Can lay people wear Christian images on their clothes or is it a prerogative of priests only?

- We have spoken about that a bit earlier and are convinced that yes, they can. And they have done so from the very beginning of the history of Christianity.

- Where on clothes can you have such images?

- It seems to me that in that case you need to be guided by common sense. It is common sense to place these images on clothes that covers the upper half of the body: chest, back, shoulders, arms. Although Ephrem the Syrian boldly asserts that every part of the human body can be decorated with a cross (see quote below).

- Can clothes with Christian symbols and images have a missionary purpose?

- Undoubtedly, I think that in the first place it has a missionary purpose. We used to talk a lot about how priestly attire has missionary meaning. People see a priest in a cassock and with a cross, they approach him and ask questions, learn about Orthodoxy. Now many are calling for the development of a lay mission. Clothing with Orthodox symbols is a perfect form for the active Orthodox Christians who want to be missionaries. In a sense, a person who purchases a
T-shirt or a sweatshirt with a cross takes on a complementary vow to actively share his faith with those around him.

- Does an Orthodox Christian have the right to somehow single themselves out with clothing and can this be considered a confession of their faith?

- As for the first question, there are many signs according to which the people who are outside the church can identify an Orthodox Christian. For example, you can ask: do they have the right to make the sign of the cross (before eating, before doing any errands, or simply when passing by a church)? Do they have the right to single themselves out by eating lean foods on the appropriate days? Do they have the right to single themselves out by refraining from work on big holidays?

And so on. The answer is a definite yes.

We can also recall that representatives of many religions can be recognized by their clothes, with which they show their faith. There is a kind of “uniform” for practicing Muslims. And it is easy to “figure out” an orthodox Jew. So why should we be ashamed of our faith and shun away from expressing it with paraphernalia? And let me stress it again: clothes can be the starting point of a mission.
As for the second part of the question, I will give you several patristic quotes, which can be attributed to the custom of wearing the image of the Holy Cross on clothes.

“By the depiction of the Sacred and Life-giving Cross, demons and various diseases are banished; and it is done at no cost and without difficulty. And indeed who can count the praises of the Holy Cross?”
St. Peter of Damascus

“Let us put the image of the life-giving cross on the doors, on the brow, on the breast, and on the lips, and on every member of our body (highlighted by me, A. L. D.) and arm ourselves with this invincible Christian weapon, the vanquisher of death, the hope of the faithful, the light for the ends of the earth, this weapon that opens paradise, disposes heresy, this statement of faith, a great keeper and salvation of the Orthodox, this weapon shall we carry with us in every place, day and night, at every hour and every minute. Do not do anything without it; whether you sleep, get up from sleep, work, eat, drink, travel, cross the sea or river, decorate all your members with the life-giving cross...”
Ephrem the Syrian

Rebuking the iconoclasts, venerable Theodore the Studite writes: “Christ-like image, whether it is represented in the inanimate (highlighted by me, A. L. D.) or in animate objects, usually acts like a miracle, embodying the image and aspect of the prototype...”

- Are there any positive aspects of wearing Christian images on clothes in the daily life of Christians?

- The thing is, our clothes impose a great deal on us. For example, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, a person behaves one way, and when they are in a suit and tie, they behave in a different way. So how should a person behave when they know that their clothes carry sacred images? That person will always remember that inappropriate behavior will be out of line with their appearance. And it will twist their mission into an anti-mission. So, as far as it goes, clothing with sacred images serves as a powerful motivator for a righteous life. Let us recall the wise words of rev. Anthony the Great: “In whatever you do, remember your last days, and you will never sin.” I think this applies to clothes with sacred images as well.