My parish purchased a pair of fans over the summer, which we only started to use regularly a month or so ago, (when we finally got enough altar servers to be able to do so). I had seen them used before in other places and had myself borne fans while serving at the cathedral. However, they were new to most of our people and, while I was able to explain their use and purpose, it occurred to me that I knew very little of their history and development. So I decided to do a little bit of googling and reading. This, of course, meant that a post about liturgical fans was destined to appear here sooner or later, and I must confess to having really enjoyed doing the background work for this. It has been educational and rather good fun.
First of all, the nomenclature is interesting. There is no doubt about the purpose of these implements: they were most definitely functional fans at one point, and the names by which they are called today simply reflect this. In the west, the liturgical fan goes by the name flabellum, which is simply the Latin word for fan. In the Russian church, it is called the ripidi, from the Greek word ripidion, again meaning fan. However, in the Greek church, the fans are generally no longer known as ripidia but rather hexapteryga, meaning six-winged, reflective of the ancient six-winged seraphim that are often depicted on them. Curiously, it seems that this name is applied even to examples that do not bear the image of the seraphim, (which many do not). Better, I think, to stick with fan. I rather like ours. They are a wooden pair, and form a complete set with our processional Cross and icon, which we keep at the High Place when not in use:
It seems that the use of such implements dates from the time of the ancient Egyptians, who would likely have used them to fan the pharaoh, keeping him cool, providing shade from the sun, and driving away flying insects. The earliest known surviving example dates from the 14th century BC, and was discovered in 1922 in the tomb of Tutankhamun.
As for how these fans came to be used in Christian worship across various places and times, I am not sure. In general terms, I think that it is fairly safe to assume that they came to be thought of as a sign of honour given to a sovereign god figure, and that this was simply transferred to the holy things used in Christian worship in honour of Christ. By what route this took place, I do not know and would be grateful for contributions from anybody with knowledge of this. Did they, for instance, come to be used in the Roman/Byzantine imperial ceremonies? Or did they perhaps, due to the Egyptian connection, begin use in the Alexandrian/Coptic rites and spread from there to other local churches?
The earliest record that we have of the use of fans in Christian worship is in the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles. The Apostolic Constitutions is a compilation of liturgical and other instructions drawn and expanded from various sources, and is generally agreed to date from the mid-to-late fourth century. Chapter 8, from which the above is taken, is itself an expansion of an earlier document (the Apostolic Tradition) discovered in the 19th century and now widely believed to be Alexandrian or possibly Syrian in origin, due to the nature of the liturgical praxis described in it. (This had previously been identified as a lost Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome, an attribution that is now largely discredited, in addition to the doubts about whether such a work ever existed at all). In the 12th chapter of book 8, we find a description of what appears to be the part of the Eucharistic rite immediately after what we would today call the Great Entrance:
...let the deacons bring the gifts to the bishop at the altar; and let the presbyters stand on his right hand, and on his left, as disciples stand before their Master. But let two of the deacons, on each side of the altar, hold a fan, made up of thin membranes, or of the feathers of the peacock, or of fine cloth, and let them silently drive away the small animals that fly about, that they may not come near to the cups.The use of the fans prescribed here is more or less exactly what appears in the rubrics of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy to this day, where, after the Great Entrance and the Litany of Oblation, the deacon is directed to fan the Gifts throughout and after the Anaphora, laying the fan aside temporarily only to perform his other duties before continuing to fan. Today, this is generally only done on the occasion of the ordination of a deacon but I find it staggering that, after 1700 years, our service books still contain this direction. In my experience, when somebody on the internet says with absolute certitude that particular liturgical practices no longer take place, he is usually wrong, and this video from the mother church of the Milan Synod, depicting concelebrating priests with the fans during the Anaphora, would suggest that this practice, while no longer common, is certainly not forgotten. (They also seem to have those impressive, if rather noisy, fans with the bells attached, which seem common in the Armenian, Syrian, and certain other churches). Addition 07/05/2011 - Here is a video showing the use of the fan by the deacons at the Ukrainian Catholic parish that features on this blog from time to time.-The Apostolic Constitutions
The western form of the fan seems to have retained the feathers for much longer than in the east - indeed, it never lost that form, as can be seen from these photographs of processions. The first is of Pope Pius XI at Corpus Chrsti in the early 20th century and the second is from the Anglican parish of St Timothy, Fort Worth, a few years ago:
The use of the papal fans was discontinued in the latter half of the 20th century, though I think it would be quite good fun to see a pair of them used alongside the popemobile.
According to the Wikipedia article on the fans, (at least as it stands at the time of posting), they fell into general disuse from the Mass in the west in about the 14th century. I am intrigued to learn just how they were used and how they fitted into the divine services ceremonially. If anybody knows or has some idea of where I can find out, and would be willing to share, that would be splendid.
Below is a photograph of a Coptic fan, dating from the 8th or 9th century, currently kept in the Brooklyn Museum. It, too, bears the image of two six-winged seraphim, shown not as faces but as circles with wings, which is itself not uncommon. However, what is interesting here is that, within these circles, there appear to be the heads of animals. I suspect that these are the creatures attending the throne of God from the vision of the Prophet Ezekiel. These appear to be the ox and lion. Presumably, the eagle and the man would have been depicted on the other fan from the pair, which I assume has not survived.
All of these symbols - the seraphim with their six wings, the four living creatures attending the throne of God, and quite possibly even the peacock if somebody can work out what the significance is - point to our earthly entering into the worship of heaven. In the Byzantine Rite today, the fans are used at the Divine Liturgy at the Little and Great Entrances and at the proclamation of the Gospel, where they are carried before and after the Gospel Book and Holy Gifts in the procession, with those creatures truly attending the King of kings and Lord of lords in those mystical symbols of the Book of Gospels and his Body and Blood as the fans are held over them. They are also held over the Gospel at other services and also over particular icons when they are carried solemnly in procession or set up for the veneration of the faithful. I am so pleased that we are finally able to use these at my parish. They certainly add something of majesty to our worship, even in the humblest of settings.
I cannot think of a better way to close than to share with you this awe-inspiring depiction of the use of the fans at the Little Entrance from the Vesperal Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.