Q: What is the origin and purpose of the rug that the bishop stands on during services?
A: Bishops stand on a circular rug called an "eagle" (Slavonic: orlyets; Greek aetos) whenever they are in church.
Depicted on this rug is a single-headed eagle hovering over a city with embattlemented walls and towers. The city is a symbol of the bishop's see. The eagle symbolizes the dignity and divine origin of his episcopacy.
In the Roman Empire, the double-headed eagle signified the synthesis of Church and State. Ancient mosaics show emperors standing on small cushions with the double-headed eagle embroidered on them. Emperors would award patriarchs of Constantinople the right to stand on the imperial cushions. By the thirteenth century, patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch began to use the rugs too.
In the fifteenth century, after the sack of Constantinople by the Turks, Russia assumed the role of the Orthodox Empire, and the Tsar appropriated the imperial insignia. At the same time, metropolitans in Russia adopted the custom of standing on episcopal rugs, showing an eagle with only one head. It was exclusively an ecclesiatical object, and was no longer tied to the state.
Within time, all bishops began using rugs. Rubrics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries mandated that bishops stand on eagle rugs when they give blessings upon entering and right before exiting the church. Through the centuries, the usage of eagle rugs has steadily grown, and today bishops stand on them throughout the divine services in slavic (and OCA) churches.
[This article is Copyright © Protodeacon C. Kirill Sokolov and is used with permission on www.holy-trinity.org]
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