The word orant, or latin orans, is a noun form of the verb orare, to pray, and describes an early mode of prayer practiced by the first Christians ((http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/orant)). From Wikipedia we read:
Orant is a type of gesture during prayer in which the hands are raised, set apart, and the palms face outward. It was once common in early Christianity, and can frequently be seen in early Christian art, but has since become quite rare. The gesture is more common in Catholic worship, esoteric sects, and in certain forms of exorcism ritual. It is commonly used in small group renewal weekend settings such as Cursillo. This renewal weekend is offered by Catholic, Lutheran, and Episcopal churches. It is common in some charismatic churches during praiseful singing as well. ((http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orant))
The image above comes to us from the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Ravenna, Italy:
Saint Apollinare, the first bishop of Ravenna, is robed in a white dalmatic and purple tunic, embroidered with bees, symbolizing eloquence. He is in the early Christian “orant” position–with outstretched arms praying. ((http://www.bluffton.edu/~sullivanm/italy/classe/santapollinare/santapollinare2.html))
Another source informs us:
The orans (latin, prayer) gesture is an ancient mode of prayer common to many ancient religions. It is performed standing, elbows bent or at the side, with arms uplifted and palms upward- a gesture of supplication or pleading.
The orans position was widely used in early Christian prayer, but was gradually replaced by the submissive gesture in the laity, although it has been in continual use by priests of the Roman Catholic faith during the celebration of the Mass and other priestly offices. It has been in continual use by both clergy and laity in the Eastern Orthodox Church. ((http://altreligion.about.com/library/glossary/symbols/bldefsorans.htm))
Why was the orans position gradually replaced when it was so widely practiced in the beginning? In fact, it’s practice extends back much further, as this article points out, that the gesture is “common to many ancient religions,” and shows one example from the funeral stele of an Egyptian woman (shown on the right).
One commenter adds to our understanding of the orant:
It is commonly said that the outstretched hands reflect the common attitude of prayer. It would be more correct to say that this is the characteristic attitude of the Christian in prayer. . . . The Christians adopted a very significant attitude in prayer, which early writers (among them Tertullian, De orat. 14) described as the attitude of Christ on the cross. . . . This was the attitude of the orant, and it is still the attitude of the priest at the altar. ((Walter Lowrie, Art in the Early Church, W W Norton & Co Inc, 1969, 64))
Then he adds interesting detail about the speculated meaning of this symbol’s use on sarcophagi and elsewhere:
Wilpert understands the orant to mean that the deceased are praying for the loved ones who survive them on earth. This is a consolatory reflection, and in fact many of the inscriptions addressed to the departed (and not only to eminent saints) ask for their prayers: Pete pro nobis. But this is not the only meaning of prayer. . . . The orant in the catacombs is evidently praying for himself, supplicating God for deliverance or giving thanks to him for it. . . . To the eye of the beholder it is an assurance that the individual depicted in that attitude is saved, that his prayer has been heard, and that he has entered into paradise, for the essence of prayer is faith. ((ibid., 65))
Lowrie notes that this symbol’s significance has no agreement among scholars, and many differing views have been expressed. ((ibid., 65)) Was it the living praying “for himself,” other living persons, for the deceased, or all of the above? If we go back to the writings of the early Christians, we might get a better picture. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. A.D. 386) helps to clarify why the early Christians were praying when he gave his lectures in Jerusalem around A.D. 350:
The embrace is, in fact, the sign of a mingling of souls and the erasing of all ill feeling. . . . We are turned toward the Lord, speaking in unison to declare our unanimity of spirit. . . . Then the priest says, Let us give thanks to the Lord. . . . for the thanksgiving prayer follows the prescribed order. . . . We pray for the common peace of the church and the well-being of the world (kosmos); for kings, commanders, and allies, for the sick and afflicted, and, in short, for all who need help. After that we remember the dead—patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs—that God might grant our petition through the joining of our prayers with theirs. Then we pray for . . . all of our own people who have fallen asleep. I have often heard people ask: What good does it do the departed spirit, whether the person was good or bad in life, to be remembered in the prayer? . . . Answer: By doing for them and for ourselves what a loving God requires (exileoumenoi), we make available (prospheromen) the atoning sacrifice which Christ made for our sins. ((Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, 520-521))
Cyril thus identifies these worshipers as acting out some kind of vicarious work, doing for the dead “what a loving God requires,” by making available to them the Atonement. Nibley notes that “Cyril does not mention the list of names on the altar in this account, but he does elsewhere, referring to this very custom and specifying separate lists for the living and the dead” ((Hugh Nibley, The Early Christian Prayer Circle, http://farms.byu.edu/display.php?id=59&table=transcripts)).
This attitude of prayer has also been studied extensively by BYU professor Stephen Ricks in “Prayer with Uplifted Hands in the Ancient World.” ((I’m unsure if this has been published anywhere. Please let me know.))
What a magnificent photo image! That would make a great heading for your blog, at least temporarily.
Thanks. I got the image from here. It is a great example of the orant posture of the early Christians.
W O W ! ! !
I L O V E your site!
This gesture can be seen repeatedly (from a side profile view) in Egyptian Religious text, look up “The Egyptian book of the dead” — The papyrus of Ani — for example. It is common in most portraits of candidates being lead to or approaching judgment (in white pleated robes), of course it isn’t called an Orant gesture. Also in Egyptian art the “Ka” (spirit) symbol or gesture is two arms to the square.
I believe FARMS has a study on Egyptian incense burners being fashioned in the form of a cupped hand.
I look forward to your views and comments on these in a future post, perhaps Orant parts 2, 3, 4, 5.
Thank You very very much for your time and talent putting up this site,
Thanks John!! I’m glad you like it. Thanks for your comments too. You are definitely right. The gesture of uplifted hands can be seen in much of the Egyptian material. I’m sure I’ll get to other representations of the gesture in future posts.
The papyrus of Ani is certainly a good example, where the initiates are led towards the king on the throne, and are clothed in white pleated robes, one of them forming the Ka symbol. You can see a great example of this papyrus here. Here is another good example.
The Egyptian “Ka” is a gesture of two uplifted hands, and can also be interpreted as a symbolic embrace. Here is a good webpage introducing the Ka symbol.
Hugh Nibley gave a one of a kind lecture entitled, “Sacred Vestments,” in which he talked about the incense burners. I’m sure others have talked about them too. Here is what Nibley said:
Thanks for stopping by Temple Study. Feel free to comment often.
Fascinating. It is interesting to see how most, if not all, religions are related in one way or another. When we recognize the fact that no matter what our religion, we are worshiping the same deity. That deity gave our original parents certain customs and rites the they were to perform. These were passed down through the ages and just as stories always change with the each person who repeats them from memory, so have these customs and rites been changed and adapted. The fact that so many of them are still around and so very close to the original is also very interesting. We really are all brothers and sisters with the same Heavenly Father. Our differences come from the upbringing and environment.
Justin Martyr Jr
Orants in art works & early Christian prayer gestures with up-lifted hands:
A.D. 30—100, Clement of Rome, writing to the Corinthians, wrote: “Full of holy designs, ye did, with true earnestness of mind and a godly confidence, stretch forth your hands to God Almighty, beseeching Him to be merciful unto you, if ye had been guilty of any involuntary transgression.”
Further on: “Let us then draw near to Him with holiness of spirit, lifting up pure and undefiled hands unto Him, loving our gracious and merciful Father, who has made us partakers in the blessing of His elect.” (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., T&T Clark, Edinburgh, reprinted October 1989), 1:5, 12, The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, chapters 2; 29).
Clement of Alexandria, A.D. 153-193-217, wrote how they “raise the head and lift the hands towards heaven, and stand on tiptoe as we join in the closing outburst of prayer”. He also wrote: “Come to our mysteries and you shall dance with the angels around the Unbegotten and Eternal one, while Logos of God sings along with us. . . the great High Priest of God, who prays for men and instructs them.” (The Library of Christian Classics, vol.2, Alexandrian Christianity, Selected Translations of Clement & Origen with Introductions and Notes by John Ernest Leonard Oulton, D.D., Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Dublin; Chancellor of St. Patrick’s and Henry Chadwick, B.D., Fellow & Dean of Queens’ College, Cambridge. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press). vol. 2, p. 117, Clement of Alexandria, On Spiritual Perfection, chapter 7, see also note 37 on p. 117: Cf. Origen, de Orat., 31, below, p. 322 ff. Clement of Alexandria, 2nd century, Cohortation ad gentes, xxi, in Migne, PG 8:241.
In the third century catacombs, St. Callistus, Rome, is a fresco of a Christian woman, praying with up-lifted hands, and veiled.
veiled Mary with up-lifted hands praying.
Ceiling detail in the Chapel of Sant Andrea in the Arch Bishops Palace Mosaic decoration of the oratory cupola , ca 494 519. Angels with up raised hands into a circle. http://img2.photographersdirect.com/img/17480/wm/pd1187332.jpg
Another veiled female orant with up-raised hand in prayer.
Marion P. Ireland, Textile Art in the Church, Vestments, Paraments, and Hangings in Contemporary Worship, Art, and Architecture, (Nashville and New York: Abingdon Press, 1966, 1967, 1971), pp. 56—57, illustration 30: Fresco in the Catacombs of St. Callistus, Rome. Praying figure with up-lifted hands, wearing a see through veil on her head.
The orant gesture is mentioned numerous times in the Bible. Here is a good list: Gen. 14.22, Deut. 32.40, Exo.
17.12, Neh. 8.6, Dan. 12.7, Lam. 1.17, 3.41, Jer. 4.31, 1 Ki. 8.22,23,54, 2 Chr. 6.12,13, Hab. 3.10, Psa. 28.2, 63.4,
119.48, 134.2, 141.2. Note that Solomon ,David ,Moses, the daughter of Zion is pictured as using the same orant
gesture,though it is called the lifted up hands. All of these references are associated with prayers to God. The
orant gesture is mentioned in Nibley’s Temple and Cosmos also. I hope these help anyone who visits this blog.