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Liturgical Instruments - Coptic Wiki


The liturgical instruments of the Coptic church, as well as everything worn or used during the services, must be consecrated by the patriarch or a bishop as part of the general process of CONSECRATION.

Basin and Ewer

A basin and ewer are usually placed on a low wooden stand at the northern side of the ALTAR; they are used to wash the priest’s hands during the Divine Liturgy.

The basin and ewer are usually of silver, brass, or bronze, and are entrusted to the deacon on ordination. When all communicants have partaken of the Holy Communion, the deacon pours water from the ewer over the church vessels until the priest makes sure of their proper ablution. He then pours water into the palms of the priest, who says the following prayer: “O Angel of this Sacrifice ascending up on high with this hymn of praise, remember us before the Lord, that He may forgive us our sins.” The priest then insufflates the water, casts it up into the air before the altar, wipes his own face with his hands, and then touches his fellow priests.

It is also usual for the priest to take the ewer into his left hand, pass down the middle aisle of the church, and sprinkle the water over the congregation in the form of aspersion before praying the final blessing and dismissal (see ‘Abd al-Masih, 1902).


A candelabrum is a large ornamental candlestick. It appears in various forms and is usually made of bronze, iron, copper, or silver. It is placed inside the SANCTUARY (haykal) or outside, next to the ICONOSTASIS.

In some churches one candelabrum stands at the north end of the altar and another at the south, meant to represent the two angels who appeared inside the Holy Sepulcher, one at the head and the other at the foot of the place where the body of Christ had lain. It is also common to see in some churches two candelabra outside the haykal screen, representing the Old and New Testaments.

The use of the candelabrum was originally commanded by God to as part of the furnishings of the Tabernacle (see Ex. 25:31-40, 37:17-24; Nm. 8:1-4).


The censer is a metal bowl about 5 inches (12 cm) in diameter, in which incense is added to the glowing coals. To it are attached three chains, each measuring about 22 inches (54 cm) in length, which end with a small domelike lid and a hook. Small spherical bells are sometimes attached to the three chains.

In the Old Testament the censer was a receptacle carried by hand, to be filled with live coals from the altar (Nm. 16:46). Censers used in the Tabernacle of the Congregation were made of bronze (Ex. 27:3, 38:3), whereas those used on the altar, as well as the censer which was taken by the chief priest to the sanctum sanctorum on the day of atonement, were made of pure gold (1 Kgs. 7:50; 2 Chr. 4:22).

God commanded to make an altar on which exclusive sweet incense was burnt by Aaron every morning (Ex. 30:7). The perfume of incense thus came to be symbolical of prayer and the presence of God. Hence the added significance of Solomon’s words “While the king was on his couch, my nard gave forth its fragrance” (Sg. 1:12).

In worship the offering of incense continued to have the same importance, and the censer acquired an essential symbolic significance in the Coptic liturgy. The censer that bears live coals and sweet-smelling incense became an analogy for the Blessed Virgin Mary, who bore the Savior of the world. Reference is made to this particular relationship at certain points in the liturgy, as when, following the Prayer for the Absolution of Ministers, the congregation sings the Hymn to the Virgin: “This is the censer of pure gold, containing the ambergris, that was entrusted to the hands of Aaron the Priest, raising incense upon the altar.” On fast days the following section is chanted: “The Virgin is the gold censer, our Savior is its ambergris. She gave birth to Him Who has saved us and forgiven our sins.” Throughout the Fast of Lent the following verse is chanted: “You are the pure gold censer, containing the Blessed Live Coals.” In the PSALMODIA, the Sunday THEOTOKIA include similar instances of the Virgin-censer analogy.

The Ethiopian liturgy contains the same analogy in the prayer that the priest says while offering incense before the icon of the Virgin: “You are the gold censer which bore the Live Coal Fire. . . . Blessed be He Who was incarnated of you, Who offered Himself to His Father for incense and acceptable offering.” Standing outside the iconostasis, the priest also says, “The censer is Mary; the incense is He Who was in her womb, Who is fragrant; the incense is He Whom she bore, He came and saved us, the fragrant ointment, Jesus Christ.”

The offering of incense was widely practiced right from the beginning of the era. Some ecclesiastical commentators, however, have expressed doubt as to the validity of this belief, perhaps because of the scant references made to the use of incense in the writings of the early fathers of the church. This may be attributed to the fact that many details of Christian worship and church mysteries were intentionally unrecorded, lest they be misused by heretics, and were therefore only verbally entrusted to believers.

Nevertheless, the use of incense may be inferred from several sources. The HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS supplies clear evidence of the use of censers and incense in the postapostolic age. When the congregation raised objections against DEMETRIUS I (189-231) as the twelfth patriarch of the See of Saint Mark on the grounds of his being a married man, he demonstrated his chastity by pouring glowing coals from the censer onto his garment in front of the congregation without being burned (Manassa Yuhanna, 1983, p. 23).

From the to John, it can be inferred that the censer was used in a way different from the earlier Jewish usage: “And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God” (Rev. 8:3-4). The next chapter speaks of the twenty- four elders “each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev. 9:8). This must be an indication of the then-prevalent manner of worship, featuring the use of censers and incense.

In describing the plight of the church in latter days, the ecclesiastical writer Hippolytus (c. 170-c. 236) employed the following words: “And the churches, too, will wail with a mighty lamentation, because neither oblation nor incense is attended to, nor a service acceptable to God” (1951, pp. 250-51).

The Didascalia (Hafiz Duwud, 1967) provides an indication as to the necessity of using the censer, instructing that the bishop shall carry the incense and make three circuits round the altar in glorification of the Holy and then hand the censer to the priest who shall go round the whole congregation carrying it.

In the writings attributed to DIONYSIUS THE PSEUDO- AREOPAGITE is the following statement: “The bishop having made an end of sacred prayer at the divine altar, begins the censing with it, and goes over the whole circuit of the sacred place.”

A good many of the early fathers who chose to minimize the importance of using incense in worship, including Athenagoras, Tertullian, CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA, Arnobius, Lactantius, and Augustine, were converted to Christianity from cults that relied heavily on the use of incense. They were understandably anxious to divest worship of any apparently heathen customs and to render it strictly spiritual. Thus, Clement of Alexandria preached that “the righteous soul is the truly sacred altar, and that incense arising from it is holy prayer.”

Speaking of the efficacy of worship, Saint Ephraem Syrus (c. 306-373) wrote, “Your fasts are a defense for our land; your prayers are a shield for our city; the burning of incense is our propitiation. Praise to God Who has hallowed your offering” (1866). He stressed the point in another context: “I exhort you not to bury me with sweet spices . . . but to give the fumigation of sweet- smelling smoke in the house of God. . . . Burn your incense in the house of the Lord to His praise and honor” (1732-1746).

The use of incense is mentioned in the course of a description given by Saint BASIL THE GREAT of the desolation suffered by the churches during the persecution: “The houses of prayer were cast down by unholy hands, the altars were overthrown, and there was no oblation nor incense, no place of sacrifice, but fearful sorrow, as a cloud, was over all” (1885, col. 496).

According to the witness of Etheria (Egeria), the nun who made a tour of Egypt, the Holy Land, Edessa, Asia Minor, and Constantinople toward the end of the fourth century, incense and censers were used at Jerusalem in the Easter service (1919).

The third of the APOSTOLICAL CANONS offers explicit evidence of the necessity of using incense: “If any bishop or presbyter offer any other things at the altar, besides that which the Lord ordained for the sacrifice . . . let him be deposed . . . excepting oil for the lamps, and incense” (1956, p. 594). Commenting on this law, The Rudder adds, “No one is permitted to offer anything else on the altar except oil for the purpose of illumination, and incense, at the time when divine liturgy is being celebrated” (Cummings, 1957, p. 5).

Cross, Manual

In the course of performing any ecclesiastical function, whether inside or outside the church, the patriarch, bishop, or priest must hold in his right hand a cross called salib yadd. With it he makes the sign of the cross over the oblations on the altar, the baptismal water, the heads of the betrothed during the wedding ceremony, or those to be given absolution. He holds it during the reading of the Gospel, while delivering a sermon, and when blessing members of the congregation or their homes.

When a patriarch or bishop is consecrated or a priest is ordained, he is given a manual cross as a token of the authority he receives in the name of Jesus Christ. Its use during the liturgy signifies that he is the minister of Jesus Christ who is the Shepherd and Guardian of souls (1 Pt. 2:25). It also stands for the power Christians can derive through prayer, for just as Christ conquered death and opened the gates of His Kingdom for believers, they can resort to the cross as a weapon with which to fight evil.


A cruet is a small vessel with a secure lid, now usually made of glass but in olden times sometimes made of gold or silver, and ornamented with crosses or verses from the Gospel. Two cruets are used during the Divine Liturgy, one for wine and the other for water. In some churches one cruet may be used, from which first the wine and then the water is poured into the chalice (see EUCHARISTIC VESSELS). Larger cruets may also be used on festive occasions where a particularly large congregation is expected to partake of Holy Communion.

Before the celebration of Divine Liturgy, and in keeping with church law, the EUCHARISTIC WINE is first poured into a cup, and the priest looks very carefully to make sure it is free from defect before it is offered for the SACRAMENT OF HOLY COMMUNION (al- al-Din Ibn al-‘Assal, 1927, p. 126).

Following the offertory prayers, the priest places the EUCHARISTIC BREAD (in Arabic called hamal, the Lamb [of God]) inside a silk-mat lifafah (see EUCHARISTIC VEIL) and holds it to the top of his forehead; the deacon does the same with the cruet of wine. Both then make a circuit once around the altar, the priest saying, “Glory and honor, honor and glory unto the All-Holy Trinity; the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” and so on. The deacon says, “Pray for these sacred, precious oblations, for our sacrifices and for those who have offered them.” Then the priest makes the sign of the cross over both the bread and the wine, places the bread on the paten, takes the cruet from the deacon, and pours the wine into the chalice, completely emptying the cruet. He returns it to the deacon, who wipes it and takes it back to its proper place.

Cruets are also used to hold the following sacramental oils: (1) the holy chrism, the cruet of which may only be handled by the priest, who ensures that it is stored in a securely locked place near the baptismal font, keeping its key in his possession; (2) the kallielaion (or galileon), the oil of the CATECHUMENS, used in the baptismal service (this cruet must also be kept beside the chrism cruet); and (3) the oil for the sick, over which prayers are said on the Friday preceding the Holy Week. These three kinds of chrismal oil must be carefully preserved in cruets with the name clearly indicated outside. Among the contents of some ancient are found curious forms of cruets or CHRISMATORIES, such as the one in the Church of ABU SAYFAYN in Old Cairo, described by A. J. Butler (1884, Vol. 2, p. 56) as being “a curious round wooden box with a revolving lid. The box is solid throughout, but has three holes scooped out inside, in each of which is deposited a small phial of oil.”

Eucharistic Bread Basket

The eucharistic bread basket is a large wicker basket, with a cross-embroidered lining, to hold the loaves baked for the Eucharist. Only one of the loaves, the most perfect of three or five, is chosen for consecration as the “Lamb” (hamal), and the remaining loaves are kept for distribution as blessed bread among the congregation at the end of the service.


A fan made of ostrich or peacock feathers, linen cloth, thin sheets, or fine threads of metal is sometimes used in the church during the Divine Liturgy to drive away flies and other insects from the chalice. It usually carries a drawing of the six-winged cherubim or is made in the shape of the cherubim, but is rarely used in modern churches.

According to the APOSTOLIC CONSTITUTIONS, “Two deacons on each side of the altar hold a fan made of thin vellum, or peacock’s feathers, to drive away flies or gnats, lest they fall into the chalice” (Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, 1951, p. 486). These deacons represent the cherubim whose wings flap in reverence at the sanctity of the divine mysteries. The DIDASCALIA lays down similar rules to be observed during the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.

Metal fans are still in use in Syrian and Armenian Orthodox churches. In the Roman Catholic church, however, where fans had been used since the sixth century, they have been out of use since the fourteenth century (Venables, 1908, Vol. 1, p. 677). In the Greek Orthodox church, fans were in common use in the sixth century but are no longer used. Cyril of Scythopolis, a contemporary ecclesiastical historian, related how “Domitian [stood] at the right side of the holy table, while St. Euthymius was celebrating, with the mystical fan just before the Trisagion” (1939).

In ceremonial processions during the consecration of bishops and ordination of priests, large metal fans with long handles are carried, together with crosses, Gospel books, and candles. Likewise, in the procession held during the preparation and consecration of the chrism, fans are carried in the circuit. Manuscript 44 at the Library includes a detailed description of the myron procession. Two subdeacons would carry candles, twelve deacons would carry fans, and twelve priests would carry censers; then the high priest would follow carrying the chrism, surrounded by other bishops holding fans and crosses.


This is a book bound in metal in which is enclosed a copy of the four Gospels or the complete New Testament, in Coptic or Arabic (sometimes both), and which is placed on the altar during the church services. It may be made of silver or gold and usually measures about 6 inches (15 cm) by about 4.5 inches (11 cm). On one side it has the embossed representation of the Virgin Mary carrying the infant Jesus, with one of the Evangelists in each corner, and on the other side, the saint to whom the church is dedicated.

In the early centuries, because copies of the New Testament were rare and costly, they had to be protected and venerated in such ornate cases, and craftsmen vied in producing highly artistic ones, decorated with crosses and sometimes studded with gems, together with verses chosen from the Gospels and Coptic inscriptions meaning “The Gospel of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ” (see GOSPEL CASKET).

During the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, the deacon holds the Gospel and a cross while making a circuit around the altar. The book is held by the priest during the reading from the Gospel and during the blessing at the evening and the morning offerings of incense; it is kissed by members of the congregation before they leave.

The Gospel book is also carried during processions. The Coptic church in Jerusalem uses two large gilt books, each embossed with a representation of the Crucifixion on one side and the Resurrection on the other side. These are carried by two priests or deacons.

The custom of placing the Gospel book on the altar follows an old tradition. According to E. Bishop, “it was regarded as representing our Lord Himself, just as the Altar came to be conceived as the Throne of the Great King” (1962, p. 21).

Incense Box

The box or case for incense is usually of silver or carved wood. It is placed at the right hand of the officiating priest. A small spoon is usually placed in the incense box and used for putting the incense in the censer.


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