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Designer picks simple fabric, Cypriot symbols for pope's vestments

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BEIRUT — The Lebanese designer for Pope Francis' vestments for Mass in Cyprus chose simple fabric and symbols that figure prominently in the island nation.

In his research on Cyprus for the design of the papal vestments, Maged Bou Tanous discovered that olives, wheat and copper figured prominently. Cyprus was once a noted producer of copper.

The intertwining of olives branches and shafts of wheat in Bou Tanous' design form a half-moon shape on the front and back of Pope Francis' vestments for the Dec. 3 Mass in Nicosia. Copper thread replaces the gold thread typically used for vestments.

The half-moon shape, Bou Tanous explained to Catholic News Service, represents "open hands to receive all people, from the East and the West."

In the center of the "open hands" on the front stands the cross, alone.

"For me, the cross symbolizes the island of Cyprus in the middle of the sea," Bou Tanous said.

On the back of the vestment, the "open hands" surround an image of a lamb on the Bible, symbolizing Pope Francis as the disciple of Christ, Bou Tanous said.

The designer chose silk crepe from Morocco for the vestments.

"It's a simple, plain fabric," he said, unlike damask and brocade from which vestments often are designed.

"I know the style of the pope. He prefers simple things, simple embroidery," he explained.

Maronite Catholic officials from Cyprus contacted Bou Tanous with the request to design Pope Francis' vestments for the Dec. 2-4 visit to the Mediterranean island.

It is the Lebanese designer's fourth project for Pope Francis; the first was the vestments for the pope's Easter Monday Mass in 2016.

Bou Tanous was to personally carry the vestment robe and cap to Cyprus from Lebanon Dec. 1, but the miter has already been delivered to the Vatican.

"Pope Francis prefers to check it before the event," Bou Tanous said.

"I was a bit worried about his opinion. It's like taking an exam and waiting for the result. Especially, because it's for the pope, it's a big responsibility," the designer said.

The feedback from the Vatican? "'Bellissimo!'" ('very beautiful,' in Italian), Bou Tanous relayed, beaming.

Bou Tanous designs and sketches the vestments. His team of four artisan embroiderers hand-stitch the design.

"The work is very intricate," he said, stressing that the embroidery "should be like a painting, but a painting in 3D."

The 50-year-old designer, a Maronite Catholic with a master's degree in theology, said he well knows how details of the Bible and religious symbols are to be accurately depicted in liturgical vestments, but he also likes to be inspired by "real life" for his designs.

Along with all the liturgy, the Mass celebrant's vestments "put us in the mood of prayer," he said.

Bou Tanous said he hopes Pope Francis' vestments for the Cyprus Mass will inspire "hope, peace and beauty." Through his design, he added, "I hope I can give more meaning to the event."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021