The rhipidion, the sacred fan, was originally just an ordinary "fan", such as was used by servants to drive away flies from food that stood on a table. In the Greek-Byzantine rite, the deacon, who stood next to the celebrating bishop or priest at the altar, would "fan" the sacred gifts standing on the altar, originally no doubt to keep away flies.
Since the male deacon had the specific function of serving at the altar, he was handed the rhipidion during his ordination ceremony to make him exercise his new task. The rhipidion is no longer used during the eucharistic service in this way.
The rhipidion functions at present as an ornament at the corners of the altar. At times the rhipidion is carried as an ornament in processions.
At the right you can see a typical ornamental rhipidion as found in Byzantine churches.
It is made of gold and heavily decorated with gems.
This particular example comes from the Cloisters Museum in New York,
Photograph by courtesy of Barbara Paskins.
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