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Altar Linens
and Ciborium Covers

Peregrinus Goes Abroad

Part 1: See America First; Chapter 18


“You have some sort of Altar Society which not only takes care of your vestments, but make some of them,” remarked the Liturgiologist. “Tell me, don’t you find it a distinct advantage to have your linens ‘home-made?’”


“Quite right,” answered the Antiquary. “Even in these degenerate days there are still enough women left in the average parish who can ‘sew a fine seam’ to make it possible to have good, and even beautiful, linens. The two lower cloths of the altar need nothing but plain sewing; the long top one need not necessarily have open hem-stitching, or whatever they call it. Some of ours have lace on the ends,[1] and one or two have it along the front, but it is all real lace, linen, home-made, and of really good ecclesiastical design. Of course using antependia[2] as we do, we have abandoned the deep lace idea,[3] which is general in this country—”


“And really has nothing against it,” cut in the Liturgiologist, “except that it is usually bad lace. The proper adornment for the front of the altar is the antependium, but, so far as I can find out, it is not required, ut ita dicam, sub grave! [4] The lace idea isn’t so bad, and everybody is accustomed to it, but my peeve is that the lace one sees is so often so very bad.”[5]


“Didn’t they know you were going artistic, Pere,” laughed the Antiquary. “But I’m glad to hear you say those cruel words, because I’ve got some patterns for ecclesiastical lace, which is made with knitting needles or some similar instrument (I’m not up on the practical technique of these things) and the ladies who do that sort of work seem to have little difficulty in translating the pattern into very charming actuality.”


By this time the two old friends had reached the house, and the Antiquary brought out his patterns, and also some examples of the finished work.


“Here is a clever idea for an altar cloth,” said the Antiquary. “I’ve never seen anything like it before, but it is certainly effective, and thoroughly ecclesiastical. Personally, I like those German damasks, with the emblems woven in them, but they are difficult to get, and do not wear very well. It is none too easy, nowadays, to buy good linen, and, as we change our top altar cloth every week, in order to assure ourselves of carrying out the rubrical provision ‘taballis mundis.’”[6]

“Your insistence on linen is praiseworthy,” the Liturgiologist subjoined in an annotative voice. “No one, I fancy, will question the greater propriety of having all three of the altar cloths of linen, and that of the best. The ‘Approved Authors,’ however, almost all allow textiles woven from hemp, but certainly not cotton, or any other material, even if it be more precious.”

“I’ve never seen hempen cloth,” said the Antiquary. “But the consensus seems to be that cotton may not be used in the making of any ecclesiastical garment, even a surplice. Cotton lace is anathema, but rather too common.”

“Common is right!” snorted the Liturgiologist. “And, though I’m not ‘going artistic,’ as you implied a moment ago, I quite agree with you that the lace employed in ornamenting church vestments should be of a distinctly ecclesiastical design. At best it is merely allowed, never specified. I like your designs from Bruges. But what is this?”

He drew from the heap of pattern a circular design of admirable simplicity and very real artistic merit.


“It is a ‘canopy’ or veil for the ciborium (pyxis),” replied the Antiquary, “and one of my good parishioners, who has some little skill in embroidery, is attempting to produce it, using a simple outline of silk thread, with a little gold here and there. I’ve never been satisfied with the ciborium covers I’ve got from the shops. It seems to me that this particular ornament, destined for such close and constant proximity to the Blessed Sacrament, should be one of the choicest pieces in the parish collection of vestments.”


“Again, quite right, Pere,” said the Antiquary. “To good taste add loving reverence. Always, of course, remembering that beyond the prescription that the ciborium shall be covered by a veil while actually containing the Sacred Species, there is no direction regarding its material or ornamentation. The color should be white. Silk, of the most precious possible under the circumstances, would seem to be indicated. The form would depend on the personal preference of the Pastor, I suppose. Some do not like this circular style, because, they say, it hinders them when they uncover the ciborium, and even more whey they cover it. Myself, I can’t see why it should, unless unseemly haste marks their movements. By the way, did you line your tabernacle?”


“No, Pere, I didn’t,” answered the Antiquary. “I had the cedar wood box, which fits into the safe, gilded with gold leaf by a young Italian from Florence who learned the art there. He incised some very lovely and simple designs (also from Bruges) with a blunt tool. The effect is unusual, I know, but the canons and rubrics all allow the use of gilding instead of the more common lining of white silk. And I’ve seen so many tabernacles in which the linen was far from white—”


Bene, bene,”[7] murmured the Liturgiologist, with—for him—unusual gravity. “‘Omnis Gloria ejus Filiae Regis ab intus.’[8] May it not be that the ‘zelus Domus’[9] shows itself far more truly in the reverent attention to paid to these little, but by no means insignificant, details, than in showy matters. After all ‘neque enim homini praeparatur habitatio, sed Deo.’” (I Par. 29:1.)[10]




1 That is, on the lower horizontal hems that hang on the sides of the altar, which is the ancient practice.


2 Plural for antependium.


3 The practice of having a strip of lace more than 2 inches hanging over the front of the altar (and in a frumpy fashion down the sides) is something that rubricists are rather against as can be read in Geoffrey Webb’s The Liturgical Altar and J.B. O’Connell in Church Building and Furnishing, as well as others.


4 Latin for “so to speak, under grave requirement”.


5 This is another frequent complaint of liturgists.


6 Latin for “clean altar cloth”.


7 Latin for “good, good”.


8 Latin for “All of the glory of the King’s Daughter is within.”


9 A reference to the “Zeal for the House of the Lord”.


10 That is “For a house is prepared not for man, but for God.”

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