Altar Cloths

Set of altar cloths, including burse (at the back) and chalice veil (in the centre). Set of altar cloths, including burse (at the back) and chalice veil (in the centre).

In the Western Christian churches, notably the Catholic and (High) Anglican communities, a number of different cloths are used to dress an altar. The range and appearance of these cloths vary, but in general, white linen cloth is used. Many of these cloths are embroidered in some manner.

The main types of cloths used are the following: the lowest cloth is the cere cloth, a heavy linen treated with wax (Latin cera ‘wax’), which is the same size as the flat, altar top (mensa). It is used to protect the altar top and is normally not decorated. Then, acting as a cushion, come two layers of linen cloth that are made of the same heavy linen (but not waxed) as the cere cloth. Over these layers is the fair linen, which is a long, white cloth that covers the top and sides of the altar. This is often made from a decorative, woven cloth edged with lace of some form. Sometimes five small crosses are embroidered on the fair linen, one in the middle and one in each of the four corners.

A cloth of the same linen as the cere cloth and the same size as the fair linen is placed over the altar when it is not in use. This cover is sometimes embroidered with whitework.

Various cloths are used on the altar to protect the liturgical vessels during special services. The most important are:

Burse (corporas-case): a folder made of two square pieces of cardboard laid on top of each other and then bound together along one edge to form a hinge. The burse is often covered with a decorative woven or embroidered cloth. See also the TRC Needles entries on a mid-forteenth century burse panel now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and a mid-eighteenth century burse now housed in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

Chalice veil: a length of cloth placed over the vessels on the altar. It is often embroidered in some manner.

Corporal: a square of white cloth used as a mat for the chalice and paten when communion is being celebrated. It is often edged with lace and embroidered with a cross near the front edge (not in the centre of the cloth).

Pall (palla): a stiff, square piece of card covered with linen cloth that is often embroidered with a cross or other Christian symbol. It is placed over the chalice to keep out dust and insects.

Purificator (purificatorium): a white linen cloth used to wipe the chalice after a person has taken communion. It may be embroidered.

Traditionally, whitework embroidery was used to decorate these items, but by the end of the twentieth century a wider range of techniques was in use.

See also: altar cover; altar frontal and superfrontal; antependium; dossal; laudian and laudian altar frontal; parament.

Digital source of illustration (retrieved 22 June 2016).


Last modified on Sunday, 23 April 2017 08:39