An altar cloth is used by various religious groups to cover an altar. Christianity, ancient Judaism, Buddhism, and various forms of Paganism and Neopaganism are among the world religions that use altar cloths.
Because many altars are made of wood and are often ornate or one-of-a-kind, cloth is commonly used to protect the altar surface. In other cases, the cloth serves to beautify the rather mundane construction underneath. Covering an altar with cloth may also be a sign of respect towards the holiness of the altar.
Christian altar cloths
Special cloths (not necessarily made of linen
) cover the altar
in many Christian churches
during services and celebrations, and are often left on the altar when it is not in use. According to the Roman Catholic Church
and the Anglican Communion
the only materials acceptable for use as an altar cloth are linen made from flax or hemp. The cloths historically used by Roman Catholic and Anglican churches are (working from the table of the altar itself up through the layers):
- The cere cloth was originally a piece of heavy linen treated with wax (cere is the Latin word for "wax") to protect the other linens from the dampness of a stone altar, and also to prevent the altar from being stained by any wine that may be spilled. It is the exact same size as the 'mensa', or the flat rectangular top of the altar.
- The linen cloth is, like the cere cloth, made of heavy linen exactly the same size as the mensa of the altar. It acts as a cushion and, with the cere cloth, prevents the altar from being dented by heavy vases or communion vessels placed on top. Two of these cloths are traditionally placed over the cere cloth and thus under the fair linen.
- The fair linen is the long, white linen cloth laid over the linen cloth. Like the two cloths laid before it, it is the same depth as the mensa of the altar, but is longer, so it hangs over the edges to within a few inches of the floor. Some authorities say it should hang eighteen inches over the edge of the ends of the mensa. It is usually trimmed with lace on the ends, and should be hemmed by hand, with a one or two inch hem on all sides. Five small crosses are embroidered on the fair linen - one to fall at each corner of the mensa, and one in the middle of the front edge. These symbolise the five wounds of Jesus. The fair linen should be left on the altar at all times. When it is removed for replacement it should be rolled and not folded. It symbolizes the shroud in which Jesus was wrapped for burial.
- The coverlet is of the same heavy linen as the cere cloth and the linen cloth, the same length and width as the fair linen, and is left on the altar whenever it is not in use. It simply protects the altar from dust and debris.
There are also special linens which pertain to the Eucharist:
- The purificator (purificatorium or more anciently emunctorium) is a white linen cloth which is used to wipe the chalice after each communicant partakes. It is also used to wipe the chalice and paten after the ablutions which follow Communion.
- The pall (pallium or palla) a stiffened square card covered with white linen, usually embroidered with a cross, or some other appropriate symbol. The purpose of the pall is to keep dust and insects from falling into the Eucharistic elements.
- The corporal is a square white cloth upon which the chalice and paten are placed when the Eucharist is celebrated. It may be edged with fine lace, and a cross may be embroidered onto it near the front edge, but it is not permitted to have any embroidery in its center, lest the chalice become unstable.
- The Lavabo Towel is used by the priest to dry his hands after washing them (see lavabo).
There are also chalice cloths which are not made out of linen but of finer fabric, and usually in the proper liturgical colour of the day (matching the vestments of the celebrant):
- The Chalice veil is placed over the chalice, paten, and purificator when the vessels are prepared for the Eucharist and placed on the altar; it is removed before the Consecration.
- The Burse (known in Old English as a "corporas-case") is a type of folder used to carry the corporal to and from the altar. It is made out of two square pieces of cardboard laid one on top of they other, then bound together along one edge to form a hinge. The two pieces are attached with cloth along the two sides adjacent to the hinge, leaving the fourth end open to receive the corporal. Sometimes, an extra purificator may be placed inside the pall.
When the Holy Vessels are prepared on the altar for the Eucharist, the following order is traditionally observed:
- The corporal is spread out upon the altar
- The chalice is placed in the center of the corporal and is covered with the purificator, which is folded in thirds (wine is not poured into the chalice until the offertory)
- The paten is placed on top of the chalice and purificator, and the Host is placed in the paten
- The pall is placed over the paten
- the veil is placed over the pall in such a way that it completely covers the
- The burse is placed on top of the veil
In the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion all of the linen cloths are white, including their decoration. Other more decorative cloths are used to decorate the front and back of the altar such as:
- The frontal, or Antependium, is the same size as the front of the altar. It is richly decorated, made of tapestry, silk or damask. Some frontals are matchless works of art, exhibiting the finest materials and embroidery possible. Other churches opt for a plain frontal. One characteristic is shared by all frontals: they are coloured green, red, purple, black or white, and are changed according to the colour of the Church year. In this way the altar will have five different frontals hung upon it throughout the year, but only one at a time. The frontal may be fixed to either the cere cloth or the linen cloth to hold it in place, which cloth must be fastened to the rear edge of the altar.
- The frontlet is similar to the frontal, that is the exact width of the altar, but only ten to twelve inches deep. It hangs over the frontal, and is of the same colour and material. Again, the frontlet is rotated according to the colour of the church year. Like the frontal the frontlet is fastened to either the cere cloth or the linen cloth. Or, alternatively, it may be fastened to a wooden frame or strip that can be hooked in place at the front of the altar.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia
, altar-cloths were commonly used prior to the 4th century
. Pope Boniface III
is reputed to have passed a decree in the 7th century
making the use of altar cloths mandatory. The use of three cloths most likely began in the 9th century
and it is obligatory to do so at the present time, for Roman Catholic churches.
Previously, all Christian churches used altar cloths. However, today some churches use no cloths on the altar at all, or maybe only the fair linen. Several variants of the above cloths and linens are also in use. Some churches use a frontlet and no frontal, and this is especially desirable where the altar is richly decorated and the use of a frontal would hide it. Where only a frontlet is used, in many cases the frontlet is permanently attached to the linen cloth, and so the linen cloth must be replaced with the frontlet. Many churches dispense with the cere cloth and the coverlet.
Other Western Christian denominations
There are varying practices in the Episcopal Church
; many do not use the same elaborate altar dressing as the Roman Catholic Church and Anglican Communion, but usually use only a white fair linen
cloth to cover the top of the altar. According to a glossary found on one of their churches' official websites the altar cloth they use "...covers the top of the altar and hangs down the sides almost to the floor." Some Lutheran Churches
also uses a single fair linen
on their altar, though many use the coloured frontlet or frontal as well.
In the Eastern Orthodox
and Eastern Catholic
Churches, the altar is referred to as the Holy Table or Throne (Church Slavonic
). Although there are variations, normally it will be completely covered on all four sides with three clothes.
- The Strachítsa is the first cloth to cover the Holy Table. It is a plain linen cover which is bound to the altar with cords at the time of its consecration, and is never removed. This linen covering symbolizes the winding sheet in which the body of Christ was wrapped when he was laid in the tomb. Since the altar is never seen uncovered thereafter, these tend to be constructed more with sturdiness than aesthetics in mind.
- The Indítia is placed above this first cover and is an ornamented cover, often in a brocade of a color that may change with the liturgical season. This outer covering usually comes all the way to the floor and represents the glory of God's Throne. When the Indítia is laid out flat it forms a Greek cross, with the center covering the top of the Holy Table, and the "arms" of the cross covering the four sides.
- A third covering is made of the same material as the Indítia, but is smaller and square, covering the top of the Holy Table and coming down only a few inches on all four sides, something like the Western frontlet.
The Antimension is the equivalent of the Western corporal. It is a piece of silk or linen which has an icon of the Deposition from the Cross depicted on it, and relics of a martyr sewn into it. Unlike the Western corporal, the Antimension is not removed from the Holy Table after the Eucharist is over, but is kept in the center of the Holy Table, covered by the Gospel Book.
The Antimension is wrapped in a slightly larger coth, called the Eiliton to protect it. The Eiliton is often red in color.
The Eastern chalice veil is called the Aër and is quite a bit larger than the chalice veil used in the West. In addition to the Aër, there are two other smaller veils. These are cross-shaped like the Indítia and one is used to cover the chalice, and one is used to cover the diskos (paten).
There are usually one or two communion cloths (houselling cloths) kept on the Holy Table. These are made of cotton or some similar material that can be easily washed and are often dyed red. They are used like the Western purificator to wipe the lips of the communicants and to dry the chalice and other sacred vessels after the ablutions.
According to the Bible the Jews were using altar cloths
at the time of the Exodus, "...And the table and his furniture, and the pure candlestick with all his furniture, and the altar of incense ... and the altar of burnt offering with all his furniture, and the laver and his foot, and the cloths of service..." ()
The Jews traditionally used colour, "And of the blue, and purple, and scarlet, they made cloths of service..." which were to be used by the priests inside the tabernacle. Since all of the other items made from fabric for use in the tabernacle were made from fine linen it is reasonable to assume that the cloths of service were also made from linen.() Unfortunately, Exodus does not give the dimensions of the cloths, nor does it indicate how or when the cloths were to be used.
The practice of using altar cloths disappeared when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. The focus of worship turned towards the synagogue and the need for an altar disappeared. There is a table where the Torah scrolls are laid for reading, called a bimah, and another lower table called an amud that is a lectern. The lectern is covered with an embroidered cloth covering the area on which the Torah scroll will rest during the parashah (lection—see Torah reading). The Ark in the synagogue is covered with a cloth called the parokhet to recall the veil which covered the entrance to the Holy of Holies.
The altar is simply a table or sometimes two tables (placed together along their widths) and butted up against the wall. The table(s) is usually decorated with a cloth, most commonly silk. Colour is a personal choice but should reflect the intent of the worship.
In certain Neopagan faiths, Wicca
in particular, the altar cloth is placed on the altar where magical workings are performed. Many altars are patterned with pentagrams
, the traditional symbol for Wicca.