Of Requiems, Wood, Iron and Unbleached Beeswax: Internal Consistencies of the Signs

While candles are not the first thing one thinks of when considering liturgical art, I believe there is no detail too small to consider in the realm of the liturgical arts. Whether we are speaking of art, architecture or music, or whether we are looking at candles, incense and other such elements, all of these details have a particular symbolism and they each have the power to help confer that symbolism -- or also obscure it where they are not exercised or not exercised well.

Many years ago, the primary struggle for All Souls Day and Requiem Masses in general was the recovery of black vestments. While this is still ongoing, progress is being made, represented both in the increased usage of black in parish settings and even in the greater use of violet instead of white -- a step in the right direction.

Another aspect, however, is that of the use of unbleached beeswax candles for such liturgical occasions.

Ss. Trinita dei Pellegrini, Rome.  You will note the use of unbleached beeswax candles for both the altar and the catafalque. Also take note that the more ornamental altar candlesticks and cross have been replaced by more subdued silver versions.

It is one of those bits of traditional practice and symbolism that can be easily forgotten but once you become familiar with it, its absence can be jarring. While this aspect, a decade ago, was yet rare, I am very glad to see that it is now experiencing a growing revival as well.

But what is the symbolic meaning of this usage?

The matter is, to some degree, one of common sense. In the liturgical sphere of the Western tradition, whites and golds are festal in nature and association, while more sombre times take on a more sombre tones as manifest in violet and black. (This bright and dark element is also reflected within the Eastern liturgical tradition.) It is not a far reach then to understand how this applies also to bleached versus unbleached beeswax candles; the former taking on the bright associations and the latter the more sombre tonalities.

Admittedly, other than the mention and recommendation of their use by various liturgical commentators, formal commentary on the symbolism itself seems rather sparse -- no doubt it was deemed unnecessary and no doubt the tradition itself gave it weight enough. Fr. Edwin Ryan, however, commented on it in his work, Candles in the Roman Rite:
The employment on occasions of sorrow (the Tenebrae, funerals, etc.) of unbleached rather than bleached candles is evidently fitting, since the sombre tones of unbleached wax harmonize with the mournful ceremony, while bleached wax, being far higher in the tone scale, would intrude a note of joy.
In short, it is a traditional manifestation which is consonant with other similarly sombre elements and there is an internal consistency that can be found in these signs and symbols.

On this same theme, I would be remiss to not note that we see this also extended to other liturgical arts as well, as for example the use of silver, iron or painted candlesticks and wooden altar cross (the latter specifically referenced within the context of Good Friday in the pre-Pius XII Holy Week ritual) instead of the more typical "brighter" usages. As well, the tradition of the usus antiquior often saw the use of black bound requiem missals and muted, black framed altar cards.  Below is an example of this sort of arrangement:
The London Oratory. The cross and candlesticks, while having gold highlights, are muted by black overall. These work nicely with the unbleached candles.  The altar cards are also very muted in nature, lacking colour and being framed in simple black frames.

Now what is more festal and what more sombre can be relative to the particular place and how "normal" is defined. If the above still seems very ornamental, it may be instructive to provide a point of comparison within this specific context. Here then is the same altar with its more usual ornaments compared side-by-side with the requiem arrangement:

Finally, here is another example of the employment of a wooden altar cross and unbleached beeswax in a Mass for the Dead:

The revival of such liturgical arts ought to be encouraged today, whether in the ancient or modern liturgical rites. As parishes look to recover their traditions and re-tool their sacristies, I would encourage them to not forget these elements. While they may appear less frequently than other elements, when they are employed they will have a notable impact.

Signs and symbols are important and our attention to these "little details" speaks volumes.

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