The Historical, Theological, Liturgical and Artistic Case for Altar Frontals

Many of you will know that I have long been a persistent advocate of the liturgical ornament known as the antependium, pallium altaris or, rather less exotically, the altar frontal.  The reason for this is, on the one hand, tied to the particular meaning and symbolism of this vestment -- I use that term purposefully -- and on another hand it relates to its liturgical and artistic aspects. Given the importance I feel this liturgical ornament has, I don't mind bringing the subject up yet again.

I. The Historical Development of the Antependium

First, a little more about origins of antependia. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that the origins of the antependium may reside in the metallic or silken curtains or veils that hung before the confessio -- these are the spaces you see beneath so many altars in Rome where the relics of some saint or martyr are deposited and venerated.

Cyril Pocknee, in The Christian Altar, notes that “even in the primitive period not only was the altar covered with a linen cloth or pall for the celebration of the Eucharist; but also the [altar] was vested with silk cloths... Palladius writing about 421 mentions some Roman ladies, who renouncing the world, bequeathed their silks to make coverings for the altar... The Liber Pontificalis testifies that during the eighth and ninth centuries coverings for the altar made of gold thread and decorated with jewels and pearls and embroidered with figures of our Lord, the B.V. Mary and the Apostles were given to the great Roman basilicas by succeeding Popes.”

Pocknee speaks to the development of the form as follows:
While the altar remained cubical in form, the ‘throw-over’ type of pall continued in use... this linen cloth, known as the Palla corporalis, was thrown over the altar, much as an ordinary table-cloth is spread today, by the deacons, and it fell down around all sides of the table. But in the Gothic period, when the altar tended to be lengthened, two things happened: (a) the linen pall became divided into two parts, one part being a long strip which covered the top of the altar and fell down over each end of the mensa, while the other part became the ‘corporal’ which covered the elements; (b) the silk pall becomes the antependium or frontal covering the front elevation of the altar only when it stood close to a wall or screen. But it should be noted that where the longer type of altar was free-standing a ‘frontal’ was provided for both back and front.
J.B. O’Connell, in Church Building and Furnishing, comments that the earliest frontals were “often made in purple and gold and ornamented with jewels, or with beautiful embroideries.” -- something Pocknee speaks to as well. The following image from the Benedictional of St. Ethelwold shows this:

Development would continue and we would begin to see metallic altar frontals and, eventually during the middles ages, we come to the current (though sadly all too neglected) practice of having the altar vested in the liturgical colour of the day.

II. The Symbolism of Antependia

If that then is how the altar frontal developed, we must turn now to a consideration about what it symbolically represents.

To approach this, we must first peel back yet another layer of symbolism and understand that traditionally the altar is understood a symbol of Christ. It is in view of that sign that the antependium takes on its own symbolic aspect as a kind of clothing.  This is why Geoffrey Webb, in The Liturgical Altar, refers to the antependium as a “a covering of honour" and "robes of majesty." J.F. Van der Stappen, in his work Sacra Liturgia, speaks in similar terms of the altar being "clothed in precious vestments" on account of the altar's dignity as a Christological symbol.

The London Oratory in white/gold

As Webb points out, this symbolism and the splendour of liturgical colour that comes with it, invests another symbolic liturgical event with a particularly potent impact. He refers of course to the stripping of the altar after the liturgy of Maundy Thursday. He comments: "..when the Robes of Majesty are all removed on Holy Thursday, more is indicated than the removal of His garments. His faithful, His costly garments, His disciples, are all stripped from Him; and His desolation is made all the more evident by this complete annihilation of colour.”

The London Oratory on Good Friday

III. The Liturgical and Artistic Benefits of Antependia

Aside from these theological aspects, there are some considerations which are more generally artistic and liturgical.

In the first instance, the use of antependia, as already noted, attach a liturgical note to the altar by vesting it in the liturgical colour of the day or season; thus giving that liturgical colour an added prominence within the liturgy and a tangible presence even outside of it -- for even an empty church, provided it has its altar properly vested with an altar frontal, brings into the visitor's presence and mind this liturgical note.

Beyond this the frontal also gives, as Webb says, an "architectural prominence which its central position in the liturgy requires.”   In other words, churches are places with all sorts of visual information; statuary, frescoes, woodwork, stonework and so forth. In such environments, the altar frontal draws one's attention directly toward the high altar -- which is where it ought to be. In this respect, frontals function rather similarly to ciboria -- and I'd hasten to add that the combination of the two is particularly powerful and desirable.

Artistically, frontals add a layer of variety and interest which likewise centres one's attention and focus. O'Connell comments on both points:
“ addition to its symbolical value, the frontal -- with its sequence of colours and its changing form and decoration -- lends variety and new beauty to the altar, and helps to mark the degrees of festivity in the Church’s liturgy. In presenting an unbroken coloured surface it also draws attention to the altar, as the focal point of the church, giving it architectural prominence.”
The London Oratory in liturgical green

The London Oratory in Violet

For all of these reasons it seems particularly desirable that parishes and Catholic institutions should recover this beautiful and noble symbol.

Of course, how that is gone about is as important that it is gone about, but that will be the subject of another post.

In the meantime, LAJ would like to leave you with some fuller quotations from some of those referenced here today.

* * *

Geoffrey Webb, The Liturgical Altar:
The purpose of a frontal is threefold.

(1) It is a covering of honour for the body of the altar which, as we have already seen from the liturgical books, represents Christ Himself; and if further proof is necessary, it is provided by the five crosses incised upon the upper surface of the altar, representing the five wounds in Our Lord's Body on the cross. Van der Stappen, Sacra Liturgia, ed. 2, vol. iii, Q. 42, i., says, "For the altar is Christ, therefore, on account of its dignity, it is clothed in precious vestments, as the Pontifical says in the ordination of sub-deacons." Moreover, on Maundy Thursday this frontal and the cloths are stripped off during the recitation of the psalm, Deus, Deus meus, in which the verse foretelling the parting of Our Lord's garments occurs...

(2)The frontal is a means of employing colour to bring out the full meaning of the very beautiful symbolism in that same office of ordination of subdeacons which speaks of "the faithful with whom the Lord is clothed as with costly garments." The red frontal, for instance, reveals the victory of the Rex Martyrum, realized afresh in yet another of His members...

Our Lord, as represented by His consecrated altar, puts on robes of majesty to identify Himself with those in whom His victory has borne fruit; His own purity reproduced again in the white robe of the virgin saint; His own heroic fortitude in the red robe of the martyr: and thereby additional emphasis is given to His invitation to be approach through the intercession of the saint with whose colour the altar is robed. And when the Robes of Majesty are all removed on Holy Thursday, more is indicated than the removal of His garments. His faithful, His costly garments, His disciples, are all stripped from Him; and His desolation is made the more evident by this complete annihilation of colour. But in addition to emphasizing the union of the Head with the saint commemorated by the feast of the day, the coloured frontal also serves to bring into clear prominence the union of the Head with His ministers of the altar, who are vested in the same colour...

The instinct to provide colour seems less vigorous today than in most other centuries, and one doubts whether its place is sufficiently realized as one instrument of a concerted orchestra, in whose harmony its omission forms a gap. Cardinal Schuster dwells on this accumulated harmony when describing the Introit for Whit-Sunday: "It is well known," he says, "that all the present texts of the Missal and of the Breviary have beautiful melodies attached to them. As no one, for instance, would desire to judge of an opera simply by reading the libretto of the author, but would wish also to hear the music and see the full effect of the mise en scène, so, in order thoroughly to appreciate the sense of beauty and inspiration, the powerful influence produced by the sacred liturgy on the Christian people, it is necessary to see it performed in the full splendour of its architectural setting, of the clergy in their vestments, of the music, the singing and the ritual, and not to judge it merely from a curtailed and simplified presentment."

(3) The frontal serves to give to the altar that architectural promimnence which its central position in the liturgy requires...

Peter F. Anson, Churches: Their Plan and Furnishing:
Another interesting reference to the doctrinal significance of clothing the altar is given by Amalarius [of Metz] (d. 859). "The Altar signifies Christ, as Bede narrates. The robes (vestimenta) of the Altar are the Saints of Christ."

...a frontal helps to make the altar stand out from its surroundings. It has always been the mind of the Church that, in a mystical sense, the altar is Christ, and that, like the priest who celebrates Mass, it should be clothed in precious vestments on account of its dignity... the frontal is one of the most ancient of all the furniture of the altar.

J.B. O'Connell, Church Building and Furnishing:
The frontal -- the altar's clothing -- has a deep, symbolical value. As the early linen clothing of the altar recalled our Lord's burial shroud, so the precious coloured fabric of the later frontal is to recall his royalty. At the ordination of a subdeacon, the bishop in his charge to the candidate says "the cloths and corporals of the altar [which represents Christ] are the members of Christ, Gods faithful people, with whom, as with costly garments, the Lord is clad, according to the Psalmist: 'The Lord reigns as king, robed in majesty'." The clothed altar with its beauty and changing colours is a symbol of the Mystical Body -- the whole Christ, Christ united with all his saints -- it translates this doctrine into the language of colour and form. In addition to its symbolical value, the frontal -- with its sequence of colours and its changing form and decoration -- lends variety and new beauty to the altar, and helps to mark the degrees of festivity in the Church's liturgy.

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