The Art of the Paschal Triduum: The Crotalus

Photo: OC-Travel
Although not much to look at, the crotalus (also known as a "clacker" as that is precisely the sound it makes; a dreadful sound to be exact) is intended to provide the opposite of the usual joyous and melodic sound of bells.

This antique crotalus was used by my grandfather when he was an altar boy in the 1920s at the Church of the Assumption in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota (USA).  It was an old German parish and I can just imagine many years ago an old German carpenter making this for the parish and proudly presenting it to the pastor, perhaps with a prayer, leaving it for service at the altar.  It is still in use today along with a second, matching one.

I recall hearing in my boyhood both my grandfather and father lament that the crotalus had fallen into general disuse in a fit of modernization in the wake of 1960s liturgical renewal.  They both recalled fond memories of it from their childhood.  Good to have it back.  These little traditions make a lifelong impression on kids and make the liturgy that much more interesting.

The crotalus is perhaps the rarest of liturgical devices.  It is brought out once a year during the Paschal Triduum, on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  It is used during Mass and Tenebrae.

As everyone knows, the bells remain silent from after the Gloria of Holy Thursday until the Gloria of the Easter Vigil on Saturday.  This marks a time of mourning, sadness and grief when Christ is taken into custody and the events of his sacred passion and death are played out.

The Gloria canticle is not sung on Good Friday, in honor of the mysteries of the passion and death of our Savior, a heart-rending spectacle of Christ on the cross, that the faithful may be moved to sentiments of sincere contrition and thus better dispose themselves to draw the greatest benefit from their redemption.   

These omissions help us young and old to understand how exclusively the Church is engaged in bewailing the sins of men and in recalling the torments of our divine Redeemer.  Then during the Easter Vigil, the lights are turned on and the candles lit while the sanctuary bells ring joyously along with the bells in the church tower or steeples: Gloria in excelsis Deo!

The crotalus comes in different sizes and designs.  In Rome it sometimes resembles a baby rattle.  The term comes from the Latin word crotalus, which is from the Greek work "krotalon," which translates into "rattle." 

To order one for your parish, see here.  I always say it is best to use them together as a pair as it sounds louder when two are used together. 

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