The Humeral Veil

The humeral veil (velum humerale) is a long rectangular piece of fabric, generally accompanied by two ribbon ties near the breast, that is worn over the shoulders by the priest when performing Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament or carrying the Sacrament in procession, or by the Subdeacon at the Solemn Mass when carrying the chalice or when holding the paten. This common function helps to demonstrate the purpose of the humeral veil: either to cover the hands or the object itself when something is being held or carried. (A similar function is found in the vimpae that are worn by the "familiares" -- or pontifical attendants -- of the bishop for holding the pontifical insignia.)

Today I thought it would be interest to show this liturgical item as it is at one and the same time both one of the most neglected in our considerations of vestments and frequently also one of the most beautiful for reason of its harmony and proportions. 


While it is commonplace to see these veils decorated with crosses or IHS monograms and sunbursts, as in the two 19th century examples above, by no means is there any such a requirement. (In fact there is no requirement for any symbols at all.) Here, for example, is another example coming from mid-19th century Italy which features a depiction of the Last Supper:

This particular example is noteworthy also for its inclusion of two Old Testament scenes depicting St. Elias and the Sacrifice of Isaac: 



Here too is an early 20th century veil, fittingly in the colour red, which includes an image of the dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit:

Of course, even here one must be careful, for while there are indeed classic liturgical colour associations such as this, even these are by no means absolute. Here, for example, is an 18th century humeral veil in white that likewise includes the symbol of the Holy Spirit:


And another from the first half of the 19th century which includes an especially large version of this symbol:


As with one of the previous examples, this particular veil also includes two additional Old Testament images upon it, the first being an images of the sacrifice of Melchizedek:


The other being an image of Samson fighting a lion:


Veils such as these were made as part of Solemn Mass sets and as such can be found in various forms and liturgical colours. The fabrics and design would have matched whatever was found on the rest of the set.  Here, for example, is a late 19th century example in green. 

And here is another vestment, a cope in this instance, taken from the same set:

To round out some of our considerations of these in different liturgical colours, here is an example in rose:


Here too violet -- and back to the matter of the differing symbols that can be found upon these, another symbol that can occasionally be found on humeral veils is that of the Eye of Providence. 

As a general rule, the humeral veil is seen in every liturgical colour except black. In many regards this makes much liturgical sense given that the subdeacon does not hold the paten at Masses for the Dead nor on Good Friday. For that reason it is indeed a curiosity that some historical examples of black humeral veils can be found:




How (or whether) they might have been used remains something of a mystery, especially given that these examples are relatively contemporary; perhaps local custom or a case of the rubric on the matter being a dead letter in some places. Whatever the case, I offer knowledge of their existence as a point of interest and curiosity. 

For those not familiar with how this vestment is used in liturgical practices, here are two angles showing the subdeacon veiling the paten with the humeral veil at the Solemn Mass followed by another as it sits atop the chalice on the credence table.


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