St. Charles Borromeo's Instructions on the Vesting of the Altar (Antependia and Altar Linens)

Continuing on with our considerations of St. Charles Borromeo's lesser discussed instructions around the liturgical arts, we turn today to one of my own favourite topics, the antependium (or altar frontal). In addition to this, while we are on the subject of the vesting of the altar, we shall also include his instructions around the altar cloths -- which, as many may known, traditionally constituted three distinct cloths, a rubric still observed today within the context of the usus antiquior and by the more tradition minded in the modern Pauline rite.

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The Antependium

The pallium or palla, that is the vestment which is suspended before the front of the altar, should be a little longer than the altar, and a bit higher, so that the lower part may hang a little under the cornice of the scabellum.

The upper part, a palm's width from the top, should be ornamented with fringe, worked with gold or silk, of a colour agreeing with the prescribed rite of the church.

It should be lined with cambric or other thin material, which projects above the frontal a little more than a palm's width, that it may be drawn under the altar cloth. Small rings may be sewn along the top, by which it may be suspended from the altar cloths.

The antependium may be decorated in the middle with a cross, or the likeness of the Saint or Saints in whose name the altar is dedicated, or other sacred emblems.

The old custom, followed by Pope Zacharias in an altar dedicated to Saint Peter, of using a gold pallium is recommended.

A more precious frontal, for use on the more solemn days, should be of silk interwoven with gold or silver, called "brocade,' or decorated with needlework. Even that used daily should be of silk or half-silk.

Churches possessing only short palia are directed to add material so that the antependium shall cover the entire front of the altar.

The Altar Linens

The altar cloths covering the top of the altar, are of linen, or where that is impossible, of hempen cloth.

The more precious of these, for use on solemn days, when the bishop celebrates, should be of linen or hemp but more delicate; those for ordinary use of the same material, not coarse, nor rough, but of good cloth, closely and neatly woven.

The altar cloths may not be ornamented in any part with cloth of blue or any other colour.

The larger cloths should be long enough that they may hang, at either end of the altar, to a depth of about three fingers from the plane of the predella.

They should be sufficiently wide to cover the entire mensa of the altar and the step which is above the altar. If the tabernacle interferes with this, it may be more convenient to provide two cloths.

The other cloths, underneath, should be whole, separate, and should, as formerly, cover the entire top of the altar; they should be distinct and separate cloths.

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