It’s confusing to me that after we spend a lot of effort to design or procure an appropriate altar for our new or renovated worship spaces, then the altar guild covers them up! Don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware of the importance of these altar coverings. Altar cloths, or faire linens indicate the sacredness of the Eucharistic sacrament and also invoke the image of a family table dressed for a formal meal. But it is good to know why these traditions have come about and to make selections that actually go with the altar design.
An example of an oversized altar cloth covering the fronticepiece of the altar.
Early references to the covering of the altar for the Eucharistic celebration date from the fourth century. By the seventh century, Pope Boniface III mandated them. An exhibit this summer of Medieval arts in Frankfurtincluded altar cloths from around 1300 that once graced the Altenberg Altar.
The altar cloth also took on a symbolic connection is with the act of sacrifice. They are a reminder of the Body of Christ wrapped in funeral linens. Many faire linens are highly ornamented and include five embroidered crosses, four in the corners and one in the center to symbolize Christ’s wounds on the cross.
Altar cloths of many kinds may include ornamented embroidery and may be edged with lace. Another cloth may be attached to the main altar cloth and hang down to cover the face of the altar. These are called frontals and may either be fixed or may be removable to allow a change of colors for the liturgical seasons. All of this is to remind us, functionally and symbolically that the altar table and the sacrament of the Eucharist is something sacred and special, apart from our secular daily routines.