The use of altar-cloths goes back to the early centuries of the Church. St. Optatus of Mileve says that in the fourth century every Christian knew that during the celebration of the Mysteries the altar is covered with a cloth (bk. VI). Later it became a law, which, according to Gavantus, was promulgated by Boniface III in the seventh century. The custom of using three altar-cloths began probably in the ninth century, but at present it is of strict obligation for the licit celebration of Mass (Rubr. Gen. Miss., tit. xx: De Defectibus, tit. x, 1). The reason of this prescription of the Church is that if the Precious Blood should by accident be spilt it might be absorbed by the altar-cloths before it reached the altar-stone. All authors hold it to be a grievous offence to celebrate without an altar-cloth, except in case of grave necessity, e.g. of according to the faithful the opportunity of assisting at Sunday Mass, or of giving Viaticum to a dying person. To celebrate without necessity on two altar-cloths, or on one folded in such manner that it covers the altar twice, would probably constitute a venial sin (St. Lig., bk. VI, n. 375) since the rubric is prescriptive. Formally the altar-cloths were made of gold and silver cloth inlaid with precious stones silk, and other material, but at present they must be made of either linen or hemp. No other material may be used, even if it be equivalent to, or better than, linen or hemp for cleanliness, whiteness, or firmness (Cong. Sac. Rit., 15 May, 1819). The two lower cloths must cover the whole surface of the table (mensa) of the altar, in length and width (Caerem. Episc., I, xii, II) whether it be a portable or a consecrated fixed altar (Ephem. Lit., 1893, VII, 234). It is not necessary that there be two distinct pieces. One piece folded in such manner as to cover the altar twice from the epistle to the gospel end will answer (Rubr. Miss., tit. XX). The top altar-cloth must be single and extend regularly to the predella on both sides (ibid.). If the table of the altar rests on columns, or if the altar is made after the fashion of a tomb or sepulchre, and is not ornamented with an antipendium, the top cloth need only cover the table without extending over the edge at the sides (Ephem. Lit., 1893, VII, 234). The edges at the front and two ends may be ornamented with a border of linen or hempen lace in which figures of the cross, ostensorium, chalice. and host, and the like may appear (Cong. Sac. Rit ., December, 1868), and a piece of coloured material may be placed under the border to set forth these figures. This is deduced from a decree (Cong. Sac. Rit., 12 July, 1892) which allows such material to be placed under the lace of the alb's cuff. This border must not rest on the table of the altar. Sometimes, instead of attaching this border to the upper cloth, a piece of lace is fastened to the front edge of the altar. Although this is not prescribed, yet it is not contrary to the rubrics. Great care should be taken that these cloths be scrupulously clean. There should be on hand at least a duplicate of the two lower cloths. The top piece should be changed more frequently according to the solemnity of the feast, and therefore several covers, more or less fine in texture, should be constantly kept ready for this purpose. When, during the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, candles are placed on the table of the altar, another clean white cloth should be placed over the altar-cloths to prevent their being stained or soiled (De Herdt, I, n. 179). We may note here that the corporal and the cere-cloth cannot take the place of the altar-cloths.
The three altar-cloths must be blessed by the bishop or someone who has the faculty before they can be used for the celebration of Mass. In the United States the faculty is granted by the ordinary to priests in general (Facultates, Form. I, n. 13). The formula or this blessing is found in the "Rituale Romanum", tit viii, cap. xxi, and in the "Missale Romanum" among the "Benedictiones Diversae". Symbolically the altar-cloths signify the members of Christ, that is, God's faithful, by whom the Lord is encompassed (Pontificale Rom., De ordinat. subdiaconi); or the linens in which the body of Christ was wrapped, when it was laid in the sepulchre; or the purity and the devotion of the faithful: "For the fine linen are the justifications of saints" (Revelation 19:8). Besides the three altar-cloths there is another linen cloth, waxed on one side, which is called the chrismale (cere-cloth), and with which the table of the consecrated altar (even if part of it be made of bricks or other material, and does not form a part of the consecrated altar) should be completely covered (Caerem. Episc., De altaris consecratione). It must be of the exact size of the table of the altar, and it is placed under the linen cloths, the waxed side being turned towards the table. Its purpose is not only to prevent the altar-cloths from being stained by the oil used at the consecration, but also to keep the cloths dry. Hence it is advisable to have such a wax cloth on all altars in churches which may be, accessible to dampness. According to the rubrics, this cloth is removed once a year, that is, during the stripping of the altars on Maundy Thursday; but it may be changed as often as the altar is washed. The cere-cloth is not blessed. It cannot take the place of one of the three rubrical linen cloths. To procure cere-cloths, melt the remnants of wax candles in a small vessel. When the wax is in a boiling condition, skim off the impurities that remain from the soiled stumps of candles. Dip into this wax the linen intended for the cere-cloth, and when well saturated hang it on a clothes-line, allowing the surplus wax to drop off. When the wax cloth has hardened place it between two unwaxed sheets of linen of like dimensions. Iron thoroughly with a well heated flat iron, thus securing three wax cloths. The table on which the cloths are ironed should be covered with an old cloth or thick paper to receive the superfluous wax when melted by the iron. It should be remembered that unwashed linen when dipped in wax shrinks considerably, hence before the cloths are waxed they should be much larger than the size of the altar for which they are intended.
APA citation. (1907). Altar Cloths. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01351e.htm
MLA citation. "Altar Cloths." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01351e.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Michael C. Tinkler.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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