Today I would like to talk about linen and those vestments and vestures made of linen. While doing some reading on linen pieces, I came across this brilliant thought from Dom Roulin, “We are very quick to allege our poverty when we have to provide for our own church, or present to another, the true liturgical material, and we satisfy ourselves by spending money on trivial ornament or absolutely superfluous lace.”1 He very wisely observed that we make up for this refusal to invest in glorious raiment by passing off gaudy and superfluous pieces as satisfactory. Beauty and richness often go hand in hand with simplicity. There are times when an ostentatious piece is acceptable. For the majority of the time, however, it is better to stick with sound pieces. That being said let us approach those items that come from linen.
1Dom E. A. Roulin, Vestments and Vesture: A Manual of Liturgical Art (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1950), 11.
Despite differences of belief on the Eucharist, the altar–around which we gather to worship our God–often has the bread and wine, the body and blood, of our Lord resting upon it. The corporal, therefore, is thought to be the most important piece of church linen.
2Roulin, Dom E. A. Corporal Design. 1950. Vestments and Vestures. Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1950.
Before the Renaissance, the corporal was often as big as an altar cloth. Since then, it has had smaller dimensions, depending on the size of the altar. It remains essentially a corporal as long as it holds the chalice, the paten, the host, and the ciborium cover. As the corporal is a simple cloth that has the honor of holding the Eucharist, it needs little decoration to complete its job. A small cross may, however, be appropriately embroidered in the center, marking the place of the Holy Feast. There have been times where a corporal has been embroidered with too much lace. When used in moderation, lace is stunning. However, apart from the disagreement on lace’s being used or not, it has a functional flaw. The host is more easily trapped in lace, and therefore preventing the corporal from remaining clean and white. This means the cloth will need to be replaced in the more near future.
The purificator is a triple thick piece, due its having been folded twice into itself. The length is twice the height of the chalice and the width is the diameter of the top of the chalice. This piece is not to be starched. Unlike the stiff pall, which has is an encased piece of cardboard or celluloid, this linen item must be flexible. It is interesting to note that the pall and the corporal used to be one and the same. But now we use two separate linen pieces for two separate functions.
The amice is a handkerchief shaped cloth. It has a historic use of being a head covering. In some liturgies, this can still be seen. A bishop, when ordaining a priest or deacon, will place the amice on the head for a few moments before it is attached between the collar and neck. The amice can be simple, using white linen. Or it can be colored, embroidered, or decorated with previous gems or pearls.
3 Norris, Herbert. Diagram of Amice. 1950. Church Vestments: Their Origin & Development. New York: E. P. Dutton & CO. INC., 1950.
The alb–which is descended from the Greek and Roman garment–was known once as the tunica linea, the linen tunic. Today it is still made of white linen and this symbolically covers the priest or minister in its physical whiteness and reminds him he should strive to be spiritually pure while preforming his sacred duties.
The altar and the credence table both are given linen coverings. The altar has two different linens; the topmost is called the fairlinen. The bottom is a covering, the same size as the fairlinen, but it always left on the mensa of the altar. Both of these are made of heavier linen to protect the altar from dust, wear & tear, and from spilt wine. The credence table–for those churches that use such a table–has a cloth that comes down the side, but leaves the front visible, just like the cloths on the altar. An excellent choice of linen to use is something heavy, but not so stiff that it has no fold and movement.
The distinguishing mark of all of these is that they are made of linen. This beautiful fabric is made from the fibers of the flax plant. When linen is fine and has a close weave, it is called lawn or cambric. And when white linen is used correctly, the cut and stich, size and dimensions, are all as they should be, nothing is more beautiful or appropriate. Also, there is no extreme expense and distraction of budgets to take the worshipful thoughts away from their reverent task. For a detailed description of these linen pieces, please read chapter II in Vestments and Vestures by Dom Roulin.
~Nihil Sine Deo~
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Norris, Herbert. Church Vestments: Their Origin & Development. New York: E. P. Dutton & CO. INC., 1950.
Roulin, Dom E. A. Vestments and Vesture: A Manual of Liturgical Art. Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1950.