Project Canterbury

The Lenten Array.

By A. S. Duncan-Jones.

London: The Warham Guild, [1937].

SINCE early days the season of Lent has had a special character as a time of preparation for Easter. The length of the period has varied. Originally Lent seems to have been no more than a week before Easter. But by the beginning of the fourth century the period of forty days was establishing itself. The lengthening process can be traced in the letter which S. Athanasius each year wrote to his suffragans informing them of the date of Easter. The underlying conception of the observance also changed as time went on. Originally teaching was the prominent feature. Lent was the time when catechumens were prepared for the great baptismal service, which took place on Easter Eve. Then it came to be thought of as a time in which penitents prepared themselves for the absolution which would admit them to Communion at Easter. From this the idea developed that Lent was a time of penitential retreat for ordinary Christians. Thus it was natural that an increasing stress was laid on fasting. Teaching and fasting become the [3/4] essentials of Lenten discipline. It is a period of spiritual instruction and refreshment, in which many pleasures and diversions are reduced or put away, not at all because they are necessarily bad, but because they interfere with the concentration and the recollection that the soul needs, if it is to progress on the road to heaven.

In the fast of Lent penitence undoubtedly has its place, though the day before Lent begins. Shrove Tuesday, is especially the day which invites to this discipline. Lent itself should be dominated more by the thought of what is coming than by dwelling on the past. Easter with its assurance ofGod's triumph sheds its radiance increasingly over Lent. The cleansing of mind and heart and will are undertaken in response to the promise of newness of life. Viewed in this way. Lent is not a period of gloom or brooding, but of fresh vigour. Its effect should be bracing not enervating. The spirit that it should call out is that of the athlete who goes into training that he may run his race with greater success.

The spiritual ideas implicit in the Lenten observance are of importance, because they largely determine the outward symbols which convey to the worshipper the meaning of what he is doing. When the mediaeval Christian in Western Europe entered his parish church a sight met his eyes which at once brought home to him in striking fashion the special character of Lent. Every image and picture was shrouded in linen cloths. The gleaming reredoses were closed or covered up. The very altar itself was shielded from gaze by a long curtain which separated the presbytery from the choir. Behind that veil the Eucharist was celebrated with a mystery that savoured more of East than of West. So far as the veiling of the altar was concerned, it was, in fact, a [4/6] reversion to earlier custom, and recalled the days when curtains completely surrounded the altar, suspended from the ciborium or roof supported by four pillars which enshrined it. When it is remembered how large a part in mediaeval devotion was played by vivid picture and bright imagery, it will be seen that the impression made on the simplest peasant must have been profound. He had entered on a holy time—forty days of austerity. 'All things,' says an old writer, 'that make to the adornment of the church are either laid aside or else covered, to put us in remembrance that we ought now to lament and mourn for our souls dead in sin and continually to watch, fast, pray, and give alms.'

The impression of austerity was increased by the nature of the material used and by its colour. The veils were for the most part of white linen, and the effect was, doubtless, much that which the visitor to a great house experiences when—in the absence of the family—he passes through spacious saloons in which the rich silks and brocades are protected from sun and dust by linen coverings. What gives special interest to the practice is the fact that the use of white linen for altars and so forth contradicted the rules that were supposed to govern the colour assigned to Lent, which was, for example, red at Sarum and black at Westminster. From the covering of altars and images the use of white linen spread to the vesture of the clergy. Thus in 1472 we read of a lady who gave to Salisbury two altar cloths of linen powdered with purple crosses and 'a chasuble with all the apparel to the same belonging'; and at about the same time at Westminster it is recorded that the chapel of our Lady had an old chasuble of white for Lent. By the middle of the fourteenth century indeed white linen had become [6/8] the well-nigh universal custom throughout England. [English Liturgical Colours. By Sir Wm. St. John Hope and E. G. Cuthbert Atchley. (S.P.C.K. 1918.)] Examples of white linen vestments and frontals throughout a period of two centuries before the Reformation can be gathered from every English diocese, save one—and that the remote Diocese of Carlisle, for which no information is available. The use is found in cathedral, religious house, and parish church alike. T h e custom is not merely English. A parallel can be found in France, where ash colour continued to be the Lenten use right down to the eighteenth century at Lyons, Paris, Chartres, Bourges, Fréjus, and Poitiers, and even into the nineteenth century at Meaux, Versailles, Pamiers, and Autun.

The inventories made in the reign of King Edward VI, when his government impounded everything of value in the churches to pay for the huge debt that they had accumulated, tell their own tale. We read of the great curtain of linen used in Lent in Exeter Cathedral; and in the parish churches throughout the land we find such entries as the veil, the covering for the rood, the canopy of cloth, vestments of white fustian and white bustian, and Lenten cloths. There can be no doubt what was the custom in England in that second year of the reign of King Edward VI to which our Ornaments Rubric points us as a guide.

In modern times the Lenten array of white linen has grown steadily in favour. It has been recognized that this old custom has a teaching value that specially meets the need of to-day better than the sombre violet and black that gradually spread over the Church in Europe from the sixteenth century onwards. The white linen [8/10] betokens an austerity which is not without cheerfulness, the spirit ofHim Who said, 'When ye fast, be not of a sad countenance.' It typifies clean Lent; the time when the spirit rejoices because it is freeing itself from the encumbrances of luxury, the enervation of soft living. The Lenten array is, as it has been said, like a light fall of snow which brightens the hard earth; it is significant of expectation, of the time when once more the glory of colour and carving will break out in salutation of the Risen Lord. It sorts well with the spring of the year with its promise of flower and fruit.

It is usual to place on the linen that shrouds the altar some sign of its dedication. The symbol of the mystery or saint lightly worked or painted contains a hint of what lies behind and thus adds to the sense of expectancy. It is possible to overdo this aspect of the Lenten array, so that what results is merely another piece of magnificence that draws attention to itself, instead of directing the mind away from the seen to the unseen glory of God. Some will feel that possibly in certain of the examples here shown, the natural instinct of the artist to enrich has prevailed over the effort to subdue adornment. Certainly sobriety in the use of symbol sorts best with the purpose of Lent, even if the symbols be those of the Passion itself. Too much detail detracts from the desired starkness.

Opinions are divided about the veiling of the rood—if there be one—or the cross on the altar. To some it will seem appropriate that objects which are in themselves works of art should for this season be shrouded. We are assuming, of course, that they are works of art, which, unfortunately, is not always true. Others would maintain that Lent is just the time when the symbol of [10/12] redemption should stand out with special clearness by contrast with the hiding of every other ornament. There can be no question, at any rate, that, when a large sheet hangs before the rood, with a plain red cross displayed upon it, the worshipper is led to concentrate on the inner meaning of the Passion in its severity, just for those weeks when it is right that the price of man's salvation should be placarded before the eyes of the worshipper.

To turn to the practical aspect of the array, the following materials may well be used.

White-toned linens, not too fine, either plain or figured, are the most suitable materials for the hangings, and for covering pictures and other ornaments. If the frontal, dorsal, or covers are to be stencilled, it is advisable to use the plain linen. The frontal and dorsal can be treated in several ways, either stencilled in red, or in red, grey, and black, with symbols of the Passion, powdered with roses or crosses, or with an emblem of the saint in whose honour the church is dedicated—so long as this be done with restraint. The frontal can be made quite plain with a red flax fringe, or orphreys of red braid can be used effectively. The dorsal and riddels hung full from red cords are simple and effective, or they can be made full on an open hem. Another method is to have a plain dorsal with a cross in the centre and at each end.

It is advisable that stencilling should not be attempted by amateurs; the whole effect is spoiled if there be not a proper balance in the design.

It is useful to have plain wooden candlesticks which can be painted red in place of the metal or ornamental wood ornaments. The altar cross can be covered with a linen veil or removed altogether.

During the last two weeks in Lent the frontal may be [12/14] removed and one made of a dull red linen, quite plain or with black orphreys, be put in its place, to mark Passiontide.

The great point of the traditional Lenten array is that it enforces the lessons of the season better than any alternative method. The shrouded altars speak of renunciation and expectation; the colour and quality of the material, plain, but bright, strengthen the appeal, to concentrate devotion on the plea for the creation of a new and contrite heart: 'Make me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.'

The High Altar, Westminster Abbey

S. Barnabas, Height, Norwich

Fisher Parish Church

The Lady Chapel, Fairford

An altar of S. Katherine with priest in Lenten linen chasuble

Project Canterbury
Original provided by the Reverend Dirk van Dissel