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Cited from Wikipedia
Special cloths (not necessarily made of linen) cover the altar in many Christian churches during services and celebrations, and are often left on the altar when it is not in use. According to the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion the only materials acceptable for use as an altar cloth are linen made from flax or hemp. The cloths historically used by Roman Catholic and Anglican churches are (working from the table of the altar itself up through the layers):
- The cere cloth was originally a piece of heavy linen treated with wax (cere is the Latin word for "wax") to protect the other linens from the dampness of a stone altar, and also to prevent the altar from being stained by any wine that may be spilled. It is the exact size as the 'mensa', or the flat rectangular top of the altar.
- The linen cloth is, like the cere cloth, made of heavy linen exactly the size as the mensa of the altar. It acts as a cushion and, with the cere cloth, prevents the altar from being dented by heavy vases or communion vessels placed on top. Two of these cloths are traditionally placed over the cere cloth and thus under the fair linen.
- The fair linen is the long, white linen cloth laid over the linen cloth. Like the two cloths laid before it, it is the same depth as the mensa of the altar, but is longer, so it hangs over the edges to within a few inches of the floor. It is usually trimmed with lace on the ends, and should be hemmed by hand, with a one or two inch hem on all sides. Five small crosses are embroidered on the fair linen - one to fall at each corner of the mensa, and one in the middle of the front edge. These symbolise the five wounds of Jesus. The fair linen should be left on the altar at all times. When it is removed for replacement it should be rolled and not folded. It symbolizes the shroud in which Jesus was wrapped for burial.
- The coverlet is of the same heavy linen as the cere cloth and the linen cloth, the same length and width as the fair linen, and is left on the altar whenever it is not in use. It simply protects the altar from dust and debris.
There are special linens which pertain to the Eucharist:
The purificator (purificatorium or more anciently emunctorium) is a white linen cloth which is used to wipe the chalice after each communicant partakes. It is also used to wipe the chalice and paten after the ablutions which follow Communion.
- The pall (pallium or palla) a stiffened square card covered with white linen, usually embroidered with a cross, or some other appropriate symbol. The purpose of the pall is to keep dust and insects from falling into the Eucharistic elements.
- The corporal is a square white cloth upon which the chalice and paten are placed when the Eucharist is celebrated. It may be edged with fine lace, and a cross may be embroidered onto it near the front edge, but it is not permitted to have any embroidery in its center, lest the chalice become unstable.
- The Lavabo Towel is used by the priest to dry his hands after washing them (see lavabo).
- There are also chalice cloths which are not made out of linen but of finer fabric, and usually in the proper liturgical color of the day (matching the vestments of the celebrant).
- The Chalice veil is placed over the chalice, paten, and purificator when the vessels are prepared for the Eucharist and placed on the altar; it is removed before the Consecration.
- The Burse (known in Old English as a "corporas-case") is a type of folder used to carry the corporal to and from the altar. It is made out of two square pieces of cardboard laid one on top of the other, then bound together along one edge to form a hinge. The two pieces are attached with cloth along the two sides adjacent to the hinge, leaving the fourth end open to receive the corporal. Sometimes, an extra purificator may be placed inside the pall.
When the Holy Vessels are prepared on the altar for the Eucharist, the following order is traditionally observed:
- The corporal is spread out upon the altar
- The chalice is placed in the center of the corporal and is covered with the purificator, which is folded in thirds (wine is not poured into the chalice until the offertory)
- The paten is placed on top of the chalice and purificator, and the Host is placed in the paten
- The pall is placed over the paten
- The veil is placed over the pall in such a way that it completely covers it
- The burse is placed on top of the veil
In the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion all of the linen cloths are white, including their decoration. Other more decorative cloths are used to decorate the front and back of the altar such as:
The frontal, or Antependium, is the same size as the front of the altar. It is richly decorated, made of tapestry, silk or damask. Some frontals are matchless works of art, exhibiting the finest materials and embroidery possible. Other churches opt for a plain frontal. One characteristic is shared by all frontals: they are colored green, red, purple, blue, black, white, gold or of unbleached muslin, and are changed according to the color of the Church year. Purple or blue for Advent; white or gold for Christmas, Easter and some Holy Days; Green for the season of Epiphany and Ordinary Time; purple or unbleached muslin for Lent; red for Holy Week, Pentecost and feasts of martyred saints. In this way the altar has varying frontals hung upon it throughout the year, but only one at a time. The frontal is fixed to either the cere cloth or the linen cloth to hold it in place.
The frontlet is similar to the frontal, that is the exact width of the altar, but only ten to twelve inches deep. It hangs over the frontal, and is of the same color and material. Again, the frontlet is rotated according to the color of the church year. Like the frontal the frontlet is fastened to either the cere cloth or the linen cloth.