Lenten Veils

03-21-2021Weekly Reflection


Whereas according to current Roman use Crosses and images are only veiled during Passiontide, in the Middle Ages the common thing was to cover them right at the start of Lent, be it from the Terce (Mid-Morning Prayer) of the Monday after the first Sunday of Lent, be it – although less frequently – already from Ash Wednesday. Here and there the veiling was even done on Septuagesima, 70 days before Easter. Moreover, not only Crosses and images were withdrawn from the view of the faithful by means of veils, but also reliquaries and chandeliers, and even evangeliaries (Gospel Books) whose covers were ornamented with pictorial representations were sometimes veiled. […]

The custom of veiling Crosses and images during Lent is apparently not of Roman, but of Gallican origin. It was already known in Gaul in the 7th century, as we can see from St. Audoenus's († 683) biography of St. Eligius (II, 41). “Mos erat, ut diebus quadragesimae propter fulgorem auri vel nitorem gemmarum operiretur tumba (s. Eligii) velamine linteo urbane ornato holoserico”, [NLM: “It was custom that on the days of Lent the tomb (of St. Eligius) was covered with a linen veil finely ornamented in pure silk, because of the refulgence of the gold and the splendor of the gems.”] we read in the same. For Italy the custom is not attested until around the year 1000 […]. In the later Middle Ages the veiling of Crosses and images during Lent or at least Passiontide was universally common.


The veiling of Crosses, images etc. during Lent and Passiontide was done because these times had the character of penance and grief, and therefore decoration in the church was deemed inappropriate. The veiling of the Crosses, moreover, may have its reason in the fact that until the 12th century the representations of the Crucifix showed not so much the Passion of the God-Man, but his Triumph on the Cross. Likewise, the great Lenten veil was doubtlessly introduced with regard to the character of grief and penance proper to Lent. The veiling of the Holy of Holies – i.e. the altar – meant in a way a partial exclusion from the cult, which was to remind clerics and laymen alike, in the time of penance, more manifestly of their sinfulness and to impel them to cultivate a truly penitent disposition. Of course, over time other meanings were additionally attributed to some of these customs, which is easily understandable given the medieval predilection for mystical speculation. In the veiling of Crosses, images and other decoration of the church was thus symbolized the contumely, weakness and humiliation, which in the Passion of the Lord veiled, as it were, His Godhead and divine Power.

The veil however, which was hung before the altar, was associated to a multiple symbolism. It was called a memory of the veil of the Old Testament, which divided the Holy of Holies from the Holy and was rent asunder at the death of the Lord. It was seen as an image of the starry heavens which separate material and spiritual world and veil from us the sight of the heavenly fatherland and the glorified Savior.

It was interpreted as the veil with which Moses covered his face, whose resplendence the people could not bear, or as the spiritual shell of the old service of the Law, which still enfolds the hearts of the Jews and prevents them from grasping the clear meaning of the Law. The taking away of the veil at Easter, then, was to signify that Christ now again stands before us in the unveiled splendor of His eternal glory, that He has opened up the heavens for us and taken away the blindness of the heart from us, which had made it impossible for us to understand the mystery of His Passion.