Lest the Faithful Should See: The rood screen and its origins in Roman judicial ceremony

Francesco Cancellieri, Syntagma De Secretariis Ethnicorum et Veterum Christianorum apud Graecos et Latinos, volume I of De Secretariis Basilicae Vaticanae Veteris ac Novae (Rome, 1786).

A productive scholar and librarian of the Papal Curia, Francesco Cancellieri (1751-1826) wrote many treatises on papal Rome and Catholic religious ceremony.

Many authors before him had written about the architecture of the ancient Christian sanctuary, but none had written a book exclusively about the secretarium. Cancellieri makes a copiously documented study of this architectural feature, its history, decorations, functionaries attached to it, and the words used to describe it, comprising both the Greek and Latin Churches in its scope.

Secretarium (or sacrarium) referred mainly to our modern-day sacristy, but also to the sanctuary itself, which Cancellieri calls the secretarium minor. He argues that Christian practice in the decoration and ritual of the sanctuary is deeply informed by ancient Roman judicial ceremony.

The following is a paraphrase-translation of his arguments.

Excerpt #1
(pp. 12 – 28)

The first chapters describe the use and decoration of the ancient Rome Secretarium Judicis, the private judgment chamber of a Roman magistrate.


Throne of Saturn (classicalastrologer)
A Roman relief thought to depict the veiled throne of Saturn, Louvre

Chapter II.
On the Secretarium’s Chancel Screen

The judge’s secretarium was surrounded on all sides by screens (cancellis) to keep out the crowds of people and control their entrance. Basil calls them judicial screens for this reason. Others called them fences (septa), enclosures (caulae), windowed doors (ianuae fenestratae), latticed doors (cancellatae fores). Most were made of wood, but iron, lead, or marble was sometimes used.

Lawyers who had come to argue a case used to stand within the enclosures of the tribunal chancel, out of reverence for the judge. Others, even the accused, were sometimes permitted entry, as many legal formulae prove clearly. For instance, Zeno says, “the accused is permitted to sit within the SECRETARIUM, in the part beneath the judges but above the lawyers, to avoid any harm coming upon him before his trial.”

Guther has pointed out that “in cases involving famous men, the Emperor decided that they should sit in some part of the SECRETARIUM reserved for court aids, standing by in the corners of the SECRETARIUM.”

Entry into the secretaria was forbidden to the average citizens, as we read in an appendix to the Theodosian Code: “let it be forbidden to such people to approach our holy SECRETS.” (The authors use both secretarium and judiciale secretum indifferently.)

Even the judges’ aids did not approach the inner part of the secretarium indiscriminately, but only stood on the threshold. Servius describes the custom as follows: “The judges are led up to the doors of the secretarium. Then there is one more ceremony: they pass through the veil and ascend their throne, where they sit down.”

There were guards placed at the screen called cancellarii, a cancellis, ministri a cancellis, accensi, ab admissionibus, or admissionales, and they were led by a magister admissionum.

Now that we have entered the chancel screen, I will take your hand and lead you to see the veils that covered the doors of the secretarium.


Chapter IV.
On the Veils of the Secretarium

The evangelist portrait and Incipit to Matthew from the Stockholm Codex Aureus,
Veil (Matthew, Lindisfarne Gospels)
Matthew Evangelist, from the Lindisfarne Gospels (Source)

The inner space of the praetorium, where the magistrate retired to examine his cases, was called the secretarium or secretum. It was surrounded not only with a screen but was also hidden by veils drawn across the screens. The ones in charge of guarding these veils and drawing them to admit people were called janitors, doormen, veil attendant (statores a velis), veilers (velarii), or captains of the veils (praepositi velariorum). Chrysostom says that “It is the custom for judges not to do these things in secret, but sitting high on their tribunal seat, with all standing around, and with the veils opened.”

The veils remained open, especially in more serious cases that required more thorough deliberation, until the period of questioning was over. They were also opened occasionally when the judge was permitted to render sentence publically. For instance, if the case was a simple matter that required little questioning. The Theodosian lays prescribe that such cases should take place levato velo, meaning publically, with admission open to all.

The opposite was the case in criminal processes, which were held in secret (obducto velo), as Basil claims: “The princes of this world open the veils when they intend to condemn a criminal to death, and they remain inside for a long time.” Clement informs us of the same fact: “Consider the secular courts. The judges, as soon as they have received the plaintiff’s testimony, interrogate the criminal himself whether he agrees with the account of the case. If he pleads guilty, he is not immediately punished. Rather, there is a time of more intense deliberation and consultation, and he is questioned behind the veil (interiecto velo).” Further, “to stand by the veil” mean to stand before a judge in court.

There were two sorts of veil in the secretarium. One exterior on the outer doors of the office, which was called the consistorium, perhaps because there the crowds stood and awaited the decision. Another was interior, and covered the cubicle of the judge himself. The Greeks called this the κριταὶ τοῦ βήλου, as Du Cange has sufficiently proved.

We know many of these things from the Acts of the Martyrs in particular, which often mention both veils. For this reason, I think it would be a good use of time to go over the more noteworthy of these texts.

Acts of the Martyrs in which the two veils of the secretarium are mentioned


Testimony of the Councils on Sanctuary Veils

The documents of Church councils frequently mention judicial veils (vela iudicum). There is no need to point out isolated examples from the many that could be adduced for this purple. It will be sufficient to examine the Carthaginian council between the Donatists and Catholics (411), and which was held in the secretarium of the Gargilian Baths. There Libosus Ducenarius addresses a certain Marcellinum, the tribunum notarium and extraordinary judge chosen by the Emperor, with the following words:

“Whereas it was decided to recommence the council on the present day, and since the bishops of each party are before the veil, if your highness wills, let them be admitted.”

Examples taken from other writers

The emperors Theodosius and Valentianus passed a law forbidding anyone to put up ROYAL VEILS or titles, and permitted anyone to take down or smash the titles and tear the VEILS with impunity.

These veils were purple, brocaded with gold and studded with precious stones and gems, and used by emperors, kings, and tetrarchs in their palaces.

Veiled God (alamy)

Lipsius notes that the images and statues of the gods were concealed by veils, which were removed on feast days to make them visible to worshippers. Apuleus tells of the time he “was deeply moved when attending the morning openings (matutinas apertiones), and when the white veils had been lifted, beseeched the venerable face of the goddess.”

Excerpt #2
(pp. 161 – 175)

This section describes the architecture and ornament of the Christian sanctuary, its screen, veils, steps, and altar, comparing them to the ancient Roman Secretarium.

Now we must speak about each of the things that distinguish this place, the chancel, veils, steps, tribunal, altar, taking each individually. In this way it will be clear enough how much affinity there exists between the judge’s Secretarium and the Christian sanctuary. So far as I can tell, no one has noticed this affinity, though, if I may be permitted to say it without vanity, the similarities are apparent for anyone to see. It was the well-established custom of our Fathers in faith to wean the nations from their superstitions slowly to the true Christian cult slowly, by introducing practices that shared similar names or features, and in this manner they achieve no little success in their zealous efforts to propagate their religion.

On the Chancel Screen of the Minor Secretarium[1]

We know that the sanctuary (secretarium bematis) was surrounded by a chancel screen (cancellis) on all sides, something the Greeks called the κιγκλίδες. Mabillon offers a detailed description of the space:

“Behind the choir where the singers stood, the steps rose by gradual degrees to the sanctuary, which was separated from the choir by a chancel screen (cancelli). They called the entry through this screen into the sanctuary the folds (rugas), or royal doors (regias), or portals (portas), or simply the chancel. They were guarded by the acolytes, as we read in the Ordo Romanus Ι.”

The testimony of the ancient writers confirms this point. Anastasius relates how “twelve large doors in front of the Secretarium” were constructed by Leo III, and that Leo IV had made “casted silver doors and a screen at the entrance to the presbyterium.” Mabillon demonstrates that the words rugarum and regiarum refer to the chancel, while Cajetan has the following to say regarding the sacred ashes the pope sprinkled on the people on Ash Wednesday:

“Note that the Camerarius papae exits the royal doors and distributes the ashes while standing facing those who are outside.”

Petrus Amelius makes the same observation, indicating the place where the pope stands to bless candles and palms, and where the diploma hangs by which the pope used to grant a cardinal the faculties to celebrate Mass at St. Peter’s.

Paris de Crassis calls them the fore-wall (antemurale), or sometimes the podium, as Mabillon also notes in his appendix to the Ordo Romanus I. Thomasius is correct, therefore, when he claims that the word podium should be understood to refer to

“the marble chancels or slabs by which the sanctuary is separated from the choir and the nave, because their construction in the ancient basilicas of Rome is such that immediately behind them the steps of the sanctuary or presbyterium begin to rise in a gradual incline.”

Furthermore, since the upper part of the door is in the shape of an arch, the chancel screen separating the sanctuary from the nave was called the choral arch (arcus toralis or rather coralis in Du Cange’s reading) in a Spanish council held in 1582.

Whenever the ancient Christians built a church altar they immediately surrounded it with a fence or screen (cancellis) that divided the choir from the rest of the church space. As Eusebius relates:

“For when he had thus completed the temple, he provided it with lofty thrones in honor of those who preside, and in addition with seats arranged in proper order throughout the whole building, and finally placed in the middle the holy of holies, the altar, and, that it might be inaccessible to the multitude, enclosed it with wooden lattice-work.”[2]

Paul Warnefrid claims that the same was done by Chrodegang:

“He had a church built in honor of St. Stephen the Protomartyr, with an altar, chancel screen, presbyterium, and an arch.[3] The Acta Episcoporum Cenomanensium records the following about Arnaldus: “He recommenced building the church and put a roof over the upper part, called a cancellus in the vernacular.” From this we can gather that generally the whole space inside the chancel screen was called the chancel. Hence the verses of John of Garlandia: “Cancellus Templi pars intima dicitur esse.”


Besides the sacred ministers, entrance to this space was permitted only to the emperor, and only for the purpose of offering gifts and anointing the altar, as we will explain later on. Laymen must stand outside the chancel, as the poet warns:

Infra cancellum laicos compelle morari,
Ne videant vinum cum sacro pane sacrari.

For this reason the Second Synod of Tour prescribed that during Vigils and Mass, laymen are absolutely forbidden to stand with the clergy near the altar where the Holy Mysteries are celebrated. Only the clerical choir is permitted to enter the space divided off by the chancel screen.


On the Veils of the Minor Secretarium

Reconstruction of the screen of Hagia Sophia

Wherever there was a chancel screen there were also sacred veils that could be drawn over the secretarium. For besides the pagan practices we described above, we know that formerly there were veils in the Temple of Jerusalem. Similarly in Christian temples it has been the custom to hang veils around the sanctuary, called variously curtains or auleae.

Veils (SA in classe 2)

There are innumerable examples that confirm this assertion, especially taken from Anastasius, since one of the most common events in the lives of the popes is the donation of veils for the decoration of churches. It is not the place to discuss the veils that were hung on the outer doors and in other parts of the sacred buildings–noted by Epiphanius, Gregory the Great, Gregory of Tours, and Dionysius. Rather I will choose a few examples that are more relevant to the question at hand.

John VI “set up white veils between the columns of the altar in the basilica of B. Paul the Apostle.”

Zachary “ordered silk veils to be hung between the columns in the church of the Ss. Apostles Peter and Paul.”

Leo III “set up a three-part veil, red and made entirely of silk, all around the altar of B. Peter the Apostle.” In another place, “he hung red and white silk veils around the altar that hang in the arch of the ciborium.” Again “he set up veils in the Basilica of the Holy Mother of God ad Praesepe…between the large royal doors and in front of the secretarium, thirteen in number.”

Sergius “draped 8 triple veils around the altar of the basilica.”

Stephen V “put 4 veils in the basilica of the great Doctor of the Nations….and gave the Basilica of the Apostles one linen curtain and three silk ones to be hung around the altar.”

These veils were hung from wooden, iron, or even bronze or silver bars, which the Greeks call κιόνια and Leo of Ostia calls cast metal chancels (cancellos fusiles).

Veils (St. Gilles Mass)
The Mass of St Gilles. Notice the bar and veil.
Veil (SA in classe).jpg
Another mosaic from St Apollinare in Classe,

Anastasius mentions these veils, and likewise Theodorus, who describes the basilica of Jerusalem: “you could the holy altar adorned with its princely veils, flashing with jewels and gold votive offerings.”


It is certain that the use of this veil was two-fold. One sort was draped around the episcopal chair and the altar. There is a passage about the bishop’s veiled cathedra in Augustine’s famous letter to Maximus: “worldly honor and ambition shall cease. On the day of Christ’s judgment there will be no gradated apses or veiled cathedrae to protect us.”[4] The words of S. Pacianus against the heretic bishop are also relevant: “Novatian was made a bishop in his absence. No one consecrated him, but he seized the veiled seat anyway.”[5]

Another type of veil hung in the spaces between the columns. These it was the custom to remove during sacred functions, making them a sort of foldable door that could be drawn back from either side. Both Chrysostom and Evagrius instruct the faithful to imagine that, when the veils of the sanctuary are drawn up, heaven is in a way drawn down with all the angels. Their admonition was more correct, therefore, than Varro’s, whose superstition led him to call heaven the “curtains of Apollo.” The practice of raising the veils slightly at the beginning of the liturgy of the faithful, just after the dismissal of the Catechumens, when the priest has entered the altar, explains why the prayers he says there used to be called the Prayers of the Veil (oratio velaminis). The job of drawing the veils was given to the acolyte, who in the words of the Council of Narbonne “lifted up the door veils for his elders.”


Pola Casket
The Pola Casket, which is thought to show the sanctuary of Old St. Peter’s

On several days of the year, other veils were draped about the altar for mystical reasons. One veil was hung on the first Sunday of Lent between the choir and the altar that could only be drawn by the guardian of the secretarium himself, as we read in the Ordo Cluniacensis, Constitutiones Hirsaugienses, Durandus, and Belethus, who also tell us that on Christmas night the altar was covered with three multi-colored veils. This we know from Durandus, who was copied by Belethus and Macer:

“In some places, it is the custom to put three curtains over the altar before Matins to symbolize the three ages, and in each of the nocturnes to remove one of them. The first is black, for the time before the law. A second is white for the time of revelation. A third is red for the time of grace, to indicate the pure love of the blushing Bride.”


[1]The word secretarium is used by ecclesiastical authors to refer to any of several rooms, including the sacristy (the diakonikon in Greek), the chapter-house (or Consistorium), or sanctuary. Cancellieri calls the altar the secretarium minus, as opposed to the sacristy.

[2] Ecclesiastical Histories, 10,4.

[3] De Episcopis Metensibus.

[4] Ed. note: On the other hand, in Eusebius’s Ecclesiasical Histories, one bishop Paul of Samosatensis is rebuked for possessing a secretum (VII.30):

“He practices chicanery in ecclesiastical assemblies, contrives to glorify himself, and deceive with appearances, and astonish the minds of the simple, preparing for himself a tribunal and lofty throne, — not like a disciple of Christ — and possessing a ‘secretum,’ — like the rulers of the world — and so calling it…”

[5] An Novacianus, quem absentem epistola Episcopum finxit, quem, consecrante nullo, linteata sedes excepit.

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