The Palm Sunday Procession in Medieval France

The eminent 18th century liturgist Claude de Vert’s work is a wealth of picturesque knowledge about the pre-Revolutionary Gallican Church. We have previously discussed the key role he played in the anti-allegorical turn in liturgical studies. 

But in this place his rationalist temper waxes less conspicuously, as with touching detail he describes Christ’s annual triumphal entry into the cities of France in the Palm Sunday procession.

In the first excerpt, he argues that the Palm Sunday procession that commemorates Christ’s entry into Jerusalem is modeled on the triumphal entries of princes and monarchs into subject cities.

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The Harrowing of Hell, Duccio di Buoninsegna, 14th century


Claude de Vert, Explication Simple, Littérale et Historique des Cérémonies de l’église, Volume 2, pp. 377 – 384.

On Palm Sunday Processions in Medieval France

  1. The blessing and distribution of palms once took place outside the city and still does in many places.

Since the purpose of today’s procession is to represent the triumphal entry of Our Lord into Jerusalem, so it is necessary, in order to bring before the people’s eyes the minutes details of this entry, even down to the tree branches that were strewn on the roads where Our Lord passed by—I say it is necessary not only to enter the city, and so to come from outside it, but to enter it solemnly and as if in triumph, with tree branches and twigs in hand.

We note that, if there are several churches and the procession is not to leave the city, then the blessing of branches takes place in one of these churches, and thence there is a procession to another church with the branches in hand.

Further, in several places with only one church, as most of the market towns and villages, they have sought to imitate the cathedral church, as do the rest of the churches of the diocese, by doing the blessing outside the city or village, at some wayside cross or altar prepared on the main road expressly for this purpose.[1]

And if the procession does not leave the town at all, then the blessing, at least, is done outside the Church, and usually in some public place. Finally, where even the blessing is done inside the church itself, they then leave the church in order to be able to return in procession with branches after having done a round around the building. In these latter cases, the ceremony of the Attolite portas, which we shall discuss later, takes place at the door of the Church itself, or at the door of the choir. For on the one hand, market towns and villages are not walled and so do not have city gates; and in the cities only the cathedral or principal parish has the right of blessing the branches wherever it pleases, and then process out of the city and reenter through one of the city gates.

For this purpose a church outside the walls was always chosen, usually a monastery, as we shall see hereafter. We know that almost all the monasteries that lie within city walls today formerly stood outside the gates. With the growth of cities, these monasteries found themselves within the walls. Thus they are usually found in the suburbs, where some of them still retain their ancient names, as in Paris, Saint-Germain-des-Prés (in the meadows), Saint-Martin des Champs (in the fields), Saint Victor and Saint Geneviève-lès-Paris (of Paris-side), i.e. ad latus Parisiorum. It is this last church where Paris still goes to bless and distribute the branches.

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The Donkey Walk of tsar Alexis (Vyacheslav Schwarz, 1865). The Donkey Walk is a Russian Orthodox Palm Sunday ritual re-enactment of Jesus Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.
  1. In the Roman Rite, the door is struck with the foot of the processional cross.

Since it bears an image of Our Lord, the processional cross is a very suitable instrument for striking the door of a place where the representation of Our Lord’s entry takes place, which is the whole purpose of this procession, instituted to express and symbolize the triumphant entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem. Bishops usually use their crosier instead of a processional cross, though it seems quite to the purpose that the rubrics prescribe the use of a processional cross, which is, so to speak, the main character in this procession, since it bears the figure of Jesus Christ whose entrance into the city is being represented.

Moreover this cross, veiled throughout Lent, is here uncovered in some churches, and in many uses it is saluted and adored in a very peculiar manner, accompanied by the hymn Ave rex noster.[2]

Harrowing of Hell 2

  1. The gate of the city is intentionally closed when the procession returns,

just as one may observe in solemn receptions of princes and kings in our cities, for we have said already more than once, that the Palm Sunday procession is meant to represent Our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Hence in some churches during this procession the Gospel Book used to be carried in pomp and triumph, as if to represent Jesus Christ whose image ordinarily appears embossed on the cover. In Rouen, they still carry Our Lord himself, namely the Blessed Sacrament.

We observe similar practices, if the reader would countenance the comparison, in the public entries of princes and kings. In like manner the present King, now happily reigning,[3] made his entry into Paris: the Porte Saint-Antoine was closed in his presence, then opened again as soon as he had been given the keys. Similarly in Bourges, when the procession from the Cathedral of Saint-Étienne arrives at the stational church on Rogation days, the church doors are closed so that they may be opened again, and in this manner the procession is honored, as if the doors were only opened for the express purpose of welcoming it. A similar ceremony was once held in Paris on Rogation Tuesday, at Notre-Dame-des-Champs,[4] when the procession from Notre-Dame arrived in front of this church.

And so, upon its return, the Palm Sunday procession should naturally find the gates closed; either the city gates, as is still the custom in some places, or those of the prison, in a peculiar use, as at Paris,[5] or of the church itself, or finally of the choir, for the reasons noted above.

  1. Wishing to enter, or rather to make the cross enter, the celebrant says to the door, Attolite portas principes vestras, et elevamini portae aeternales, et introibit rex gloriae.

And those inside the city, prison, church, or choir respond: Quis est iste rex gloriae? This exchange does little more than set in Scriptural terms and ceremonialize what happens every day as a matter of course when we knock on a door, which is to say: “Open the door,” at which those inside take the precaution of asking: “Who’s there? Who goes there?” The same ceremony is observed at the dedication of a church, when the bishop and those outside say the Attolite portas thrice and at different times, adding the word aperite, which they also say three times, like people in distress and tired of waiting: Aperite, aperite, aperite! Open up, Open already, Open, quick! But the words et introibit rex gloriae that follow Attolite portas are so much the more relevant here, as the purpose of the Palm Sunday procession (as we have said many times), is to express and symbolize the great and glorious entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem. So much so that Christ himself is carried in pomp and triumph under the sacred symbols of the Eucharistic Bread, or at least is represented by the Gospel Book. Thus there is no more felicitous thing in all these goings on than to encounter this one verse of scripture, accompanied here in a manner entirely proper and perfectly natural, by the ceremony of the opening of the gate, saying to those inside: “O High and Lofty gates, open! that the King of glory may enter in.”[6]

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In the second excerpt (pp 97 – 100), our dear author shows how the hymn Gloria laus was sung during Palm Sunday processions, throughout France, staged in a dramatic way at a high point above the city gates, or from some other elevated place.

On the Gloria laus sung from a high place

The ancient Missal of the church of Embrun and Glandève says “from the loftiest place.” At Vienne in the Dauphiné, according to the Ordinary of 1250 and 1504, it is from a casement above the city gates. At Châlons-sur-Marne, from the towers of the gate through which the procession rëentered the city on its way back from the Abbey of Saint-Menge or Saint-Memmie; it is still done today from a tower. In Paris, it is from a room above one of the gates of the Petit Châtelet, where the prisons are. According to the Ordinary of the Cathedral of Saint-Gatiens in Tours, also from above of one of the city gates. Likewise at Angers, it is done above the gate called Angevine or Porte de la Cité, in a chapel that was formerly a prison and is indeed still called La vieille Chartre (from carcer). According to city tradition, it was in this chartre or prison that Theodulf, Bishop of Orléans was held[7]. When the Palm Sunday procession passed this place, they began to sing the hymn Gloria laus, which he himself had composed expressly for this ceremony.[8]

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Detail of the Gloria laus, Fairford parish church, England

At Besançon, it was held atop the city walls, at the Porte de Mars, later called La Porte-noire, where the city prisons are still found. At Metz, it is done from the rood-loft, and formerly on the city walls near the Porte serpenoise, as it is commonly called. Contrary to the usual custom, the choir-boys of Metz did not sing the Gloria laus, but rather the Benedictine nuns of Saint-Pierre and of Sainte-Marie of the same city. Because of the phrase in excelsis (“in the highest”), they sing this hymn from a high place atop the city walls, as the choir-boys would elsewhere do.

In Rouen, it is sung from the place where the old city gate once stood, called La porte de Sainte Apolline, or Porte du grand-pont. Here a station is held and the choir-boys and musicians climb up to a neighboring room whence they chant Gloria laus. Formerly they sang it from the actual tower of the gate. The ancient Ordinary of this church says, “When the procession to the city gate, duly decorated, arrives, six boys go up the tower, &c.[9] In Langres, it is at the Porte au pain that the boys climb into a room called tour (“tower”), according to the ancient ceremonial. At Troyes, since the gate from which the Gloria laus used to be sung has been demolished, the boys climb to the windows of a house that stands on the same spot. At Auxerre, it is over the church portal on a platform called de la Gloria laus for this very reason. At Bourges, it is over one of the city gates called de Bourbonne; or, when due to bad weather they do not go to the church of Saint-Ursin, it takes place in an upper room of the house closest to the main gate of the cloister next to Saint-Ursin; or when the weather is so bad that it prevents them from going even that far, they do it at the organ-loft located above the main door of the church; or finally, if it is not even possible to leave the church, it takes place on the rood screen standing between the choir and the nave. Such are the pains this Church takes to sing the Gloria laus from a high place!

In Lisieux, it sung over the church portal between the two towers in a place also called for that reason, in the dialect, Gloria las.[10] In Coutances and Bayeux it is from above the main doors of the church. In Senlis from the place where one of the city gates formerly stood, called. as at Langres, La porte au pain, now destroyed. the Ordinary manuscript of this church says, Super portam civitatis, quae dicitur Porta panis.

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Palm Sunday, Zdzislaw Piotr Jasinski

At Mâcon, it takes place from a house facing the great door of the church. And at the Cathedral of Saint-Martin of Tours, according to the manuscript Ritual of this church, it is sung from the house of the Treasurer, where the prisons are (and perhaps once one of the city gates). At Liège, according to the Ordinary of 1521, it takes place at a chapel in Sainte-Agnes, up which the boys must climb. At Arras, it is done above a vault, apparently that of the porch or vestibule of the church. Supra testudinem, according to the manuscript Ordinary of this church. Gloria laus a pueris in alto canentibus, says the Missal of Noyon of 1541.

At Beauvais, it happens in a room located above one of the city gates, for this reason still known as the de la Gloria laus. These two words in fact are engraved there in gold letters. At Meaux, it once took place over the city gate, returning from the abbey of Saint-Faron, where the branches were blessed. Later, the Gloria laus came to be chanted in the gallery above the church’s main door, still called the Galerie Gloria laus. Today it is sung down below in the church itself, because in this church, as in many others, they have forgotten the reason that this hymn is sung in a high place, namely, the verse of the hymn that goes: “The whole heavenly host lauds thee on high.”[11] In a certain Roman ritual we find that the choir boys, in the event they cannot easily find a high place, at least sang the hymn from a window: super fenestram dicunt Gloria laus. Behold how striking these words Coetus in excelsis were felt to be, so that they had to be sung, with the whole rest of the hymn, from a high place!

In Cambrai the Gloria laus is sung from a tower. At Amiens this hymn is also sung from a tower, the remains of an old city gate called Porte de l’arquet, now demolished. Locals call it tour de Jerusalem, an allusion to the city of Jerusalem where Our Lord made his triumphal entry, of which the Palm Sunday procession is a representation and expression.

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To answer the curious cases in which the Gloria laus is sung at the doors of a prison (as at Paris), De Vert seems to propose a historical explanation (Theodulf’s imprisonment). But it seems to me not far-fetched to suppose that the medieval mind concocted it to serve as a dramatic portrayal of Christus Victor, who triumphs over the devil, enters the prison of Hell, and despoils it of its captives.

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Study of King Alfonso XIII of Spain and Queen Victoria Eugenia, Palm Sunday procession, Royal Chapel, Royal Palace of Madrid, Spain, 1923


[1] Hence all the road-side crosses one finds especially in the environs of towns and villages, with stone pulpits attached for the chanting of the Gospel or setting down the Book. Sometimes one also finds stone tables to hold the branches during the blessing.

[2] Trans. note: This was the case in many places in England, where the veil was draw up by pulleys and everybody knelt. As the hymn was sung, the clergy venerated the Cross by kissing the ground (see Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, p. 25).

[3] Trans. note: Louis XIV in 1660, on the occasion of his marriage.

[4] Author’s note: Now the convent of the Carmelites of the fauxbourg St-Jacques. Trans. note: This church was destroyed by the Revolutionaries. Another church, still under the old name, was rebuilt in its place in 1876.

[5] Author’s note: This is a recent custom. Formerly, as in every other use, the ceremony took place at the city gate, called at that time porte du Point or du Petit-Point and today le Petit Châtelet. Sistitur ante portam civitatis, as the manuscript book of the church’s cantor says, a quatuor pueris Gloria laus, etc.

[6] Attollite, elevamini means literally: “Raise the gates and make way.” The gates of Sion in question here were suspended like those of military cities and other fortified places, called a portcullis (herces), made in the form of a grill or trellis with large spikes of wood or iron, that are raised and lowered as needed. So the prophet demands the doors be opened to give access to the arc that he was having transported from the house of Obed-edom to Mt. Sion [See 1 Chronicles 13; 2 Samuel 6:12].

[7] Trans. Note: When accused of treason by Emperor Lewis the Pious. The legend is mentioned in book 6 of Hugo of Fleury’s Historia Ecclesiastica from the 12th century

[8] Trans. Note: The Emperor himself was participating in the procession, and duly moved, released Theodulf.

[9] Cum processio ad portam civitatis ornatam venerit, sex pueri turrim ascendunt, etc.,

[10] Gloria las for Gloria laus, due to the region’s accent, which pronounces au as as. Likewise they still say Saint Valery en Cas for en Caux.

[11] Coetus in excelsis te laudat coelicus omnis.

A Sequence in Times of Pestilence

Rorate caeli recently proffered the laudable idea to have recourse to an ancient Marian sequence athwart the plague. We here provide a translation of the Schola Sainte Cécile’s notes on the background of this interesting piece.

“The Peddler,” woodcut designed by Hans Holbein the Younger for the “Dance of Death” series, 1523–26; in the British Museum
“The Peddler,” woodcut designed by Hans Holbein the Younger for the “Dance of Death” series, 1523–26 (Source)
Stella cæli exstirpavit,
quæ lactavit Dominum,
mortis pestem, quam plantavit
primus parens hominum.
The Star of Heaven,
who gave suck to the Lord,
hath vanquished the plague of death,
planted by the first parent of men.
Ipsa stella nunc dignetur
sidera compescere,
quorum bella plebem cædunt
diræ mortis ulcere.
May this Star now deign
to restrain the heavenly bodies
whose battles slay the people
with the dreadful sore of death.
Piisima Stella maris,
a peste succurre nobis.
audi nos, Domina, nam filius tuus
nihil negans, te honorat.
O most loving Star of the sea,
succour us from pestilence.
Hearken unto us, Our Lady, for thy son,
denieth thee naught, and honoureth thee.
Salva nos, Jesu,
pro quibus Virgo Maria te orat.
Save us, O Jesu,
for whom thy Virgin Mother prayeth thee.
℣. Ora pro nobis, piissima Dei Genitrix.
℟. Quæ contrivisti caput serpentis, auxiliare nobis.
℣. Pray for us, most loving Mother of God.
℟. Thou who crushedst the head of the serpent, help us.
Deus misericordiæ, Deus pietatis, Deus indulgentiae, qui misertus es super afflictionem populi tui, et dixisti Angelo percutienti populum tuum: Contine manum tuam; ob amorem illius Stellæ gloriosæ, cujus ubera pretiosa contra venenum nostrorum delictorum dulciter suxisti: præsta auxilium gratiæ tuæ, ut intercedente beata Virgine Maria Matre tua et beato Bartholomæo apostolo tuo dilecto, ab omni peste et improvisa morte secure liberemur, et a totius perditionis incursu misericorditer salvemur. Per te, Jesu Christe, Rex gloriæ, qui cum Patre et Spiritu sancto vivis et regnas, Deus, in sæcula sæculorum. ℟. Amen.
Let us pray.
God of mercy, God of piety, God of pardon, who hath pity on the affliction of thy people, and saidst to the Angel that slew thy people: Hold thy hand; for the love of that glorious Star, whose precious paps thou didst sweetly suck against the venom of our trespasses: vouchsafe the help of thy grace, that by the intercession of the blessed Virgin Mary thy Mother and of blessed Bartholomew, thy belovèd apostle, we may be safely freed from all pestilence and unexpected death, and mercifully saved from every inroad of death and ruin. Through thee, Jesus Christ, King of glory, who with the Father and the Holy Ghost livest and reignest, God, world without end. ℟. Amen.

The verses of this prayer in times of pestilence are taken from a homily on Our Lord’s Nativity delivered in the 8th century by St Peter, bishop of Damascus. According to tradition, the text was written on a piece of paper given by St Batholomew in an apparitionto the Poor Clares of Coimbra in Portugal when that city was ravaged by the plague in 1317. The sisters duly prayed it, and their convent was spared. This monastery had been founded in 1314 by St Elizabeth, Queen of Portugal (1271-1336), who took the veil there after the death of her husband, King Denis, and died in the odour of sanctity. She was canonized by Pope Urban VIII in 1625.

The prayer is in the form of a prose or sequence. Two choirs alternate each verse and come together to sing the last verse in unison, which is a trope: the music and text are also used in other prayers to Our Lady. The melody given by the Schola Sainte Cécile and reproduced below, is taken from the Cantuale Romano-Seraphicum (1951), with the original rhythm restored.


Another version, with a slightly different text, was published by Hermann Mott in Cologne in 1660:


From Coimbra, the sequence spread throughout the West. In 1575, for example, the canons of the Collegiate Church of Sainte-Croix in Poligny decided to sing it every day before High Mass intimes of pestilence. The Ursulines of Nîmes sang it daily after Mass during the plague of 1640. It was generally sung with its versicle and collect, followed by antiphons, versicles, and collects in honour of St Roch and St Sebastian, the two main saintly patrons invoked against the plague. See, for instance, this 1781 breviary for the use of the confraternity of the White Penitents in Saint-Laurent-lès-Grenoble.

A version in Gregorian chant:

A beautiful polyphonic version, from the Jesuit missions in Paraguay:

The Lenten Veil, by Henri de Villiers


The Lenten Veil—Velum quadragesimale

By Henri de Villiers

We are grateful to the author for his permission to translate and publish his article Le voile de Carême – Velum quadragesimale.” 

Lent is a time of fasting. In former times, in order to prepare themselves to live the great mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ, Christians not only fasted from food but also practiced an auditory and visual fast.

Auditory privation took the form of suppressing of the use of the organ and musical instruments, but also in many diocesan uses, suppressing the ringing of bells.

Visual privation with the veils that were placed over the Cross and the statues or even the prohibition of placing flowers upon the altar. Visual privation also included closing off the sanctuary with a great veil, the velum quadrigesimale.

And so in Paris, until around the year 1870, such a veil was hung from the first Sunday of Lent until Spy Wednesday. This great veil, made of violet or ash-coloured linen, completely closed off the sanctuary and masked the view of the High Altar. It was dropped on the pavement of the sanctuary during the course of Spy Wednesday Mass during the chanting of the Passion according to St. Luke, precisely when the chronista reached the chanting of this verse: “et obscuratus est sol: et velum templi scissum est medium.” (Luke 23:45).

This dramatic visual action gave life to the words of the Gospel of the Passion that the faithful heard and reinforced its meaning in their hearts.

This great veil—called the velum quadrigesimale or velum templi—was not, however, particular to Paris, since it is found in all the lands of the ancient Carolingian world. Its usage is attested by many councils and medieval statutes and actually goes all the way back to Christian antiquity. Growing more and more ornate toward the end of the Middle Ages, especially in Germany, the Lenten veil, which had survived the Lutheran reform, is currently witnessing a renewed interest.

1. The Lenten Veil in the Ancient Use of Paris

Below are several paragraphs concerning the decoration of churches during Lent, taken from the Caeremoniale Parisiense published in 1662 by Cardinal de Retz, and edited by Martin Sonnet, priest and beneficiary of the Church of Paris, a reference work for understanding the old Parisian rite. This passage describes the set-up of the decoration of churches proper to the time Lent, carried out before First Vespers of the First Sunday of Lent. Regarding the great Lenten veil, the parisian Ceremonial stipulates not only when it must be placed in the sanctuary, but also at what precise moments it must be opened or closed.


From the Sundays and ferias of Lent until Palm Sunday.

And when Jesus had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterwards he was hungry (Matthew 4:2).

1. The first Sunday of Lent is a semi-double of the first class. Semi-double with respect to the office; first class, with respect to its privilege.

2. The Saturday before Vespers, the Master of Ceremonies ensures that the churchwarden or the sacristan and his assistants entirely cover up all crosses, reliquaries or relics of the saints, and images of the church, even the Processional Cross, in a dignified manner with a violet or ash-coloured veils made from camlet or damask silk, or from a silky fabric. He likewise ensures that the high altar and the other altars of the church be covered with frontals of the same colour.

3. And before the high altar, between the choir and the sanctuary, from one side to the other, a great oblong and wide veil is hung, or a large curtain made of violet or ash-coloured camlet, which can be drawn back or folded or let down when needful, or even spread out or closed or drawn, until Wednesday of Holy Week.

4. Now, this great veil is spread out for all ferial hours only, and for the entire day and night, and it is never spread out during mass, nor during the Sunday office from First Vespers until Second Vespers and for the entire day and night, nor indeed on the offices of double and semi-double feasts, nor by day nor by night.

5. Additionally, all draperies and all the carpets of the steps or the predella of the high altar and the other altars, are taken down throughout the Church: in sum, until Easter, the entire church is without ornament.


Observe how the same Ceremonial describes the lifting of the great Lenten veil a little later, when it speaks about Spy Wednesday:


11. The deacon sings the Passion according to St Luke, which the celebrant meanwhile reads on the Gospel side, as is noted in the preceding Tuesday. Now, after he arrives at the eagle which is in the middle of the choir, the Master of Ceremonies extends the great veil between the sanctuary and the altar, in the usual manner. It is elevated in each part of the choir, and held by two clerics, until these words of the Passion: “And the veil of the temple was rent in the midst”. And when the deacon pronounced those words, at the command of the Master of Ceremonies, the two aforementioned clerics immediately let go, so the veil may suddenly fall entirely on the floor of the choir, and it is afterwards taken away by the sacristan.


It is very interesting to note that the great Lenten veil remains opened all Sunday, from First Vespers to Second: the Day of the Lord, Dies Domini, has always been the feast of the Resurrection, even in Lent. Fasting is forbidden on this day.

The Cæremoniale Parisiense of Cardinal de Noailles, published in 1703, moreover, quite reasonably postpones the installation of the veil until after Compline of the First Sunday of Lent and before the Night Office of Monday: since the veil remained open on all Sundays, its installation before First Vespers of the First Sunday of Lent—however it perfectly logically fit with the entry into Lent—was not absolutely necessary. According to this Ceremonial, the other veils on the images and crosses are nevertheless always installed before First Vespers of the First Sunday of Lent. As we shall see, the practice of placing the Lenten veil after Compline of the First Sunday is already found in most medieval monastic customaries from the 10th century, and perhaps this is a souvenir from ancient times—before St. Gregory the Great!—when the fast did not commence until Monday.

2. The Lenten Veil in the Rest of Europe

Before the Renaissance and the printing of the first diocesan ceremonials, it is not always easy to discover the development of various liturgical rites in exact detail: the rubrics in the old Medieval Missals are fragmentary or even non-existent. We may still glean several useful details in the acts of provincial councils, and especially in the Customaries of the Abbeys, which regulated the details of conventual life in each of the great monastic centers with great precision.

And so we find the great Lenten veil mentioned by a series of medieval Anglo-Norman councils as being part of the supplies that every church was obliged to possess: these are the councils of Exeter (1217), Canterbury (1220), Winchester (1240), Evreux (1240), and Oxford (1287).

Prior to these councils, a number of customaries, constitutions, and statutes of medieval abbeys witness to the custom of closing off the sanctuary with a veil during Lent.

The most ancient mention is found in the Consuetudines Farfenses, the Constitutions of the Abbey of Farfa, near Rome, produced around the year 1010 (ch. XLII), which notes for the evening of the First Sunday of Lent:

Nam denique secraetarius cortinam exacta vespera in fune ordinet et completorio consummato in circulos extendant.

And finally, after Vespers have finished, the sacristan shall set up a curtain over a cord and, at the end of Compline, they shall spread it out.

St. Lanfranc († 1089), abbot of Saint-Étienne in Caen and then archbishop of Canterbury in 1070, speaks in his statutes about the Lenten veil, which must be installed after Compline of the First Sunday of Lent, and about other veils for the crosses and images, which are placed the next day before Terce:

Dominica prima Quadragesimae post Completorium suspendatur cortina inter Chorum et altare. Feria secunda ante Tertiam debent esse coopertae Crux, Coronae, Capsae, textus qui imagines deforis habent.

On the First Sunday of Lent, after Compline, let a curtain be hung up between the choir and the altar. On Monday before Terce, the Cross, crowns, reliquaries, and the fabrics which have images [painted] on them must be covered up (Statutes ch. 1, § 3).

Here are several more references, which admittedly show some variation in detail amongst the medieval monastic uses, but which allow us to appreciate the wide extent of the use of the Lenten veil:

  • Post Completorium appenditur velum inter altare et chorum quod nullus praeter Sanctuarii Custodes, atque Ministros, absque rationabili causa audet transire.After Compline, a veil is hung between the altar and the choir, which no one besides the custodians of the sanctuary and the ministers [of the mass] should dare to cross without reasonable cause. (Liber Consuetudinum S. Benigni Divionensis, Customary of St-Bénigne in Dijon)
  • Dominica post completam debet Secretarius tendere cortinam inter chorum et altare et Crucifixum cooperire.On Sunday after Compline the Sacristan must stretch out a curtain between the choir and the altar and cover the Crucifix. (Liber Usuum Beccesnsium, Book of the Usages of Bec-Hellouin)
  • Hac die post Completorium cruces cooperiantur, et cortina ante Presbyterium tendatur, quae ita omnibus diebus privatis per XL usque ad quartam feriam ante Pascha post Completorium remanebit. (…) In Sabbatis vero et in vigiliis SS. duodecim Lectionum ante Vesperas a conspectu Presbyterii est cortina retrahenda, et in crastino post Completorium est remittenda. Similiter retrahentur ad Missam pro praesenti defuncto, et ad exequias: Non intres in iudicium, donec septem psalmi finiantur post sepulturam. S et ad benedictionem novitii. (…) Ad missam vero privatis diebus, ut Sacerdos libere ab Abbate, si assuerit, ad Evangelium legendum benedictionem petat, Subdiaconus cornu cortinae in parte Abbatis modice retrahat, et data benedictione, ut prius erat, remittat. Diaconus vero accedat ad cortinam, ubi sublevata est, quaerens benedictionem.On this day, after Compline, let the crosses be covered up, and a curtain be extended before the sanctuary, which must remain so on all ferial days throughout Lent until after Compline of the Wednesday before Easter. […] On Saturdays, however, and the vigils of saints of twelve lessons, the curtain must be drawn back before Vespers that the sanctuary might be visible, and it is put back the next day after Compline. It is likewise to be drawn back on a funeral mass where the body is present, and on obsequies from Non intres in judicium until the seven penitential psalms finish after the burial, and on the blessing of a novice. […] But on weekday masses, in order that the priest, if he wishes, can freely ask the blessing of the abbot for reading the Gospel, let the Subdeacon slightly draw back the end of the curtain at the abbot’s side, and after the blessing has been given, let him put it back as it was before. But let the deacon walk up to the curtain, at the point where it is lifted up, to ask for the blessing. (Liber Usuum Cisterciensium, Book of the Usages of Cîteaux, ch. 15: De Dominica prima XL).
  • Hac die post IX ante Sanctuarium cortina a Sacrista tendatur, et cruces in ecclesia cooperiantur. (…) In festis vero SS. XII. Lectionum, et Dominicis, die praecedente ad Vesperas a conspectu Sanctuarii cortina abstrahenda est, et in die festi post Completorium rehrahenda: similiter singulis diebus ante elvationem Domin Corporis abstrahantur, et ea facta retrahetur.On this day after None, let a curtain be spread out before the sanctuary by the sacristan, and let the crosses in the church be covered up, […] But on saints feasts of twelve lessons, and on Sundays, at Vespers on the preceding day the curtain is to be opened up that the sanctuary might be visible, and after Compline on the feast it is to be put back. Similarly, on each day let it be opened up before the elevation of the Body of the Lord, and closed again thereafter. (Tullense S. Apri Ordinarium, Ordinary of St-Evre-lès-Toul)
  • Vesperae autem diei praecedentis diem cinerum, cruces, et imagines cooperiantur, et cortina ante Presbyterium tendatur, quae ita omnibus diebus privatis usque ad quartam feriam hebdomadae palmarum dum canitur: Et velum Templi scissum est, remanebit. (…) Et omnibus etiam privatis diebus ad elevationem Dominici Corporis et Sanguinis Missae conventualis, quae cantantur in summo altari.Now, at Vespers of the day preceding the Day of Ashes, let the crosses and images be covered up, and a curtain be stretched out before the sanctuary, which shall remain thus on all ferial days until Wednesday of the Week of Palms, when Et velum templi scissum est is sung. […] but not on ferial days at the elevation of the Body and Blood of the Lord during conventual Mass, which is sung at the high altar. (Caeremoniae Bursfeldenses, Ceremonial of the German Benedictine Congregation of Bursfelde, ch. 31, 1474-1475)

3. The German Fastentuch

The Lenten veil has remained in use here and there in Sicily and in Spain, but it is especially in Germany and Austria that it has been preserved to our day. The fact that the Lenten veils (or Fastentuch in German) had there become genuine works of art by their decoration surely has something to do with their preservation, and the continuance of their use.

The Lenten veil of Paris would usually have been a rather ordinary woolen sheet (made of ‘camlet’ to employ the technical term used by Martin Sonnet in the Ceremonial of 1662), and must have remained without any special decoration for a long time, as it was in its primitive state. None of these have been conserved and we have not been able to find any ancient iconographic representations.

On the other hand, it is at the end of the 13th century that we observe, in Flanders and Germany, that Lenten veils became ornamented, first with embroidery and then with painting, becoming more and more rich and sumptuous.

Especially in southern Germany and Austria one sees that Lenten veils became very richly painted canvases representing scenes of the Passion, often true masterpieces of their time.

Lenten Veil of the Cathedral of Fribourg (1612)

In Germany, the cathedral of Our Lady of Fribourg preserves the largest Lenten veil known in Europe. Dating to 1612, it measures more than 10 by 12 metres and weighs almost one ton. The central scene of the crucifixion is surrounded by 25 squares containing various episodes of the Passion.

Lenten Veil of the Abbey of Millstatt in Austria (1593)

The Lenten veil of the Abbey of Millstatt, in Carinthia (Austria) originating in 1593 had fallen into disuse. Restored, it has been reinstalled and used once more every Lent since 1984.

Lenten Veil of the Cathedral of Gurk in Austria (1458)

These Lenten veils were a veritable instrument of catechesis through image, educating the people on the history of salvation.

The Lenten Veil of the Cathedral of Gurk in Austria, composed of 99 (tableaux) from Scripture (1458)

In Northern Germany, the Lenten veil remained of a much more simple design: made of white linen decorated with embroidery, consisting usually of references from Scripture or the liturgy. These features are found also in the ancient Lenten veils of Flanders that are conserved in the museums of Belgium, the more ancient belonging to the 14th century. The Museum of the cathedral of Brandenburg near Berlin possesses one dating from the year 1290.



Martin Luther, who detested the idea of Lent and of penance, tried to make the Fastentuch disappear in all of Germany. Little by little they fell into disuse, and from the end of the 19th century the use had practically disappeared. Curiously, this ancient tradition reappeared vigorously beginning in 1974, when the charitable association Misereor had the idea of producing a Fastentuch to give concrete expression to Christians’ Lenten efforts. This initiative has a certain impact all over Germany, leading to the rediscovery of this tradition, the restoration of numerous historic veils that slept in the vaults of cathedrals or museums, and their suspension in sanctuaries once more. There was so much interest that even the Lutherans were moved to put them up! Currently, it is estimated that one third of German Catholic churches as well as many hundreds of Lutheran parishes hang up a veil during Lent. From Germany the practice is expanding currently into Switzerland, Belgium, Ireland and even France.


4. A Tradition with Roots in Christian Antiquity

The practice of veiling images, crosses, and relics during Lent is certainly ancient in the West. Thus, we see in the life of St. Eligius, written by St. Audoin († 686), that the precious casket of the saint was covered by a veil during the entire duration of Lent. But this is not exactly the purpose of this article.

The practice of hanging a veil before the sanctuary of churches hearkens to the most ancient period.

The Old Testament, a type of the New, speaks of a veil that covered the Holy of Holies, first in the itinerant Tabernacle of the desert, then in the Temple of Jerusalem (according to St. Paul, the veil that was rent at the death of Christ was the second veil, and a first veil closed off the Holy Place. Cf. Hebrews 9:3).

The first Christian churches used the sanctuary veil as much in the West as in the East.

The ancient altar was usually covered by a ciborium or baldacchino, between whose columns veils were hung.


Besides these veils over the ciborium, the sanctuary itself was separated from the choir and the nave by a cloister called the chancel or templon, a barrier that might include columns, between which veils were hung. Twelve columns closed off the sanctuary of the basilica of the Anastasis (today the Holy Sepulchre) constructed by Constantine at the beginning of the 4th century. These columns served to support curtains, as various patristic texts tell us. The curtain of the sanctuary of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, donated by the munificence of the emperor Justinian, was made of cloth of gold and silver of an estimated cost of 2,000 minae.


This double rung of veils, the veil of the templum and the veil of the ciborium, constituted the limits of the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies in the temples of the new covenant.


The curtains were kept closed or open depending on the moments of the liturgical action. Their opening always signified the full transmission of grace and symbolized the opening of the heavens.

“When,” said St John Chrysostom, “the heavenly host is upon the altar, when Jesus Christ, the royal lamb, is immolated, when you hear these words: ‘Let us all pray to the Lord together’, when you see that the veils and curtains of the altar are pulled back, consider that you contemplate the heavens that are opened up and the angels that come down to earth.”


The West was not to be outdone: one finds in the Liber Pontificalis several references to popes (e.g. Sergius I, Gregory III, Zachary, Hadrian I) who donated veils to ornament the arcades of the ciboria and the sanctuaries of Roman churches.

Many ancient Eastern and Western liturgies contain a prayer—the prayer of the veil—that the celebrant says when, during the offertory, he leaves the choir and enters the sanctuary, going beyond the veil that closed it off.

The prayer of the veil in the Liturgy of St James, which represents the ancient use of the Church of Jerusalem, is justly renowned:

“We thank Thee, O Lord our God, that Thou hast given us boldness for the entrance of Thy holy places, which Thou hast renewed to us as a new and living way through the veil of the flesh of Thy Christ. We therefore, being counted worthy to enter into the place of the tabernacle of Thy glory, and to be within the veil, and to behold the Holy of Holies, cast ourselves down before Thy goodness: Lord, have mercy on us: since we are full of fear and trembling, when about to stand at Thy holy altar, and to offer this dread and bloodless sacrifice for our own sins and for the errors of the people: send forth, O God, Thy good grace, and sanctify our souls, and bodies, and spirits; and turn our thoughts to holiness, that with a pure conscience we may bring to Thee a peace-offering, the sacrifice of praise:

(Aloud.) By the mercy and loving-kindness of Thy only-begotten Son, with whom Thou art blessed, together with Thy all-holy, and good, and quickening Spirit, now and always:

R/. Amen.”


The Assyro-Chaldean, Armenian, Coptic, and Ethiopian Churches have kept the use of a curtain that closes off the sanctuary. In the Armenian Church, a church is considered to be in disuse if its sanctuary is bereft of a curtain. In the Byzantine church, the columns that once propped up the curtain grew coated with icons in the course of the ages and became the iconostasis: the curtain is still present, although its extension is most often limited to the breadth of the sanctuary doors.

Veil Armenia.jpg

Even if a curtain closes off the sanctuary yearlong in the East, there are nevertheless special customs during Lent. Thus, in the Armenian Church, the usual curtain is replaced during Lent by a black curtain. This black curtain always remains closed during mass and the Lenten offices, symbolizing the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. It is not opened until Palm Sunday.

The Russians likewise change their usual brightly coloured curtain for a sombre-coloured one during the weekdays of Great Lent. All the other veils and coverings of the church are similarly changed. Brightly coloured curtains return on Holy Saturday during the Paschal Vigil, right before the singing of the Gospel of the Resurrection, while the choir sings “Rise up, O Lord, and judge the earth.”


Is it foreseeable that this custom will be restored in France, like it has in Germany?

Juridically, there is nothing blocking it, since the Congregation of Rites has affirmed that the use of the great veil of Lent closing off the sanctuary is indeed permissible (decr. auth. 3448, 11 May 1878).

Nevertheless, we still have something of the “visual Lent” of our forefathers since we have kept the Roman usage of veiling the crosses and statues before First Vespers of Passion Sunday (fifteen days before Easter). Even if this article is not directly about that beautiful custom, it might perhaps help us to better understand the origins of that use and to grasp its historical and symbolic depths.

*For more on veils, also posts at NLM here and here.