The altar cloth, aka fair linen, lies at the heart of the Christian liturgy. It’s beginning goes back centuries to its origin in the Gospels with Joseph of Arimathea’s provision of a “clean linen” [Matt. 27:59] for the burial shroud of the crucified Saviour. The altar cloth is thus embroidered with five crosses for the five wounds of Christ, one in each corner and another in the center.
In earlier centuries, altar cloths were not usually put directly on the altar but, rather, on a cere cloth, i.e., one impregnated with wax which formed a protective barrier between a marble altar and the altar cloth. It prevented minerals from leeching from the marble to the altar cloth and thus damaging it. When marble altars went out of style in the twentieth century, the production of the cere cloth ended. A plain altar cloth that fits the mensa
(altar top) exactly is often now used in its place, and thus serves as the foundation of the dressed altar. During the Eucharist a corporal (so-named because it holds the sacramental Body of Christ) is spread on top of the altar cloth to catch any crumbs from the consecrated Host. It too is embroidered with a cross or other symbol.
Creating the Altar Cloth
Each altar cloth is custom-made to fit the precise dimensions of a particular altar. Hence, no two altar cloths are the same. Altar cloths almost always include side drops (and sometimes a front drop also), the length of which is chosen by the altar guild or priest in charge of the congregation. Polyester is now popular as a fabric for altar cloths, but traditionally-minded churches still use linen exclusively. If an altar cloth is diligently and correctly cared for, it can last many years. Linen is one of the few fabrics that improves with age.
Besides embroideries, altar cloths can be adorned with lace, sewn either on the drops or along the front. Such is at the altar guild or priest’s discretion. A beautifully-dressed altar with a fresh altar cloth and flowers and candles makes for a wonderful sight — and it is for the glory of God!