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Covering the Crosses and Images on Holy Week

St. Jude Thaddeus is one of my favorite saints. I cannot count anymore the number of times I invoke him as patron of impossible cases. One Good Friday, I decided to visit his National Shrine in Manila. I wanted to see his venerated image and thank him for always interceding for me. I went to the Church and to my disappointment, I forgot that it was Holy Week ... his image was covered with a purple veil!

Before we discuss the Theology behind  covering of sacred images, we shall first discuss its development as well as the pertinent liturgical laws regarding it.

The Hunger Cloth: the Precursor of the Lenten Veil (10th-11th cent.)

The current practice of veiling the crosses and images of saints during Lent may have originated in the 10th or 11th century with the custom of  “Hungertuch” (Hunger cloth or Lenten veil) in medieval England, France and Germany. Some would argue that this practice  started in Germany in the 9th century.

During Lent a large curtain of purple or white fabric, decorated with crosses or scenes of the passion, was hung before the sanctuary, covering the entire altar from the faithfuls’ sight. There was an opening at the middle of the veil for important portions of the mass such as Holy Communion.

No wonder, it is called “Hunger Cloth” because the faithful might had really felt deprived and hungered to see the altar of the Lord. The drama escalated as it was being removed on cue when the reading of the Passion on Holy Wednesday reached the words: “the veil of the temple was rent in two.”[1]

This practice did not completely disappear in Europe until recent times but it persists in varying forms in Seville, Sicily and Palermo.[2]

The Lenten Veil ( pre-and post-Vatican II periods)

Similar and perhaps related to the custom of the “Hunger Cloth” is the practice of individually veiling the crosses and images of saints during Lent and Holy Week. Such custom existed as early as 10th century[3]

The veils are usually made of plain thin purple cloth without any decoration. It can be a simple rectangular cloth secured by pins or threads or a customized cloth sewn to roughly follow the contour of the image.  

The 1960 Roman Missal prescribed the covering of images for the universal church in its rubrics[4]. While the current Roman Missal of Pope Paul VI leaves the decision of veiling the images and crosses to the discretion of the National Conferences of Bishops:

The practice of covering crosses and images in the church may be observed, if the Episcopal Conference decides. The crosses are to be covered until the end of the celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday. Images are to remain covered until the beginning of the Easter Vigil.”[5]

This statement allows the veiling of statues and crucifixes, including the processional cross and the cross at the main altar, provided that the Episcopal Conference votes in favor of the practice. Later in the conclusion, we will see that the decision will shift to the parishes.

A decree of the Congregation of Sacred Rites dating from 1885 declared that images of the Stations of the Cross were exempt from veiling.[6] Stained glasses are also exempted.

The custom of covering the crosses and images of saints differs from place to place.

A. The Starting Period of Veiling

Pre-Vatican II
Traditionally, the veils were placed before Evening Prayer I or the vigil Mass of the Fifth Sunday of Lent which was previously known as “Passion Sunday” in the pre-1960 Roman Liturgy[7]. In 1969, Pope Paul VI transferred such distinction exclusively to the following Sunday that’s why, at present, we have the "Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord" (Dominica in Palmis de Passione Domini).

The reason for traditionally covering the images at this time was rooted in the words of the Gospel formerly read on the Fifth Sunday of Lent: ”...Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple” (Jn 8:59). In this Biblical passage, the Jews attempt to stone Jesus because of His claims of being the Son of God, but He hides from view. And the tension developed. 

Post-Vatican II
In the contemporary practice, images are veiled immediately after the “Mass of the Lord's Supper” on Maundy Thursday. The present Sacramentary states that following the Holy Thursday Mass "the altar is stripped and, if possible, the crosses are removed from the church. It is desirable to cover any crosses which remain in the church."[8]

B. The End Period of Veiling

In both the pre- and post-Vatican II periods, crosses are unveiled[9] after the Good Friday ceremonies while images of saints are unveiled shortly before the Mass of the Easter Vigil on Black Saturday.  


On the night of Jesus' arrest as proclaimed on the Mass of the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, the altar itself is stripped and laid bare after the celebration, as Jesus was stripped before the soldiers. It signifies that there will be NO Eucharistic celebration until Easter Vigil.

The Good Friday Service on the following day is not a mass in the strict sense of the word but a Bible Service with communion (although it is known as Mass of the Presanctified”). Hosts which were consecrated in the Mass of the Last Supper shall be consumed by the faithful (hence ”Presanctified”). No final blessing is to be given and the priest exits in silence. 

Accompanying the stripping of the altar is the veiling of crosses and images. In some places, they are actually removed from the church and not simply veiled. As Monsignor Elliott remarks:

"The custom of veiling crosses and images ... has much to commend in terms of religious psychology, because it helps us to concentrate on the great essentials of Christ's work of Redemption. [10]

Both the stripping of the altar and covering of images shift our focus to the Blessed Sacrament which is placed at the altar of Repose on Holy Thursday. The faithful are now in solemn meditation of Christ’s Passion.

The removal or veiling of images is a sign of great mourning in times of death. In rural Ireland, for instance, it was the custom to mark a death in the family by turning pictures towards the wall. In many cultures, women veil themselves at funerals as a mark of mourning. Traditionally, by covering images with light purple clothes, we put emphasis on the solemnity and sadness of this time as we prepare for the Passion and Death of Jesus. It illustrates the increasing tension in the Liturgy as we move toward of the Lord's own Paschal Mystery.

Aesthetically, images manifest beauty, celebration and consolation; So, concealing them from the ordinary view produces a bleak, austere, somber and desolate atmosphere. The covering of images in the Church and at home is a Lenten sacrifice of deprivation as the faithfuls await in anticipation of the color, light, images and celebration of the Resurrection. 

In the 1998 Circular Letter on Easter Feasts, Paschale Solemnitatis , the Congregation for Divine Worship clarified some questions on veiling:

After Mass the altar should be stripped. It is fitting that any crosses in the church be covered with a red or purple veil, unless they have already been veiled on the Saturday before the Fifth Sunday of Lent. Lamps should not be lit before the images of saints.[11]

The individual parishes headed by the respective parish priests were now given the right to decide whether to cover or not to cover the crucifixes. However, veiling is a highly recommended tradition but  not mandatory.

This provision speaks only of removing the lights before the images of saints while the present Roman Missal (as mentioned above) has already provided a provision on veiling these images.

It is clear that the individual parishes may choose to cover the crucifixes and images with either red or purple cloth on either  Evening Prayer I of the Fifth Sunday of Lent (traditional) or after the Mass of the Last Supper (contemporary).

If the parish priest decided not to cover the images, it does not make liturgical sense to have the unveiling of the crucifix on Good Friday if the crucifixes were never covered in the first place.

According to the Ceremonial of Bishops, there are two forms of veneration for Good Friday. The first is the one most often seen where the crucifix is unveiled in steps. The second form is a procession from the church entrance to the sanctuary with an unveiled crucifix. The second form would be proper to use if the crucifixes were not veiled.

As a conclusion, we may say that the Roman Catholic Holy Week tradition has been meaningfully enriched by the veiling of crosses and images of saints. Though the provisions become less strict, it would be more beneficial for the local Church to follow the tradition as highly encouraged by the universal Church. This would be a great catechetical tool for the faithful. 

General References:

The Week of Salvation: History and Traditions of Holy Week by James Monti
The Catholic Encyclopaedia
The Roman Missal (1962 and 1969)
The Ceremonials of Bishop

[1] F.Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feats and Customs: The Year of the Lord in Liturgy and Folklore, 176-177.
[2] J. Wickham Legg, Essays Liturgical and Historical, 166-168.
[3] H. Thurston, Lent and Holy Week, 101.
[4] Roman Missal (1960 edition), Benziger Bris., 1964, 129
[5] Roman Missal (1969), Mass of Saturday in the Fourth Week of Lent; Vatican II Weekly Missal, Daughters of St. Paul, 1975, 615.
[6] Decreta Authentica Congregationis Sacrorum, Rituum, pub. Typographia Polyglotta, 1898-1901, Vol. III, 173-174.
[7] Missale Romanum, 1920 typical edition, 156
[8] Roman Missal (1969), Holy Thursday.
[9] PJB de Herdt, Sacrae Liturgiuae Praxis Juxta Ritum Romanum, Book III, 23.
[10]  SEE P. Elliott, Celebrations of the Liturgical Year, 2002. 
[11] Congregation for Divine Worship, Paschalis Sollemnitas, The Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts, no. 57

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God bless you!

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