It came to mind recently that it might be good to once again mention the use of antependia, or altar frontals, as a consideration for our parish priests.
However, as this consideration has sometimes been limited to covering up a situation of a less than edifying altar, or an altar form which is incongruent with the surrounding architecture, I thought it would be helpful to share some of the deeper liturgical reasons for their use, beyond the merely pragmatic or aesthetic, which might foster their consideration in places where this is not a particular problem -- for, effective though they may be in those particular circumstances, they should not be so limited, and the deeper symbolic and liturgical value they have is something we should be conscious of.
In his work, The Liturgical Altar, Geoffrey Webb suggests the following:
The purpose of a frontal is threefold.
(1) It is a covering of honour for the body of the altar which, as we have already seen from the liturgical books, represents Christ Himself; and if further proof is necessary, it is provided by the five crosses incised upon the upper surface of the altar, representing the five wounds in Our Lord's Body on the cross. Van der Stappen, Sacra Liturgia, ed. 2, vol. iii, Q. 42, i., says, "For the altar is Christ, therefore, on account of its dignity, it is clothed in precious vestments, as the Pontifical says in the ordination of sub-deacons." Moreover, on Maundy Thursday this frontal and the cloths are stripped off during the recitation of the psalm, Deus, Deus meus, in which the verse foretelling the parting of Our Lord's garments occurs...
(2)The frontal is a means of employing colour to bring out the full meaning of the very beautiful symbolism in that same office of ordination of subdeacons which speaks of "the faithful with whom the Lord is clothed as with costly garments." The red frontal, for instance, reveals the victory of the Rex Martyrum, realized afresh in yet another of His members...
Our Lord, as represented by His consecrated altar, puts on robes of majesty to identify Himself with those in whom His victory has borne fruit; His own purity reproduced again in the white robe of the virgin saint; His own heroic fortitude in the red robe of the martyr: and thereby additional emphasis is given to His invitation to be approach through the intercession of the saint with whose colour the altar is robed. And when the Robes of Majesty are all removed on Holy Thursday, more is indicated than the removal of His garments. His faithful, His costly garments, His disciples, are all stripped from Him; and His desolation is made the more evident by this complete annihilation of colour. But in addition to emphasizing the union of the Head with the saint commemorated by the feast of the day, the coloured frontal also serves to bring into clear prominence the union of the Head with His ministers of the altar, who are vested in the same colour...
The instinct to provide colour seems less vigorous today than in most other centuries, and one doubts whether its place is sufficiently realized as one instrument of a concerted orchestra, in whose harmony its omission forms a gap. Cardinal Schuster dwells on this accumulated harmony when describing the Introit for Whit-Sunday: "It is well known," he says, "that all the present texts of the Missal and of the Breviary have beautiful melodies attached to them. As no one, for instance, would desire to judge of an opera simply by reading the libretto of the author, but would wish also to hear the music and see the full effect of the mise en scène, so, in order thoroughly to appreciate the sense of beauty and inspiration, the powerful influence produced by the sacred liturgy on the Christian people, it is necessary to see it performed in the full splendour of its architectural setting, of the clergy in their vestments, of the music, the singing and the ritual, and not to judge it merely from a curtailed and simplified presentment."
(3) The frontal serves to give to the altar that architectural promimnence which its central position in the liturgy requires...
J.B. O'Connell, in Church Building and Furnishing, picks up on this same theme:
The frontal -- the altar's clothing -- has a deep, symbolical value. As the early linen clothing of the altar recalled our Lord's burial shroud, so the precious coloured fabric of the later frontal is to recall his royalty. At the ordination of a subdeacon, the bishop in his charge to the candidate says "the cloths and corporals of the altar [which represents Christ] are the members of Christ, Gods faithful people, with whom, as with costly garments, the Lord is clad, according to the Psalmist: 'The Lord reigns as king, robed in majesty'." The clothed altar with its beauty and changing colours is a symbol of the Mystical Body -- the whole Christ, Christ united with all his saints -- it translates this doctrine into the language of colour and form. In addition to its symbolical value, the frontal -- with its sequence of colours and its changing form and decoration -- lends variety and new beauty to the altar, and helps to mark the degrees of festivity in the Church's liturgy.
Peter F. Anson in, Churches: Their Plan and Furnishing emphasizes these points as well, and adds:
Another interesting reference to the doctrinal significance of clothing the altar is given by Amalarius [of Metz] (d. 859). "The Altar signifies Christ, as Bede narrates. The robes (vestimenta) of the Altar are the Saints of Christ."
...a frontal helps to make the altar stand out from its surroundings. It has always been the mind of the Church that, in a mystical sense, the altar is Christ, and that, like the priest who celebrates Mass, it should be clothed in precious vestments on account of its dignity... the frontal is one of the most ancient of all the furniture of the altar.
Image source: Allan Barton
A Practical Consideration
For parish priests who determine to pursue the use of antependia, one should of course be conscious of what would be best suited to the particular architecture of the church and, likewise, one should be aware that all frontals are not made equally -- in fact, some are made quite poorly.
On this latter front, see here for more on examples of some good and not-so-good frontals.
A Final Note
We have addressed this subject and made this encouragement before. Accordingly, if any priests have pursued this and would be potentially interested in sharing their labours publicly, do consider sending them in to us for publishing consideration.
(Top image: Cardinal Pell at the Oxford Oratory by Lawrence Lew, OP)