[The following is a partial reprint of an article we originally published here on October 16, 2008. The second section of the article was not part of the original article, nor where the photos in that second section.]
The Catholic Encyclopedia suggests that the origin of the antipendium might be "traced to the curtains or veils of silk, or of other precious material, which hung over the open space [NLM note: or "confessio"] under the altar, to preserve the shrines of the saints usually deposited there" which later developed into the altar frontal we now know.
In his work, The Christian Altar, the Anglican Cyril Pocknee notes that "even in the primitive period not only was the altar covered with a linen cloth or pall for the celebration of the Eucharist; but also the Lord's Table was vested with silk cloths... Palladius writing about 421 mentions some Roman ladies, who renouncing the world, bequeathed their silks to make coverings for the altar... The Liber Pontificalis testifies that during the eighth and ninth centuries coverings for the altar made of gold thread and decorated with jewels and pearls and embroidered with figures of our Lord, the B.V. Mary and the Apostles were given to the great Roman basilicas by succeeding Popes."
Pocknee speaks to the development of the form as follows:
While the altar remained cubical in form, the 'throw-over' type of pall continued in use... this linen cloth, known as the Palla corporalis, was thrown over the altar, much as an ordinary table-cloth is spread today, by the deacons, and it fell down around all sides of the table. But in the Gothic period, when the altar tended to be lengthened, two things happened: (a) the linen pall became divided into two parts, one part being a long strip which covered the top of the altar and fell down over each end of the mensa, while the other part became the 'corporal' which covered the elements; (b) the silk pall becomes the antependium or frontal covering the front elevation of the altar only when it stood close to a wall or screen. But it should be noted that where the longer type of altar was free-standing a 'frontal' was provided for both back and front.
Both Cyril Pocknee (The Christian Altar) and J.B. O'Connell (Church Building and Furnishing) comment that the earliest frontals were "often made in purple and gold and ornamented with jewels, or with beautiful embroideries." (O'Connell). The following image from the Benedictional of St. Ethelwold shows this, as well as what Pocknee describes in terms of the fuller, more "table-cloth" like form of the early altar covering:
O'Connell continues by noting that in the 8th or 9th centuries, some frontals were also made of precious metals such as silver or gold. A classic example of this would be the altar of the Basilica of St. Ambrose in Milan:
It was during the middle ages that we begin to see the vesting of the altar match the colour of the vestments of the day.
Speaking to the symbolism attributed to the frontal, Geoffrey Webb in The Liturgical Altar calls it "a covering of honour for the body of the altar which... represents Christ Himself..." He quotes Bishop J.F. Van der Stappen in his work, Sacra Liturgia as saying: "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." Webb continues speaking of the colour that the frontal brings to the altar: "Our Lord, as represented by His consecrated altar, puts on robes of majesty... 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 all the more evident by this complete annihilation of colour." The use of colour is "part of the splendour of the liturgy" but "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." Finally Webb suggests that "the frontal serves to give to the altar that architectural prominence which its central position in the liturgy requires."
O'Connell notes similarly:
"...at the ordination of a subdeacon, the bishop in his charge to the candidate says 'the cloths and corporals of the altar [which represent Christ] are the members of Christ, God's 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... 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. In presenting an unbroken coloured surface it also draws attention to the altar, as the focal point of the church, giving it architectural prominence."
A visual comparison of the altar of St. Peter's Basilica, unvested and vested, might serve to illustrate the visual and liturgical difference a frontal can make.
Here are some further quotations with regard to the antependium.
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...
--Geoffrey Webb, The Liturgical Altar
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.
-- J.B. O'Connell, Church Building and Furnishing
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.
-- Peter F. Anson, Churches: Their Plan and Furnishing