Friday, February 08, 2019

The Velatio Nuptialis: An Ancient (and Forgotten) Part of the Latin Marriage Rite

This article was written by Henri de Villiers for the blog of the Schola Sainte-Cécile. We are pleased and grateful to translate and publish it here with the author’s permission, and that of the translator, Zachary Thomas. It has also been published on Canticum Salomonis.

Until around 1999, our parish of Saint-Eugène in Paris was one of the few in France to keep up a custom that goes back to the first centuries of the Church. At Nuptial Masses, [1] two high-ranking clerics or two witnesses held a large white veil [2] over the kneeling couple during the nuptial blessing given by the priest between the Pater and the Kiss of Peace.

In France, the traditional name for this veil is the poêle. The word comes from the Latin pallium, which means a rectangular piece of fabric. [3]

The same word poêle was also used in France to designate the canopy for the Corpus Christi procession and for the funeral pall, and for the canopies used for solemn receptions of a bishop or powerful prince. It lives on in the popular expression “Tenir les cordons du poêle” (“Hold the ends of the veil”) that refers to someone enjoying an honorary position. Jean-Jacques Dortous de Mairan, in his encomium for Cardinal André-Hercule de Fleury, points out that it was in virtue of his position as chaplain to the King that he had the privilege of holding the poêle at the wedding of the Duke of Orléans in 1692.

Far from being a simple folk custom proper to certain regions of France, the poêle for the nuptial blessing goes back to the earliest centuries, where it was a fundamental element of Christian marriage. Required by the Fathers of the Church, the origin of this rite helps us to understand the arrangements for marriage in the first Christian centuries in the West.

The velatio nuptialis in the age of the Church Fathers: a Confirmation for the Church and by the Church of the Sacrament of Marriage

From the period of the catacombs until the Early Middle Ages, the essential part of the rites of the sacrament of Christian marriage were celebrated in private and took place in the home. The exchange of vows was from the beginning considered the fundamental element, a consent manifested by an exchange of symbolic gifts (such as the ring, but also a token piece of money.)

Gradually these domestic rites began to be held in the church (and at first in front of the church building), and there is a faint reminder of this in the traditional marriage rite (still followed in the 1962 books): the sacrament is celebrated before the Mass, which is later offered for the husband and wife already married. But originally the spouses gave themselves the sacrament of marriage in their own house by the exchange of consent.

Nevertheless, the spouses then had, in a manner of speaking, to ratify this sacrament they had given themselves by receiving a solemn blessing at the church during a special Mass celebrated for their intention. This solemn, public confirmation of the sacrament given in private appears to have been well-established at least since the 4th century [4] and took the form of a ceremony performed before the priest in the church: the velatio nuptialis, or nuptial veiling.

During a Mass celebrated for the husband and wife (a Mass that has had proper prayers and texts since the 4th century), the couple is covered with a veil while the priest pronounces over them the special nuptial blessing. This blessing comes between the end of the canon and the Communion. [5] The placement of this blessing was no accident: it preceded the ancient blessing that was given by the bishop to all the faithful before Communion. [6]

Contrary to what certain liturgists in the 20th century believed, the veil in question was not the veil that the bride wore on the marriage day (at that time every Christian women wore one, whether she was married or not), but rather a large veil stretched over the couple precisely as the title of the blessing in the Gregorian Sacramentary indicates: Oratio ad sponsas velandas.

St. Ambrose speaks in clear terms about this public ratification in the church (and before the Church) of the sacrament that the spouses had given themselves in private. “It is fitting that the marriage be sanctified by the imposition of the veil and the blessing of the priest.” [7]

In 380, in a letter to Archbishop Himerius of Tarragona, Pope Siricius mentions the nuptial blessing given under the veil. “De conjugali velatione requisisti, si desponsatam alii puellam alter in matrimonium possit accipere. (You inquired about the conjugal veiling, whether a man make take a girl who has been betrothed to another to wife.)”

The question that worries Himerius and Pope Siricius’s subsequent response are very obscure: he wanted to know whether it was possible to give a second nuptial blessing under the veil. The Pope refused. But it is telling to see that the veiling of the spouses is a synonym for marriage in canonical questions about this sacrament from this time onward.

The same Pope Siricius wrote in 390 to many bishops and mentions the velatio nuptialis in passing. “Nos sane nuptiarum vota non aspernantes accepimus, quibus velamine intersumus. (We certainly receive, and do not disdain the vows of marriage, in which we have been present for the veiling. - Ep. 7, PL 13, 117).

Several more passages in the Latin Church Fathers from the 4th to 6th centuries indicate a common point of agreement: in the West the veiling of the spouse is the only public aspect of the ceremony of Christian marriage. [8]

The wide attestation of this rite in the 4th century could lead us to think that the ceremony dates from before the Peace of Constantine. A text of Tertullian (ca. 150 - ca. 220) might also indicate that the nuptial blessing was practiced in Christian Africa in the 3rd century during the sacrifice of the Mass. “This union that the Church ratifies, that the sacrifice confirms, that the blessing consecrates, and that the angels celebrate, and that gladdens the Father.” (Ad Uxorem, II, 8, 6). In any case this citation shows that the marriage celebrated by the spouses in private is confirmed by the subsequent celebration of the holy sacrifice of the Mass.

In 403, St Paulinus of Nola composed a very beautiful poem on marriage, an epithalamion written for the occasion of the wedding of the lector Julian (future bishop of Eclanum), son of the bishop of Benevento, to the daughter of the bishop of Capua. Paulinus describes the bishop of Benevento leading the couple to the altar, where the bishop of Capua gives them his nuptial blessing, who are both covered by the same veil. “Ille jugans capita amborum sub pace jugali, / Velat eos dextra, quos prece sanctificat” (He, joining both their heads under the peace of the marriage bond, veils with his right hand those whom the prayer sanctifies. Poem XXV, v. 226-227).

In the most ancient Roman liturgical books we find not only the text of this velatio nuptialis, but also the other texts for the Mass celebrated for the husband and wife. The Leonine and Gelesian Sacramentaries even include a special preface and Hanc igitur. In the Leonine Sacramentary, the most ancient witness of the Latin liturgy, the Mass is entitled Incipit velatio nuptialis. From the Gelesian Sacramentary, we know that this Mass for the spouses was celebrated a second time thirty days later, and on the day of their anniversary.

The Leonine text of the nuptial blessing is repeated in the Gelasian. It is notable that the text asks for God’s blessing only over the wife, even though it is evident that the two spouses are under the same veil. Here is what the Blessed Cardinal Ildefonso Schuster, archbishop of Milan, wrote about this:

“A further remark seems called for in this connection. The various formulas for the nuptial blessing among the Latins have reference to the woman, rather than to the nuptial pair in common. According to the Leonine Sacramentary, it is for her that the holy sacrifice is offered: hanc igitur oblationem famulae tuae N. quam tibi offerimus pro famula tua N. (this sacrifice, of Thy handmaid N., which we offer to Thee for Thy handmaid N.; so also does the velatio conjugalis, together with its special blessing before the Fraction of the Host, refer exclusively to the bride: Sit amabilis ut Rachael viro, sapiens ut Rebecca, longaeva et fidelis ut Sara, etc. (May she be for her husband as lovely as Rachel, as wise as Rebecca, as long-lived and faithful as Sarah, etc.)

Considering the mentality of the ancients with regard to the inferior status of women, the Church displays an admirable wisdom here; in her liturgical formulas she takes the weaker part under her protection, raising her from the degrading condition to which paganism had reduced her, ennobling her to the point that, in Christian chivalry, she has become almost a cultic symbol (Liber Sacramentorum).”

It is highly significant that this blessing is given in the Leonine and Gelasian Sacramentaries in the form of a chanted consecratory preface like that of the canon of the Mass; in the Roman rite, chanting a preface signified a solemn consecration. This practice is retained of course in the Mass, at priestly ordinations, at the consecration of Chrism on Holy Thursday, and for the blessing of water on Holy Saturday. It was also done at the solemn blessing of water on the night of Epiphany, during the Vigil of Pentecost, and on Palm Sunday.

The Sacramentary of St Gregory modified the structure of the Gelesian nuptial blessing by suppressing its preface form, but substantially retaining the ideas of the ancient text. This is the form that passed into the Missal of Pius V. However, even after the publication of this Missal, Rome still used the more ancient form of the preface, which survived in many dioceses, especially in France, until the end of the 19th century.

See for example the beginning of the nuptial blessing chanted in the form of a consecratory preface in the Sacerdotale Romanum of 1580 (pp. 32v to 34v). This book contains the official ritual of Rome and Venice before the Rituale Romanum of Paul V entered into force in 1614.

Outside Italy we find the same ceremony in the liturgical books for the Hispano-Visigothic liturgy (or Mozarabic rite) and St Isidore of Seville mentions it. Even though its texts differ from the Roman, the velatio nuptialis accompanies the nuptial blessing. See the rubric in the Mozarabic Liber Ordinum edited by Dom Férotin.

When those who are to be joined come (to the church), the Mass being finished as usual, for the deacon gives the dismissal, they come to the priest at the gates (of the sanctuary); and the parents of the girls, or one of her relatives if she has no parents, brings the girl to the priest. And he, veiling them with the covering (palleo) or ‘sippa’, and having laid the marriage veil of scarlet and white over them, he says this preface with the two prayers that follow. [9]

Note here that in Spain, the veil mentioned by the Roman texts takes the name pallium, [10] which was also adopted in France as poêle.

It is possible that the ancient rite of Gaul knew a similar rite. A canon of the Statua Ecclesiae antiqua, a Gallic text from the 5th century, leads us to think that the parents and witnesses present the couple to the priest to receive a blessing. “Sponsus & sponsa cum benedicendi sunt a sacerdote, a parentibus vel paranymphis offerantur. (Let the husband and wife, when it is time to be blessed by the priest, be presented by their parents or their witnesses.)”

One of the essential roles of the witnesses might have been precisely to hold the pallium over the spouses.

What is the origin of the Christian velatio nuptialis?

It is difficult to determine the origin of the velatio nuptialis. Some have thought that the veil spread over the couple is derived from Greek and Roman custom, but Roman marriage seems to have involved only a red veil for the bride, the flammeum, which is rarely mentioned by the Church Fathers and never in the ancient liturgy. However, Greco-Roman influence cannot be excluded, since the idea of a veil is present in the etymology of the Latin and Greek terms for marriage: nubere (= to be veiled, covered), nuptiae connubium, νυμφίος.

Modern-day Jews have a very similar rite, the use of a wedding canopy called “huppah”, but it is very difficult to find Biblical evidence for this practice. In fact, it is not impossible that the Christian ritual influenced the Jewish ritual in this respect, since the first Jewish author to speak of it, Rabbi Isaac ben-Abba Mari, in the 12th century, categorically disapproves of the introduction of the custom of holding a cloth over the bride and groom during the nuptial blessing.

It is significant to note that the Western liturgy, at least since the 4th century, knew of another velatio, the velatio virginum, in which virgins were solemnly consecrated to God. This is not like the veiling of a nun, but a large cloth stretched over the religious sister being consecrated as she lies prostrate on the floor. Which of the two veilings influenced the other? It is difficult to say, but the rites for the religious profession of virgins seem to be based on those of marriage, meant to signify their mystical union with Christ. [11]

What is the meaning of the poêle or pallium of the nuptial blessing?

The white pallium stretched over the couple as they receive the nuptial blessing symbolizes the bright cloud, the manifestation of the glorious protection of God: the bright cloud that accompanies the chosen people’s wandering in the desert (Exodus 13, 20-22); the power of the Holy Spirit that overshadowed the Virgin Mary (Luke 1, 35); the bright cloud that appeared in the Transfiguration on Mt Tabor (Luke 9, 28-36; 2 Peter 1, 17-18).

In Latin, the word for clouds (nubes), to marry and to veil (nubere) have the same etymology. The white pallium signifies the heavenly blessing that descends on the spouses, and thus the divine ratification of their mutual choice.

The simultaneous veiling of the bride and groom also expresses the fact that they have become one body and one flesh. This is in fact the text of the Epistle read at the nuptial Mass in the Missal of St Pius V: “For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be two in one flesh.” (Ephesians 5, 31, citing Genesis 2, 24)

In Old French, the term poêle, as we have seen, is synonymous with the canopy used to honor both the Body of Christ on Corpus Christi and the person of a king or bishop. The poêle is therefore also a token of honor given to the couple at the moment of the nuptial blessing.

Finally, here is the symbolism pointed out by in the 18th century by Fr. Charles-Louis Richard, O.P:

“The veil or poêle (pallium) is held over the heads of the bride and groom to teach them that modesty must rule their conduct in the holy state of marriage that they have chosen.” [12]

The velatio nuptialis after the time of the Church Fathers

On November 13th, 866, Pope Nicholas I responded to a number of questions about Christian life posed to him by the newly converted Bulgars, in a letter that has remained famous. One of its passages describes the ceremonies of marriage. “With regard to marriages, the custom of the Roman Church is that after the betrothal and other conventions, the parties make their offering through the hands of the priest, then receive the nuptial blessing and the veil, which is not given at second marriages. [13] When leaving the holy place, they wear crowns on their head that are kept inside the church [14]; but the only essential part of these ceremonies is the consent which is required by law.”

In the Middle Ages the velatio nuptialis was in use constantly throughout all Christian Europe, wherever the Roman Rite spread. It is attested in France, Spain, and Italy as well as in England, where the pallium was called the “pall.” In 1321 the chronicles noted that King Edward II bought a sumptuous pallium to be put over the heads of Richard Fitz Alanand and Isabel le Despenser during their nuptial blessing. This custom was part of the Sarum Rite.

In the 12th century, the celebrated canonist Gratian, based on the authority of Pope Siricius, notes that the fact of receiving the nuptial blessing under the veil entails that it is forbidden for the young girl to enter into another marriage, once she “has been brought to her own house, veiled, and blessed with the groom.” (In propria domo ducta est et cum sponso velata est et benedicta.) He also notes that the marriage is ratified under the veil: “Likewise she is considered married who has been veiled and blessed with her spouse” (Similiter de hujusmodi desponsata intelligitur quæ videlicet cum sponso est velata & benedicta.)

Here is an illustration of the nuptial veiling in a 14th century manuscript of Gratian’s Decretals:

The nuptial blessing/velatio nuptialis was given after the Pater and before the Kiss of Peace (the celebrant gave the peace to the groom who gave it to the bride). It is in the same position in the Missal of St. Pius V, even though the rubric indicating the spreading of the veil during the nuptial blessing was never written. This rubric never featured in the Missals printed before Pius V, but it was often marked in the various published Rituals.

See for example the rubric of the Parisian Manuale sacerdotum of 1497:

Before Pax Domini is said, the groom and bride, prostrated before the altar, are covered with the pall, while the priest, turning his face (towards them) and stretching out his hand, says this prayer that follows, without Dominus vobiscum.

In the same work, another rubric specifies that the pallium is removed at the end of the nuptial blessing and that the priest continues the course of the Mass as usual with the Kiss of Peace.

The Roman Ritual of Paul V (1614), a professedly minimalist and non-obligatory text, to avoid repeating the Missal, is content to refer to the text of nuptial blessing in the votive Mass for the bride and groom found in the Missale Romanum. In this way, and perhaps quite accidentally, the rubric about the spreading of the veil over the couple ceased completely to appear in Roman books, and so the most solemn action of Christian marriage in antiquity was gradually forgotten.

Use of the poêle survived, however, in France for a long time, because the great majority of diocesan books continued to include it until the end of the 19th century. Here are several representations from the 18th and 19th centuries (besides the one from the 17th century shown at the top of this article):

The Parisian books continued to note the use of the white pallium covering the couple. See for example the rubrics of the Rituale Parisiense of 1791, page 139:

And the rubric specifying the removal of the veil after the blessing, page 141:

The use of the poêle in France was maintained in some regions into the 20th century, mostly in Normandy and in the East. The rite is still used commonly in many parts of Italy, even in the present day:

But it is above all in Spain and the former Spanish colonies that the rite has been conserved to the present day. It passed from the Hispano-Mozarabic rite to the Roman rite over the course of the ages and constitutes one of the elements of what is called the Toledan marriage ritual. When consulted by the archbishop of Mexico in 1886 on the use of the marriage veil, the Sacred Congregation of Rites authorized the preservation of this traditional rite (n.3656). It is notable that contrary to the practice observed in France, England (as described in the Sarum books), and in Italy, the veil is not held above the couple but placed on the head of the bride and the shoulders of the groom.

The Sacerdotale Romanum of 1580 mentions (pg. 32) the nuptial veiling of the spouses at the moment of the nuptial blessing, noting that it is done if that is the custom. The rubric specifies that in that case the veil is put on the shoulders of the groom and the head of the bride. This detail—curious in a Roman book—exactly describes the Toledan use, in which a white veil or sometimes a humeral veil is used. [15] Here are some photos:

Besides Spain, the rite of the veil is present in America and in the Philippines; an article published here on NLM describes the practice in its traditional form.

In conclusion

Custódi nos, Dómine, ut pupillam óculi, sub umbra alárum tuárum prótege nos.

The beautiful symbolism and ancient roots of the marriage veil make us hope that this venerable custom does not become entirely extinct in France. We hope we will soon see more marriages under the poêle!


[1] “Marriage Mass” is a misnomer, because in the traditional liturgy it is actually a Votive Mass for the Bridegroom and Bride who have been married before this Mass, as shown by the collect. We will return to this point a bit later in this article, since it helps us understand the reasons behind the velatio nuptialis.

[2] In practice, an altar or communion cloth was used.

[3] A piece of cloth with which one can wrap oneself. The garment of philosophers and the wise. Tertullian (c. 150-220) claims the use of the pallium as a distinguishing mark of Christians. In the Middle Ages, the term also referred to a rectangular banner.

[4] But it is certainly possible the ceremony existed even earlier, since the Christian theology of marriage was already well-established in the 3rd century, and even earlier.

[5] To be more exact, after the Pater, until in the 6th century St Gregory the Great moved it to the end of the Canon, following the example of the Byzantine rite.

[6] A blessing that exists in all the other Eastern and Western rites at this point, which disappeared from the Roman books in the course of the Middle Ages. The blessing given by the priest at the end of Mass is a more recent and meager replacement for it.

[7] Epistle 19, to Vigilius, bishop of Trent, 7 – cf. PL 16, 1026

[8] Consequently, canonical questions relating to marriage are tied to the velatio nuptialis.

[9] Marius Férotin, OSB. Le Liber Ordinum. París 1904.

[10] Or sippa, a term otherwise unattested according to Du Cange

[11] “St Paul had formerly compared the virginal state to the spiritual marriage of the soul with Christ; and Tertullian, taking this as his starting-point, maintained that Christian virgins should wear veils on their heads, after the manner of married women. These ideas, when subjected to the influence of the Gallican liturgy, developed more and more in a mystical direction, so that a strange combination of ceremonies, taken from the marriage liturgy, replaced the early rite of the consecratio virginis, described in the Roman Sacramentaries—a rite which implied a simple eucharistic prayer and the velatio capitis. There we find the matrons, paranymphae; the consent to the profession of virginity; the subarrhatio with the ring, the velatio, and the coronatio; from all of which there resulted a magnificent and perfected ceremony, somewhat too emotional perhaps, and certainly detrimental to the theological sense which should dominate all these scenic accessories. There we read of nuptials, of golden bracelets, of vines with sweet-scented blossoms, of precious rings, of milk and honey tasted by the lips of the bridegroom, of his blood dyeing the cheeks of the bride, and even of an ethereal marriage-bed—ipsi sum juncta in coelis, quam in terra posita tota devotione dilexi—all these allusions showing, it would seem, no cognizance of the fact that we have to live here on earth, and have, moreover, to guard the treasure of virginity in weak and fragile earthen vessels.” (Cardinal Schuster, The Sacramentary).

This text by Cardinal Schuster is admiable. However, contrary to what the author states, the veil of the velatio virginum is not a velatio capitis in the ancient liturgical books. One is inclined to think that, from its origins, they used a grand pallium like for marriage

[12] Analyse des conciles généraux & particuliers, Paris, 1773, Part II, Volume IV, p. 300.

[13] The nuptial blessing under the veil was no longer given at a subsequent marriage. The Council of Laodicea already imposed a penance for a second wedding after widowhood. St Augustine himself spoke of a “less honorable wedding” and St Thomas Aquinas said that in a second marriage there is a sort of “defective sacrament,” since even if it is full sacrament, its signification is nevertheless diminished.

[14] A rare witness to the use of wedding crowns in the West. The Greeks and Romans already crowned the newly-weds with flowers, laurel leaves, or other branches. The crown of flowers until recently used by French newly-weds is a vestige of this. The crowning of the bridegroom and bride has always been an essential part of the marriage rite in the East, and fulfills the same role as the Western velatio sponsalis: a solemn ratification of the spouses’ union before the community.

[15] Since the Ritual of Toledo implied that the veil remained over the spouses from the Offertory until the Pater, this custom must have had its origins in the practical step of just placing it over their shoulders.

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