Friday, September 22, 2023

Care-Cloths: The Mystagogical Value of Traditional Wedding Customs, Part II

Last week, we looked at the use of coins in traditional Catholic weddings. Now, we look at an ancient veiling ceremony and some of its later usages.

Contributors to the New Liturgical Movement have already enriched our understanding of what is variously known as the carecloth, cerecloth, velatio nuptialis, pallium nuptiale, etc. (see here, here, here, and here). The following reflections and overview are offered as a supplement to these contributions--and possibly a clarification about its origins.

A French medaille de mariage, nineteenth century, depicting the carecloth during the Solemn Nuptial Blessing. 
A History of the Care-Cloth
A reader who sees the above illustration might be tempted to conclude that the custom being depicted was inspired by the Jewish wedding canopy or chuppah. The Christian care-cloth or wedding veil, however, is derived from or at least partially inspired by the marriage customs of ancient Rome. A flammeum (so-called because of its fiery red color) was a veil worn by a Roman bride during the torchlit procession from her father’s home to her husband’s known as the deductio; it was this veil and this procession that marked her transition from betrothal to wedlock. The flammeum is mentioned several times in Latin literature and even became proverbial: Juvenal uses the phrase “she wears out veils” (flammea conterit) for a woman who changes husbands repeatedly. Moreover, the taking of the flammeum is responsible for one of our English words for wedding. The verb nubo/nubere, from which comes the adjective “nuptial,” originally meant to cover or veil oneself as a bride in order to wed; only later was its meaning broadened to signify the bridegroom’s marrying as well. Curiously, then, a couple’s “nuptials,” their “crowning,” or their chuppah—words for a wedding in the Western Church, the Eastern Churches, and the Jewish synagogue, respectively—are all derived from ceremonies not of the hands or the ring but the head.
Tertullian (160-225) rejected a Roman custom of wedding crowns as idolatrous, but he accepted the veil on the grounds that it accorded with the Pauline teaching on women in church and with the exemplary modesty Rebecca showed in veiling herself before Isaac; he subsequently writes of a lex velaminis and a disciplina velaminis for betrothed and married women lasting even after the ceremony. Tertullian uses the word flammeum only once, when contrasting a wedding done properly, which involves torch and flammeum, with what he suspects is the fiery nuptial eschatology of the Valentinian heretics. It is possible that Tertullian is merely invoking well-known wedding props that, because of their use of or association with fire, can be neatly juxtaposed with the Valentinians’ incendiary version of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. As David G. Hunter notes, “it was a common rhetorical pattern in Tertullian’s thought to contrast pagans and Christians by re-describing the Christian in pagan terms” without implying that Christians actually engaged in those practices. Nevertheless, Hunter concludes that the evidence in Tertullian’s writings points to Christians in North Africa celebrating “their betrothals and nuptials with the same rituals as… non-Christians.”
An unadulterated use of pagan customs by the Church would not last long, but the exact metamorphosis is difficult to reconstruct. By the end of the third century the word flammeum had been dropped from the Christian lexicon (if it had ever really been picked up in earnest at all), but Church Fathers continued to praise the veiling of a betrothed woman or of a bride; indeed, the nuptial custom of “taking the veil” also came to designate the religious life of consecrated virginity. Moreover, the ceremonial act of veiling occurred along with a blessing from a priest or bishop, not only conferring grace but sealing, from the Church’s perspective, the promises of betrothal or wedlock. In A.D. 385, Pope Siricius answered a question about conjugal veiling (conjugalis velatio) posed by Himerius, the Archbishop of Tarragona, as to whether someone can take to wife a girl (puella) who has been betrothed to another. Siricius replies in the negative on account of illa benedictio quam nupturae sacerdos imponit, “that blessing which the priest placed on the fiancée,” thereby implying a link between the veiling and the priest’s blessing. At the very least, both correspondents knew of Christian betrothal (which in some places was almost as binding as matrimony) as a velatio.
The same year that Pope Siricius was writing to Himerius, St. Ambrose of Milan (340-397) was writing to St. Vigilius of Trent and asserting that it “behooves [the priest] to sanctify the marriage with a priestly veil (velamen sacerdotalis) and blessing.” Ambrose’s diction suggests that both the bride and the groom were veiled, since it is the marriage and not the bride being blessed. In another writing Ambrose describes the indissolubility of the marital bond regardless of whether the husband is present or away; his description is of interest because it may also echo the Christian wedding of his time:
The same law connects those who are together and those who are apart; the same bond (vinculum) of nature has bound tight the rights of conjugal charity between the absent as well as the present; by the same yoke (jugum) of blessing are both necks joined together, even if one should go out a long way away to distant regions; for they have received the yoke (jugum) of grace not by the neck of the body but by that of the soul.
It is possible that Ambrose is not merely speaking metaphorically about the yoke of marriage but alluding to a wedding veil that acted as a yoke and bound the couple at the neck (i.e., was placed over their shoulders). This veil, in turn, would be associated with the grace their souls received at their nuptials, mostly likely from the priestly blessing that he mentions to Vigilius. Lastly, there may be an additional ceremonial element with the vinculum that is related to the marital act and to the conjugal rights of the spouses.
What remains ambiguous in Ambrose becomes clearer in St. Paulinus of Nola (354-431). Around A.D. 400, Paulinus describes the wedding of two people from prominent clerical families:
He [Bishop Aemilius], joining the heads of them both under a nuptial peace,
Veils them with his right hand, sanctifying them with prayer.
Whereas Ambrose speaks of a jugum on the necks of the bride and groom, Paulinus speaks of a pax jugalis over or on their heads that is presumably identical to the veil associated with the bishop’s sanctifying prayer or blessing. Pope Pelagius I (556-61) employs similar language when discussing the case of a woman who was veiled with a man (cum alio velata) during their betrothal and who died before their wedding.
To what degree the Christian velatio nuptialis—as the early sixth-century Leonine Sacramentary calls it—emerged from the Roman flammeum is a matter of dispute. Kenneth Stevenson, following Anné, writes that the “Roman blessing of the bride, duly veiled, is a superb example of the Christianizing of a pagan custom, the old flammeum.” But Philip Reynolds contends that the Christian “veil, which the priest applied with his blessing, was distinct from the” flammeum. The Church Fathers would probably have been content to let it remain a moot point. Before describing the veiling of the couple by the bishop, Paulinus of Nola declares in the same poem that he wants no “profane pomp” or “alien smells” from heathen sources to spoil this Christian wedding. Clearly, he saw the velatio as either purely Christian in origin or at least thoroughly purged of any objectionable pagan residue, and for him it probably did not matter which.
St. Isidore of Seville’s witness to the Spanish liturgy of the sixth century also provides data that can be interpreted in a number of different ways. He mentions two nuptial objects: 1) a veil called a mavors in the vulgar tongue (an old Latin name for the god Mars) that is worn by the bride as a sign of her subjection to her husband in the spirit of 1 Corinthians 11, and 2) a vitta, the Latin word for a fillet or headband such as those worn by the Vestal Virgins as symbols of their chastity but used here as something by which the priest, after the blessing, joins (copulare) the couple in a single bond (unum vinculum). Isidore adds that the vitta is a mixture of white and the color purpura: the white signifies the periodic continence that Paul allows for married couples (I Cor. 7:5) and the purpura the times when the couple may render to each the conjugal debt for the sake of offspring or “the posterity of blood” (sanguinis posteritas). (Given Isidore’s pairing of the family bloodline with purpura, the color in question was probably more of a deep scarlet than purple or violet.)

As for the vitta, Reynolds thinks of it as a second veil, but Stevenson refers to it as a garland. Oddly, both may be right since, as we will see later, in early modern Spain there was a veil that went over the couple as well as a long cord or jugale. Whatever it was, Isidore’s vitta was a vinculum that bears significant similarities in meaning to the vinculum naturae characterized by Ambrose in terms of conjugal rights. Lastly, it is my conjecture that the mavors worn by the Spanish bride was the flammeum or a direct descendant of it, named by the common folk after the god of war because its color reminded them of Mars, whose bright color was that of freshly spilled blood. If my interpretation is correct, then the use of the mavors would indeed be an instance of a Christian use of the flammeum, since Isidore assigns to it a Pauline meaning. On the other hand, Reynolds would be correct in distinguishing the Christian velatio of both bride and groom from the flammeum, since the mavors pertains only to the bride and is distinct from the mysterious vitta—although it does not rule out the likelihood that the velatio was in some way inspired by the flammeum. In any event, there may be several correct answers to these questions since Christian adaptations of Roman customs (or their wholesale replacements) did not always occur uniformly throughout the different regions of Christendom.
The veiling of the shoulders of the bride and groom, however, invites further inquiry and reflection. If the Christian care-cloth was not an adaptation of the flammeum, why did it develop? And if it was, why “veil” the bridegroom? Ambrose, Paulinus, and Isidore speak of a yoke-like quality to the veil and its blessing, which could easily hearken to the yoke of Christ (Mt. 11:30) and, more specifically, to the couple’s new shared labors and responsibilities as husband and wife. These shared responsibilities, moreover, include prescriptions on Christian chastity, prescriptions that are equally binding on both. The Latin Fathers departed sharply from their pagan counterparts in their rejection of a double standard. Roman law only recognized the adultery of a married woman as a crime and as grounds for divorce; men were only culpable if they slept with another man’s wife or were conspicuously indiscreet with their extramarital affairs. The Church, on the other hand, expected husbands and wives to be equally faithful to their marital vows. One possible reason for binding both the man and the woman under the yoke of the wedding veil, then, may have been as an instruction in total monogamy and fidelity. That the vinculum in Ambrose and the vitta in Isidore are understood as pertaining to sexual matters would support this reading.
The first extant liturgical manuals from the seventh and eighth centuries as well as Pope Nicholas I’s letter to the Bulgarians place the velatio in the nuptial Mass rather than at a betrothal, and it is relatively safe to assume that the ceremony almost always included both the bride and the groom, as Nicholas’ letter explicitly attests. By the twelfth and thirteen centuries the wedding veil was known by a variety of names, such as velamen caeleste, velum, pallium album, linteus, pannum, and mappa. In French, it was called the voile sur les époux or the poêle nuptiale. In English, it was a “care-cloth,” a term that may be derived either from the French carré for square or from the old English “carde,” a fabric used in making canopies, curtains, and linings.
As this diversity of nomenclature would suggest, the custom of the wedding veil was widespread throughout Europe during the medieval and early modern periods. The veil was used during the solemn nuptial blessing which, fittingly, includes the line sit in ea jugum dilectionis et pacis—“may [her wedlock] be for her a yoke of love and peace.” The blessing was typically given either before the Pax or after the Pater Noster of the nuptial Mass (it was assigned the latter place in the 1570 Missale Romanum). No official reason was given for either position, but we may speculate that bestowing the blessing in the wake of the Consecration, with the risen Christ now present on the altar, was considered an especially auspicious time to call down an abundance of grace on the new marriage. Piously looking upon Christ’s Body and the Precious Cup at the elevations, the reception of the Pax, and the reception of Holy Communion were all considered significant moments of grace and blessing; it was a tribute to the dignity of matrimony and to the power of the solemn nuptial blessing that the latter would be inserted into this array. And the solemn nuptial blessing was most likely given after the Our Father because it was the first place after the Consecration that the blessing could be added without disrupting the integrity of the sacrificial action that began with the Preface. Unlike the Eastern rites, the Our Father in the Roman liturgy does not appear to have been viewed as the introduction to the Communion rite but as the epilogue to the Canon, just as the Preface was its prologue. The “book-end” function of the Preface and the Pater Noster may also be gleaned from their similar execution: the celebrant intoned both the Preface and the Pater Noster alone and was followed by the choir or congregation with a response, be it the Sanctus or Sed libera nos a malo.
The wedding veil, which was usually white in color and made of silk or linen, continued to be placed on the shoulders of the couple (or the head and shoulders of the bride and the shoulders of the groom) in Spain, central France, and other parts of Europe. In northern France and England, however, it came to be held over their heads by two or four canopy-bearers, either clerics or witnesses or sometimes children. Additional significance was attached to this variation of the custom. Because the veiling partially obscured or hid the couple, it signified that they should be discreet and modest, careful to avoid untoward public displays of affection and cognizant of the “importance of secrecy in family affairs.” But the care-cloth also betokened the marriage bed and its sheet, and thus it tied into the solemn nuptial blessing’s prayer for a marriage fruitful in offspring as well as the Patristic associations of the veil with the virtuous regulation of the marital act. Finally, according to medieval canon law, there was an additional benefit to the suspended care-cloth that links it to the marriage bed: placing any children born out of wedlock under it during the solemn nuptial blessing automatically legitimated them. Indeed, some dioceses in the seventeenth century added a special prayer imploring God for pardon and for the legitimation of the child. 
Beginning in the same century, however, the care-cloth went into gradual decline. The 1584 Rituale Romanum of Gregory XIII had mentioned it, but it was not included in the 1614 Rituale of Paul V. “Indeed,” writes J. Wickham Legg, “so forgotten was the custom in Italy that when in 1789, at the marriage of a prince of the house of Savoy, the practice was restored, it was denounced as an innovation, and a pamphlet had to be written in proof of its antiquity”— M. Gianolio’s De antiquo ecclesiae ritu expandendi velum super sponsos in benedictione nuptiarum. In England the custom had fallen into oblivion by the mid-nineteenth century and had to be explained to English readers, although there is a report of an Anglican wedding in the late nineteenth century involving a blue silk veil held over the heads of the bride and groom. On the Continent, the custom fared in France into the late nineteenth century and was included in most diocesan manuals, despite a reproving decree from the Congregation of Rites in 1850. (In the diocese of Bourges, it survived into the twentieth century. ) The custom also appears to have been practiced in Spain well into the twentieth century, though not universally and not without adaptation. A liturgical manual in Salamanca in 1532 instructs the priest to cover the man’s shoulder and the woman’s head with a linen cloth and to place over the cloth a girdle or cord called a cingulum benedictum. A similar custom is mentioned in southern France around the same time, where the cord is called a jugale or jugalis.
Mexican lasso rosary
As with the coin ceremony, the wedding veil thrives mostly in Spain’s former colonies, where it is still practiced in areas of Central and South America. In Mexico, the veil is less common while the cord has become a lasso or lazo rosary, a large set of double-looped rosary beads placed on the couple by a pair of elder sponsors or padrinos. The lazo is then kept by the couple as a keepsake of their wedding, sometimes displayed in the home by itself on the wall or next to an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  n In Cuba, there is a wedding shawl called a manteleta.
Filipino veiling
And once again, it is the Philippines that has best preserved the ancient nuptial rituals mentioned by the Church Fathers. The Filipino velo is made of white tulle (no doubt a prudent adaptation to the islands’ steamy climate) and is placed onto the groom’s shoulders and the bride’s head and shoulders by two specially designated sponsors, a ninong and ninang. It is said that the veil represents the bride and groom or their families becoming one, as well as hope for the couple’s health and protection. After the veil is pinned in place, another pair of sponsors places the cord, or yugal, in the shape of a figure eight over the heads of the couple to symbolize the infinite bond of married love. The yugal is usually a white silk rope, although it can also be made of flowers, links of coins, and even diamonds.
A Theology of the Care-Cloth
The wedding veil or care-cloth mystagogically invites the couple to make sense of their own story in light of the biblical narrative and to model their behavior on biblical protagonists. The scriptural image of a yoke is rich and polyvalent, providing much fodder for pious rumination, as does the story of the veiling of Rebecca. Further, the care-cloth symbolizes aspects of married life that are as relevant to a new couple today as they were in the Patristic and medieval eras, aspects such as: a single standard for both sexes regarding the vows of fidelity and chastity; the Pauline parameters for periods of sexual abstinence; the purity of Christian marital love and the sanctity of the marriage bed; the yoking of two souls who will now labor in the Lord’s field together as one; the hope for protection; the need for discretion, modesty, and appropriate public displays of affection; and the goodness of (legitimate!) offspring and of the continuation of the family name or bloodline. The veiling ceremony as it has come to be practiced also serves to highlight the Roman rite’s solemn nuptial blessing, drawing the couple and congregation’s attention to it in much the same way that a baldachin guides the eye to the altar. Such an emphasis, which underlines the importance of having one’s marriage not only ratified or recognized but blessed by the Church, further conditions the faithful to take this blessing and its content seriously.
An earlier version of this article appeared as part of article entitled, “Coins and Care-Cloths: The Mystagogical Value of Traditional Wedding Customs,” Antiphon 18:2 (Summer 2014), pp. 115–143. Many thanks to its editors for allowing its publication here.

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