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High Altar and Reredos, National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Most churches in the state do not use a cere cloth to protect the top of the altar or the decking on frontals.  What is a cere cloth, you ask?

  • The cere cloth was originally a piece of heavy linen treated with wax (cere is the Latin word for “wax”) to protect the other linens from the dampness of a stone altar, and also to prevent the altar from being stained by any wine that may be spilled. It is the exact same size as the ‘mensa’, or the flat rectangular top of the altar.
  • Waxed linen is impossible to find nowdays but there is a very good alternative which is effective and inexpensive and is a one-time expenditure.  Most pharmacies sell a lightweight flannelette sheeting which is rubberized on one side.  This is generally used for invalid bedding under the sheets.  This is a very thin sheeting and adds little bulk under a fair linen.  It sells for about $25 for a piece large enough to cover most altars, or the middle section of the altar.  If you have ever seen the brown, unsightly large stains on the canvas “decking” (top part of a frontal hanging which lies right on the altar mensa)) you will want to protect expensive frontals from this sort of damage.  Not only red wine stains but wax, water stains, soot, and even rust and blood can go right through the fair linen and onto the decking.  After many years’ usage, the canvas decking needs to be replaced.  When using the cere cloth, the soft flannelette side goes against the altar with the moistureproof side UP.  Any spills are immediately contained and will not stain the altar or the decking of the frontal!  It also deadens the clinks and clanks of metal and glassware.  Well worth the investment!

    What’s wrong with this picture?  This is a fair linen on a stone mensa with no cere cloth.  It has puckered from dampness.  The corporal has also been folded with the folds IRONED in to make hard creases.  When ironing small linens, do not press the folds with the iron, merely “fingerfold” them and pat into place.  Making hard creases in linen will put a great deal of stress on the fibers and cause wear from repeated creasing in the same place. 

    ALTAR CLOTH PROTECTORS have been around for a long time.  In the Roman Catholic tradition they were often red or green baize.  The color for Episcopal churches was nearly always pale blue or blue-gray, or more infrequently white or ivory.   

    Protectors should not have the five crosses embroidered on it.  These represent the five wounds of Christ (hands, feet, side) and are reserved motifs for a fair linen. Altar protectors are NOT BLESSED and may be made of any cotton blend, pure cotton, poly-cotton, or other synthetic.  The cloth was pale blue to prevent the priest celebrating the Eucharist from confusing it with a proper fair linen which is always white.  Protectors are usually slightly longer and wider than the fair linen so as to cover it completely, and are so very important in keeping the fair linen spotless between services.  A simple white twin -sized- bedsheet can be cut down to make serviceable protectors.  Even old linen or damask tablecloths can be put into service. In some churches, after all vessels have been removed from the altar to the credence table, the protector is immediately laid over the fair linen which is an excellent precaution against wax droplets from the acolytes extinguishing the candles at the end of the service.  During the week, the protector keeps the fair linen free from falling dust (especially in stone churches), insects, flower pollen, and other airborne pollutants.  With the high cost of fair linens, they have become a real investment which should be protected.  A protected fair linen will last longer, need less frequent laundering, and will be fresh for the next service!  It takes only seconds to cover the altar!