As in many specialized fields of endeavor, altar guild and sacristan work has its own special language, some of the words coming from the Latin, and all sounding rather mysterious and intriguing. Antependium (singular) simply derives from ante (in front of or before) and pend, (hang, hanging, weigh, weighing to cause to hang down). Technically any textile which hangs down in front of the altar, lectern, credence table or shelf is a type of antependia, but it is the altar frontal which is usually thought of first in connection with the word.

The etymology of parament: Middle English, from Medieval Latin paramentum, from parare to adorn.  Many catalogues are now usuing the two words interchangeably to mean frontals, bible markers and lectern “falls” or hangings. 
Just to make things more exciting, there are further terms which apply to shape and construction of paraments and antependia.  For the modern style free-standing altar, an altar covering which looks very pleasing is the Jacobean, Jacobian, Laudian, Laudean-all the same meaning for a “throw-over” style which covers all four sides of the altar.  Technically this is not a “frontal” because it is all-encompassing, and not just a covering for the front of the altar. The photo to the left shows a Laudean in the very popular Venetian Tapestry fabric which is probably second favorite only to the Coronation pattern for all-over floral tapestry patterns in American churches.  It is so versatile because it will match everything in the vestment closet.  Liturgical suppliers and church catalogue companies would like to have us think we MUST have simply every single thing matching the frontal from burse and veil to cope and eucharistic vestments but this is not mandatory or written in stone anywhere.  It has proven very profitable for makers of church textiles, however.  A good-quality cream background floral tapestry will prove a great investment over time and will be used for many important great feast days, weddings, etc. If you can afford only one cope, the same applies, and the cream or ivory background, which is the true “church white” with orphreys of Coronation or another tapestry pattern will be very serviceable for many years for many functions and feasts.

Below is an example of a traditional frontal with an attached superfrontal (violet horizontal strip). The alternating violet and gold fringe is called “diced fringe”.  This frontal has two vertical “orphreys”(Fr. orfreis) which are neatly banded on each side by gallooning, (French galon, from Old French galonner, to decorate the hair with ribbons) which might have a design of its own and looks rather like pattern-woven ribbon.   Orphreys do not have to be plain-colored, or damask or velvet. Here are some in a Pugin-inspired pattern which are about 3 inches wide.

And here is a “dice” of plain gallooning with a metallic gold woven in down the center which would look beautiful alongside of any plain or patterned damask or velvet orphrey.

Sometimes just the short superfrontal is seen, and this is especially a wise choice if the front of the altar is remarkable in any way-carved, marble, polychromed, etc. A superfrontal is sometimes called a “frontlet”  Frontlet is more correct terminology if it is used without the full frontal beneath it. Frontlets may also be tapestry, lace, needlepoint or petitpoint as well as damask, faille, silk, and are nearly always, as are frontals, lined with heavy linen, taffeta, silk or satin.

A trend nowdays is to give the illusion that a superfrontal (which literally means “on top of” or “above” the frontal) is attached to the frontal when actually it is an integral part of the frontal with the gallooning and fringe giving the impression it is a separate piece.  See example below.

Frontals and separate superfrontal or frontlets usually have a canvas “decking” on the top end which rests on the mensa or altar top and has either a casing for a metal bar which will go through the casing and will have screws which will go through into the altar top, or there could be a counterweight bar which will drop behind, or a velcro system which will attach across the front which will need no canvas decking.

Liturgical artists are now designing some very exciting contemporary paraments in new shapes using new fabrics and techniques which are very complementary to modern worship spaces.

The use of a cere cloth to protect the decking is very important and it will go under the fair linen to keep wine stains off the decking. One side is rubberized; the original cere cloths were heavily waxed linen.  Even though today many wall-attached altars which are original to the church are not used due to the current practice of celebrant facing the congregation with a central “free-floating” altar, I always think it is a mistake to be quick about throwing out all the old altar hangings. Altars which cannot be removed because they are heavy stone or marble and chiselling them off the wall would do damage to the edifice can still be kept “dressed” for high feasts, and  beautiful and presentable in their historic and architectural context.  Some churches still use the old “High Altar” gradines for icons and candles or service lights.  Side chapels and shrine chapels can still make use of the frontal and frontlet inventory as well. The frontal may also be a memorial, so keep these in inventory if they are in good condition and will fit altars in the church.