Church of St Mary and St Gabriel in the Totnes Mission Community

Lenten Veil Hooks

Sitting in the chancel of the church, a visitor could be forgiven for thinking that the church was Victorian. The whitewashed rendered walls and stained windows, floors, roof, pews and other furnishings are all Victorian or of a more recent time. Out toward the nave, the rood screen, font, and pulpit, though greatly restored, are all of mediaeval origin. There are also memorial tablets on the chancel walls that indicate the church is actually of an earlier date, but the overwhelming impression remains Victorian. 

There is of course no question that the church is mediaeval, actually dating from Norman times. There is also no question that the Catholic liturgy was used before the Reformation in the services that took place in the church. But even the most discerning visitor would be hard pushed to discover any artefact that still exists in the church today that gives credence to the use of Catholic ritual. There is however one exception, one surviving artefact that recalls the ceremonial richness during the season of Lent.

Directly above the rood screen, dividing the chancel from the nave, there are two inwardly projecting metal hooks. Of no obvious function to the modern visitor, they were used in the mediaeval period to suspend a veil – the Lenten Veil – in front of the Rood, the wooden crucifix. The Rood no longer survives, nor the adjacent statues of St Mary and St John, probably all having been taken down at the time of the Reformation. 

Dating back to the 10thcentury, the veil was erected in churches across the land on Ash Wednesday as a reminder of the penitential nature of Lent. It would have been suspended from a continuous length of cord between the two hooks and secured at both ends at a lower level somewhere behind the screen. It extended from pillar to pillar, thus completely concealing the Rood and the adjacent statues. The veil comprised a single curtain, made of white linen and often finely decorated. (A more recent, and somewhat similar, tradition in some Anglican churches during Passiontide is to cover crosses with a purple cloth).

The veil remained in position throughout Lent until the Wednesday of Holy Week. During the celebration of Mass on that day, the Passion of St Luke was chanted before a full congregation, which included the following verses: 

44. And it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour.

45. And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst.

46. And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit; and having said thus he gave up the ghost.

The ends of the cord were unsecured and released precisely as the words relating to the rending of the temple veil were sung. The Lenten veil fell, and one can well imagine the great theatre with which the mediaeval church carried out this ceremony and the sharp intake of breath by the congregation as the Rood was once again revealed to all.

So, these seemingly inconsequential metal hooks, untouched by the Victorians, are in fact priceless artefacts of our parish church history, evoking a richly dramatic, mediaeval ceremonial practice, which is still followed in some Spanish churches. 

Mike Stott, April 2019

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