Lenten array

North Cerney, Gloucestershire - high altar lenten array
Lenten array designed by F C Eden at North Cerney, Gloucestershire

So Lent is upon us once again. Until a few years ago it was fairly common to see the altars of English churches covered with unbleached linen hangings known as Lenten array. This striking custom is a medieval one and was fairly universal in medieval England.

In the Middle Ages the idea of covering altars, reredoses and images with off-white material, was to provide a visual deprivation of colour and ornament within the church building. The purpose of this was twofold. Firstly it was reflective of the contemplative character of the season. Thomas Becon, the protestant theologian, wrote about the purpose of it as he understood it:

‘So likewise [in] this time of Lent, which is a time of mourning, all things that make to the adornment of the church are either laid aside or covered, to put us in remembrance that we ought now to lament and mourn for our souls dead in sin and continually to watch, fast pray, give alms etc. etc.’

Secondly the contrast between the visual deprivation of Lent, with the visual splendour of the festal hangings of Easter, emphasised the triumph of the resurrection.

In the Middle Ages the linen hangings were usually decorated with red, black or dark blue stencilled motifs. These motifs were generally related to the Passion of the Lord, the Instruments of the Passion or sacred monograms. The coverings over images were often stencilled or appliqued with an attribute, text or even by the late medieval period a representation of the image covered.

Winchester Cathedral
Lenten array on the nave altar at Winchester Cathedral.

Dorchester, St Birinus

Lenten array by the Warham Guild at St Birinus Dorchester, Oxfordshire.

Southwarklent 008
Lenten array by Sir Ninian Comper in the retrochoir of Southwark Cathedral.

Additional reading

The best account of the medieval use of Lenten array, including a large amount of documentary evidence is probably W. St John Hope and E. G. C. Atchley English Liturgical Colours (London, 1918).

7 thoughts on “Lenten array

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  1. The Comper array is wonderful and as I recall each of the retro-choir altars has one of a different design as does the high altar.


  2. I was wondering at petermullins.blogspot.com on 30th July whether the instruments of the passion in an early twentieth century window in St Michael’s, Little Coates and a rerodos in St Nicolas’, Great Coates mark a fashion for reviving this sort of symbol at that period. If so, do the examples reflect the mediaeval use? You might like to look if you get time to look at St Michael’s Font for us.


  3. Davis. The Comper array is striking, but I think I find it a little too delicate for my taste. You are right that each altar has a different array and I think John Hawes has pictures of that if you follow the link through to his photostream. Peter. I think there was a bit of a fashion for this sort of thing in the late Gothic revival period. I’ll have a look at your blog and make a comment there. I have had a look at you photo of the font on your blog and can’t make head not tail of it. There does indeed appear to be some remnants of painting on it. Perhaps I could pop along and have a look at the font in person? Fr Anthony. Many thanks, your Lenten array is very striking, I see you have moved away from violet veils on the statues too. By the way it is good to see that you are now in the new chapel, it looks to be a very lovely space.


  4. What a beautiful practice alas now very rare.Westminter Abbey looks superb at the moment (quite the opposite effect to the one intended!) as the entire Altar Screen is covered with Lenten Array and not just the reredos as in some old photographs that are on the Web.I was reading the Cuthbert Atchley article yesterday, wonderful stuff.


  5. The frontal at Winchester Cathedral was made by a former virger, and features a cord from a dressing gown… I very much approve of Lenten Array, it's much better than the Roman practice of having purple. At Lichfield we used to cover the entire High Altar reredos with and lenten array pall, but this is no longer possible with the restoration of the spire in the centre of the reredos. Even the back of the Oberammagau reredos in the Lady Chapel has paintings in a Lenten theme for when the Triptych is closed in lent. It's all very splendid! Alas, St. Paul's is purple :-{


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