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.
Lenten array on the nave altar at Winchester Cathedral.
Lenten array by the Warham Guild at St Birinus Dorchester, Oxfordshire.
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).