Altar linen and vessels

Today we’re going to talk more about the altar and credence table.

The altar

The altar should be covered with three cloths, the top one of which is called the fair linen cloth.  When the altar is not in use, this is covered with a fourth – a dust cover, which is taken off before the Eucharist.

Bread and wine

As you know, the matter of the Eucharist is bread and wine.  Wafer bread is used and is made from the finest wheat flour without any yeast.  That is to say, it is unleavened.  The reason for this is that Jesus used unleavened bread at the Last Supper.  The wafers are round, the priest’s being rather larger than the people’s.  Wine, of course, which Jesus commanded the Church to use at the Eucharist, is the fermented juice of the grape.  Unfermented grape juice is not wine at all, and therefore must never be used.

Chalice, paten and ciborium

The vessels used at the altar are three: the chalice, the paten and the ciborium.  The chalice is the cup in which the wine is consecrated.  It is made of silver, or sometimes of gold, but if it is of silver the inside is silver gilt.  The paten is the shallow plate used for the priest’s wafer.  It is made of the same metal as the chalice.  The ciborium is a silver cup with a lid in which the people’s wafers are consecrated.

Preparing the chalice and paten

The chalice and paten are prepared, or ‘made up’ as we say, before the service in this way:

  • first, a folded linen cloth is laid over the top of the chalice so that it hangs down on each side.  This is called the purificator, and it is used for drying the chalice after it has been rinsed when the people have made their Communion.
  • On top of this is laid the paten containing the priest’s wafer.
  • Next comes the pall, a square piece of stiffened linen.  This is used during the service as a cover for the chalice.
  • Over the pall the chalice veil is spread.  This is coloured to match the vestments worn by the priest, and it covers the chalice and paten.
  • Lastly, the burse is laid on top of the veil.  This is the same word as purse, and is a folder coloured like the chalice veil.  Inside it is kept the corporal.  The corporal is a largish square of linen which is spread on top of the altar cloth and on which the bread and wine are actually consecrated.  It comes from the Latin word corpus,meaning body.  On it the form of bread on the altar and Our Lord’s Ascended Body become one. 

The credence table

Near the altar stands the credence table, which is also covered with a white cloth.  Credence means trust, and was the name given in olden days to a side-table in the banqueting hall of a great nobleman’s house.  In those days poison was a favourite way of removing an enemy, and so the nobleman used to employ a man to taste some of his dinner first to see if it could be trusted.  This was done at the side-table which came to be known as the credence or trust table.  If the unfortunate man was taken violently ill while tasting some delicacy, then the nobleman knew better than to have any himself.

On the credence table are placed the box of people’s wafers, and two cruets, one containing wine and the other water.  There are also what are called the lavabo jug, dish and towel.  Lavabo is the Latin for “I will wash”, and is part of Psalm 26 which the priest says during the Eucharist when the server pours some water from the jug over the fingers of the priest who then dries them on the towel.  The meaning of this is that we must come to the altar with clean hearts.  The alms dish on which the collection is put, is often placed on the credence table as well.

Bell, thurible and processional cross

Some churches have a small bell, called a sanctus bell.  This is rung during the Eucharist at the consecration of the bread and wine to draw the people’s attention to the most solemn part of the service.

In many churches incense is used at the Eucharist.  Incense is made of gums and spices which give off a fragrant smoke when burnt.  The incense is actually burnt in a censor or thurible, which consists of a bowl with a lid hanging from four long chains.  Red hot charcoal is carried in the thurible, and on this the incense is scattered by the priest with a little spoon.  During the Eucharist a supply of incense is kept in a little metal vessel which is called the incense boat because it is shaped like a boat.

In some churches the priest sprinkles the servers and choir and people with holy water before the Sung Eucharist on Sunday.  A holy water stoup and sprinkler are used for this.

Lastly, there is the processional cross which is kept at the east end of the chancel.  This is carried at the head of processions.


1. The vessels used at the Eucharist are these:

  • on the altar – chalice (cup), paten (plate), and ciborium (container for people’s wafers);
  • on the credence table – two cruets (wine and water), wafer-bread box, and lavabo jug and dish with towel.

2. The following linen is used:

  • altar cloths;
  • corporal (on which the bread and wine are consecrated);
  • pall (cover for chalice);
  • purificator (for drying chalice);
  • coloured burse (for carrying corporal);
  • matching coloured chalice veil (for covering vessels).

3. The thurible and boat are used for incense.