‘In memory of our sorrow’: Lenten Veils and Emotions

By Julie Hotchin, Australian National University

The large painted linen cloth on display in the cathedral of Gurk in Austria is a remarkable medieval example of a Lenten veil, hung to screen the altar during Lent. Measuring 8.87 x 8.87 metres, the cloth extends almost the full height of the nave and functions as a visually arresting barrier to separate the altar from the congregation. Konrad of Friesach painted the linen cloth with scenes from salvation history and the life and Passion of Christ in 1458. It was donated to the cathedral in the same year.[i]


Konrad of Friesach, Lenten veil (Fastentuch) in the cathedral of Gurk, 1458. Photograph in the Public Domain.
Konrad of Friesach, Lenten veil (Fastentuch) in the cathedral of Gurk, 1458. Photograph in the Public Domain.

The custom of veiling images during Lent dates from the tenth century, and is still practiced in various regions today as a visual expression of the penitential attitude expected during this liturgical season. Cloths of various sizes were placed on altars, crucifixes and other images, and hung to screen altars, from the beginning of Lent until the Wednesday or Saturday of Holy Week, or at least for the two weeks of Passiontide, depending on local custom. The practice of Lenten veiling illustrates the ability of fabric to create and alter the mood of sacred spaces, and in turn to arouse and shape desired religious feelings.

Veiling sacred images gave material expression to the sombre mood of penance and mourning that characterised Lent. Lenten veils were known by medieval people as a velum quadragesimale, or ‘veil of 40 days’, and were later known as as Fastentuch or Hungertuch in German speaking regions, where most of the extant examples originate. A record describing the use of the Lenten veil in the cathedral of Magdeburg in the later medieval period notes that the cloth was hung ‘in memory of our sorrow when we fell from the celestial fatherland like Adam’.[ii] The veil symbolised the sinful existence of humanity. By screening the altar, the cloth presented a visible sign that sin separated the faithful from God and urged beholders to perform penance in preparation for communion and joyous celebrations at Easter.[iii]

The veiling of images can be understood as a form of visual ‘fast’, serving as a spiritual parallel to other acts of Lenten abstinence. The covering or removal of other images accentuated the visual and spatial importance of the altar and heightened the importance of the Eucharist behind the veil. The Lenten veil prevented the congregation from viewing the host during mass, except when it was raised on Sundays and solemn occasions.

The dazzling visual program depicted on the Gurk Fastentuch emphasises the spiritual import of salvation history and the life of Christ. As an aid to meditation for the viewer, the imagery was intended to enhance understanding of the liturgy and spur members of the congregation to reflect on their sinful nature. Doing so would deepen their emotional commitment and willingness to perform penance.

The emotional charge of the Lenten veil also played on ideas of veiling and unveiling as revelation. The ritual covering and uncovering of relics and sacred objects during the liturgical year was a central aspect of medieval people’s devotional experience and could be a profoundly moving encounter.

Lenten veils were central to the drama, emotional arc and meaning of the liturgy for this season. The veil was raised during mass on the Wednesday of Holy Week in a dramatic flourish to enact Luke 23:45: ‘Then the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was torn in two’. The lowering or removal of the cloth symbolised the tearing of the veil in the Temple of Jerusalem at Christ’s death. The Gurk Fastentuch comprises two vertical halves, now sewn together, which originally enabled the priest to perform this tearing of the veil.[iv] The movement of the fabric in ritual performance collapsed sacred time into the present, inviting the congregation to feel grief and suffering at the death of Christ, as well as awe and hope in anticipation of his triumph over death. The use of the veil in the liturgy demonstrates the power of objects, and fabric in particular, to arouse, amplify and direct desired religious feelings through the ritual re-enactment of sacred events.

Lenten veils were usually made from linen, which was regarded as especially fitting for Lenten observance. The white or undyed colour of linen symbolised purity and humility. The beating and effort required to produce fibres from flax associated linen with penance and suffering. Linen also recalled the cloth that covered Christ on the cross and when he was buried, creating affective resonances with the Passion and his death.[v]

Fastentuch from the Benedictine convent of Lüne, c.1300–1325, detail of the crucifixion with the Virgin and John the Evangelist. Photograph Bevin Butler, reproduced with permission.
Fastentuch from the Benedictine convent of Lüne, c.1300–1325, detail of the crucifixion with the Virgin and John the Evangelist. Photograph Bevin Butler, reproduced with permission.


The ability of linen to encourage a penitential mood is apparent in examples of Lenten veils embroidered in linen and/or silk on linen cloth, such as the Fastentuch made by the Benedictine nuns at Lüne in northern Germany in the early fourteenth century. This embroidered cloth, which is 3.83 metres long, depicts the Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John in the lower register and Christ in Judgment within a mandorla above. The figures are outlined in contour stitches with embroidered details, set against a background of cutwork to throw them into relief. The cloth is predominantly white, enhancing the symbolic values of purity and humility as well as heightening the effect of veiling within the church space.

Painted linen cloths such as that from Gurk became popular in the later medieval period. Despite their vibrant display, painting on linen rather than using expensive wool or sumptuous tapestries to adorn church spaces was interpreted as a gesture of Lenten abstinence.

The play of light upon the fabric enhanced the emotional experience of worship. Depending on the time of day, light shimmered upon the fabric surfaces, made the cloth transparent or threw shadows, altering its appearance and directing meditative attention to the figures depicted on it and their spiritual import.[vi]

Light was understood as a manifestation of divine presence, and so the illumination of the cloth and its images provoked affective responses. The play of light upon fabric was transformative – it altered the beholder’s perception of the cloth and by extension their emotional and spiritual state. Changing light and its reflection through embroidered or painted cloths generated an atmosphere of reverence and awe, and by extension was intended to encourage affective contemplation of one’s guilt and penance as well as the anticipation of joy at Easter.

The veiling and unveiling of holy objects and spaces defined the temporal and emotional boundaries of Lent. Hanging and removing Lenten veils signalled the start or conclusion of a period of penance, grief and mourning, while the dramatic lifting of the sanctuary veil during the Easter Sunday liturgy expressed the emotional highpoint of the season. The practice of veiling and unveiling attests to the ability of cloth to mediate between the sacred and profane, and demonstrates how the use of fabric in ritual could be a potent means of arousing and shaping desired religious feelings.

Julie Hotchin is a Visiting Fellow in the School of History at Australian National University, and an Honorary Associate Investigator with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. She has published on the intellectual, educational and devotional interests of religious women in medieval Germany, and is co-editor of Partners in Spirit: Women, Men and Religious Life in Germany, 1100–1500 (Brepols, 2014) and Women and Work in Premodern Europe: Experiences, Relationships and Cultural Representations (Routledge, forthcoming 2018).

[i] Lotem Pinchover, ‘The Gurk Lenten Veil as a Product of its Immediate Surroundings’, in From Collective Memories to Intercultural Exchanges, edited by Marjia Wakounig (Berlin: Lit, 2012), pp. 85–115.

[ii] Liber Ordinarius from Magdeburg, Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, Ms theol. Lat. qu. 133, fol. 31. Cited in Katharina Krause, ‘Material, Farbe, Bildprogram der Fastentücher: Verhüllung in Kirchenraumen des Hoch- und Spätmittelalters’, in Das ‘Goldene Wunder’ in der Dortmunder Petrikirche: Bildgebrauch und Bildproduktion im Mittelalter, edited by Barbara Welzel, Thomas Lentes and Heike Schlie (Bielefeld: Verlag für Regionalgeschichte, 2004), p. 165).

[iii] Jürgen Bärsch, ‘“Velum ante summum altare suspenditur…”: Riten der Verhüllung und Enthüllung in der Liturgie des Mittelalters’, in Aktuell Restauriert: Das Fastentuch-Fragment des Thomas von Villach, edited by Agnes Husslein-Arco and Veronika Pirker-Aurenhammer (Riggisberg: Abegg-Stiftung, 2015), p. 99.

[iv] Pinchover, ‘The Gurk Lenten Veil’, p. 89.

[v] Birgitt Borkopp-Restle and Stefanie Seeberg, ‘Farbe und Farbwirkung in der Bildstickerei des Hoch- und Spätmittelalters: Textilien im Kontext der Ausstattung sakraler Räume’, in Farbe in Mittelalter: Materialität – Medialität – Semantik, ed. Ingrid Bennewitz and Andrea Schindler (Berlin: Akademie Verlag), pp. 195-207.

[vi] See Sarah Randles, ‘Light, Beauty and Emotions in Chartres Cathedral’, Histories of Emotion blog, 11 March 2018.

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