On this day, the Catholic Church in Canada (where I reside), and in many other dioceses of the world celebrates the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, more commonly known as the Solemnity of Corpus Christi. I thought it would be best to speak about beauty in the liturgy, and specifically, on the altar.
Since the beginning of The Liturgy Series, The Catholic Man has strived to feature exceptional liturgical objects for use in the liturgy. Some might be tempted to think that being nit-picky about having beautiful objects at the liturgy is going too far – as long as the item serves its purpose, then it is suitable, because it is the liturgy itself that is important, not the externals. There was an era where functionalism was adopted widely. However, in recent decades, the Church has taken a different approach, an apporach that was amplified, seemingly, under the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI.
In the context of the liturgy, in Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict said:
Like the rest of Christian Revelation, the liturgy is inherently linked to beauty: it is veritatis splendor. The liturgy is a radiant expression of the paschal mystery, in which Christ draws us to himself and calls us to communion. As Saint Bonaventure would say, in Jesus we contemplate beauty and splendour at their source.
The beauty of the liturgy is part of this mystery; it is a sublime expression of God’s glory and, in a certain sense, a glimpse of heaven on earth. The memorial of Jesus’ redemptive sacrifice contains something of that beauty which Peter, James and John beheld when the Master, making his way to Jerusalem, was transfigured before their eyes (cf. Mk 9:2). Beauty, then, is not mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God himself and his revelation. These considerations should make us realize the care which is needed, if the liturgical action is to reflect its innate splendour.Sacramentum Caritatis 35
Yet, why a path of beauty? Why should Catholics ensdorse beauty, not just in the liturgy, but within Catholicism in general? To this, Pope Benedict XVI would respond:
[…]the via pulchritudinis, the way of beauty, is a privileged and fascinating path on which to approach the Mystery of God.General Audience Wednesday, 18 November 2009
Ultimately, we use beautiful things in the liturgy, because beauty itself is reflective of the unexplainable beauty that takes place at every liturgical celebration: Jesus Christ, our salvation, present in the form of bread and wine among His people. It is also on this way of beauty that we may encounter God Himself, who is the author of all beauty.
Considering what has been mentioned thus far, it is such a pity that not few parishes resort to less than ideal altar linens, some made with polyester, and some with a cotton-poly blend. One rationale behind this is that purchasing and having altar cloths made from such material is cheaper. I don’t know if this is something more for myself who has been a sacristan and have seen the differences between polyester and authentic linen, but the difference is quite noticable. However, for the purposes of this review, I have also learned and felt the difference between cheap and expensive linen and trust me… there is a difference when you touch the two linens. That aside, this review will not be about comparing cheap and expensive linen, but rather, to speak specifically about a line of linens that I think deserves more attention among churches in North America.
Sanny de Zoete, based in Delft, Netherlands, is a linen damask lover, an art historian, speaker, author, cultural entrepreneur and guest curator. Her website makes evident the level of expertise and passion she has for linen damask. For the purposes of this review, and to get a feel for the background she has, I had a light-hearted Zoom conversation with Sanny and it is amazing how much she knows about an art that is unfortunately dying in many parts of the world.
Yes, you can get plain linen, but linen damask is turning linen up a notch – designs actually woven into the fabric itself to form a design. For the purposes of this review, Sanny graciously sent me two samples which I will speak about.
The Last Supper Linen Damask
Leonardo da Vinci’s depiction of the Last Supper is likely one of the most famous, and recognizable works of art in the world. It has been reproduced on a variety of mediums, including mosaics, prints, tapestry… by how about as linen damask? It is surprising to know that according to Sanny, “[l]inen weavers have been incorporating this design [of the Last Supper] into their communion damask in the Netherlands since 1850.” Coming from a Protestant Christian background, the Last Supper as damask linen has been of interest for her. She managed to acquire a 19th century engraving by Willem van‘t Riet which reproduced da Vinci’s depiction of the Last Supper. The print served as Sanny’s inspiration for the recreation of the Last Supper on linen damask.
Upon hearing of the Last Supper linen damask, there is perhaps some fear that it is not detailed enough. In fact, Sanny’s Last Supper linen damask is not the first – during my time working at the Catholic Cathedral in Toronto, I have already seen something of smaller sized, called the Last Supper super-corporal (a corporal, meant for larger altars) by Slabbinck. The product page for that super-coproral seems to have been taken down from the page, but in all honesty, everytime I looked at the damask, there was something off about the design – it just lack so much detail. This is understandable since many of these linens are mass-manufactured for sale, and on many occasions, with the aim of low prices while still making profits. Yet, it is true, you get what you pay for.
The detail on Sanny’s linen is awe-inspiring. It seems to me that Sanny’s linen is like a mosaic embedded on linen, but it is more complicated than mosaic in the aspect that: mosaics are often made up of titles that have a wide variety of colours. That is how you can achieve various shades on mosaic. But that is not achievable on damask – the colour of the threads of the fabric including the damask are all the same. It is the direction of the weaving that creates the image that you see. Is that not amazing?
The sample Sanny sent me was used at my parish for the first time this past Good Friday. At the liturgy of Good Friday, the liturgy begins with a bare altar. It is only before the Communion Rite that the altar is prepared with an altar linen. The altar linen used at that liturgy this year at my parish was Sanny’s Last Supper linens damask and the juxtaposition of the Crucifix and the Last Supper damask spoke to the interconnectedness of these two distinct, but mystical events, which eventually culminates with the Lord’s Resurrection. My pastor was amazed at the quality and detail of Sanny’s linen, not only because it came all the way from the Netherlands, but it was, I dare say, the first time he was able to feel, and use high-quality linens. And indeed so, Sanny produced here a beautiful linen for service at the altar.
I would argue that such a linen as delicate and fine as this Last Supper linen damask, should be brought out for use on the most solemn of occasions of the Liturgical Year, especially during the Paschal Triduum. For a linen as large as this, it must be cared for well. I keep this linen rolled up, and tied with white grosgrain ribbons so to minimize wrinkles. It can be folded, but I think doing so will not be able to bring the damask design to its best visual state.
Click below to view the History of the Last Supper design, as recounted by Sanny de Zoete.
Grapevines and Ears of Wheat Corporal
Perhaps another investment that would best accompany the Last Supper linen is the Grapevines and Ears of Wheat Corporal (Sanny calls it a napkin on her website). Why do I say it is best suited as a corporal? It is square shaped – the corporal is folded into ninths, so that when folded, it could hold the fragments of the consecrated host which may fall onto the corporal. The corporal is carefully and reverently cleaned. Unlike the large Last Supper linen damask which covers the mensa of the altar, the corporal is placed on top at the liturgy of the Eucharist at the Catholic Mass to collect the fragments of the consecrated species, and therefore, may come in direct contact to the Eucharist, hence its significance.
The ears of wheat and grapevine are symbols of the Eucharist: the wheat used to make the bread, and the grapes used to make the wine, which in the Catholic Mass are consecrated so that they may become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ – in which through transubstantiation, the consecrated species contain the body, soul and divinity of Jesus.
Sanny de Zoete’s corporal contains these two seemingly simple symbols, but so eloquently woven all around the perimeter of the border. While this design might be able to be embroidered, for a corporal in Catholic liturgy, it may prove to be “too much.” Yet, when woven in damask on linen, there is just something so delicate and special about it. At various angles, you can see the design “glistening” under the light in a unique way.
I have not mentioned, but both the Last Supper and this linen corporal are made up of 42 threads per centimetre – the density of the fabric allows the deep level of detail, that I have not been able to see in a lot of Ecclesiastical linens and fabrics today.
The only exception with the corporal, is that for Catholic usage, it only lacks a simple cross in the centre. I hope this can be incorporated in future designs. There is a version indicated on the website: “One has a shield in the centre with the text Deze drinkbeker is het nieuwe testament in Mijn bloed, hetwelk voor U vergoten wordt (This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you).”
This design is, in fact, also available as a fair linen for the altar and for Catholic usage with crosses all along the middle as well.
I hope Sanny considers making a matching chalice pall, purificator and lavabo towel to go with this corporal. How complete of a set and amazing would that be, especially considering Sanny’s quality of work?
More details on the Grapevine and Wheat design can be found here:
You can purchase the corporal in a variety of sizes here:
Compared to other types of fabrics, linen damask is very strong, and has a longer life compared to some of the more contemporary types of fabrics. Moreover linen damasks keep their shape nicely during years of use.
Need a specific size to fit your parish’s altar? Sanny can weave according to your custom measurements! Just let her know, and contact her with your needs, and Sanny will happily answer your questions.
At the celebration of the Mass, the most important function of the Catholic Faith, Jesus Christ truly comes to His People in the Eucharist. If a king, or even a VIP (very important person) were to come dine at our table, we would offer them the best preparations: the best napkins, tablecloth, bowls, cutlery, etc. Why do parishes not do the same each week as Jesus comes among the Christian community?
The Liturgical Arts are important because they speak to the reality of what occurs at the liturgy: a true encounter with none other but the Lord in the sacraments, and especially the Eucharist. A parish that has continued to do this well since their establishment, is St. John Cantius Parish in Chicago. Throughout the pandemic, possibly many people, including myself were exposed to them via their livestreams of the their beautiful and reverent liturgies. The St. Martha’s Guild at their Parish which fosters beautiful and traditional Liturgical Arts wrote an interesting piece, The Mission to Restore Ecclesiastical Damask, which merits the time of our blog readers, especially those who follow The Liturgy Series to read. In this blog post, they feature Sanny de Zoete’s altar linens, and in particular, the long fair linen on the main altar, with the Grapevines and Ears of Wheat design, which also matches the corporal – simply beautiful! The post also features an application of the Last Supper linen damask on one of their side altars.
The interesting point is this, that I have read somewhere: The Canons of St. John Cantius revived the life of the church and parish, through their commitment to beautiful liturgy. Their parish has now fluorished. The little things for Our Lord matter. Beautiful articles for use at the liturgy matter, because humans have a tendency to gravitate toward beauty, and that beauty ultimately leads us to its Creator – God. Let us strive to use beautiful linens for use at the altar, like that of Sanny de Zoete, so to foster beautiful and traditional liturgical arts for generations to come. Through that, future generations will recognize the importance not only of the beautiful, but more importantly, the gravity of the Mass, the Eucharist in their Catholic lives.
I close with a point Sanny made at the end of our conversation together: The Last Supper damask, is a fine example of the embodiment of Jesus. On one side, Jesus is depicted seemingly as a white man. If you flip the linen on the reverse, Jesus is still the same Jesus, but depicted inverse, seemingly like a black man. Yet, no matter which image you see, it is still the same white thread used throughout – it is just a matter of the threads are woven that form the image.
The question is this: How do we see Jesus, going forth from the Eucharistic table? Do we recognize the beauty of all peoples and cultures, and therefore, unite together to move towards the Kingdom of Heaven? Do we see Jesus in all peoples, no matter their race, their skin colour, their ethnicity? Do we see Jesus in the prisoner, the beggar, the labourer, in our own brothers and sisters, classmates and co-workers?
Disclaimer: Vincent Pham was provided some samples of Sanny de Zoete’s altar linens, by Sanny, to provide an honest review of it on this blog. The Catholic Man Reviews sincerely thanks Sanny for the opportunity for us to review and feature these linens on our blog and look forward to future reviews and features. All thoughts and opinions expressed in here are our own and reflect our sincere thoughts about these altar linens.