New Liturgical Movement has an interesting article about a recent nuptial Mass that revived a Christian custom that goes back to the 300’s — the velatio nuptialis, the imposition of the veil.
In pagan Rome, the bride was veiled in a flame-orange or flame-red cloth called “flammeum,” flame. (Interestingly, a lot of other cultures also used red, yellow, or orange veils, including China.) To put on the bridal veil was “nubere,” to cloud, and that’s why the marriage rites were “nuptialis.”
But in Christian life, a white cloth cloak (pallium) or cloth, was held (by two servers) over both the bride and groom at once, during the bishop or priest’s blessing of their marriage, to represent the Holy Spirit coming down upon the couple, as in the form of the shekhinah cloud of glory coming down on the Temple. Since the bodies of Christians are temples indwelt by God, this is very fitting. St. Ambrose talks about it, as if it were already a common custom from time immemorial.
Marriage in the early Church was not yet formally defined as a Sacrament, and didn’t take place inside most churches, but rather on their front porches where everyone could see. But yet we see this ceremonial, which is almost liturgical and features a sort of marital vestment/not vestment, almost an altarcloth/communion cloth. And it does seem to happen inside church, taking place at the same time as the special nuptial blessing by the bishop or priest (which was an inside-church thing).
Now, when the Church moved everything inside and clearly defined marriage as a Sacrament, this continued until very recently, and the old Sarum Mass had a ton about this. And since Matrimony is performed by the bride and groom, not by the priest (who is there as a witness and helper), the equal opportunity “vestment” is very fitting.
When I looked into Sarum use of this custom, years and years ago, all that I was told was that it was an imitation of the wedding canopy in Judaism. But that’s not right, either, because the Jewish wedding canopy is more about creating a sort of mini-Temple or mini-Holy of Holies, with the canopy seen as its roof. (Which is why there is or was traditional pickiness about the size of the area under the canopy. It’s also supposed to be a cube-shaped area, like the Holy of Holies.) It would be interesting to know if there was originally a common ancestor, in Second Temple tradition, to both the Western Catholic velatio nuptialis and the Jewish bridal canopy.
The Latin word “velum” means literally, “covering.” It can be talking about a cloak, a sail, a sun awning over a street or stadium seats, door curtains, window curtains, or a length of cloth, as well as a veil. But “velatio” is a Christian word, talking about the imposition of veils on vowed virgins (and later, nuns) or its use in the Sacrament of Matrimony over both bride and groom.
The English name for the couples’ veil is “carecloth,” and in medieval times it was often made of noble materials like silk or silk-velvet. It wasn’t necessarily white, either, perhaps because clouds can be different colors. It was only for first marriages — ie, both bride and groom were to have been previously unmarried.
St. Isidore of Seville talked about the cloth being white with a red pattern or a red string, which represented the bloodlines of the two families. (Possibly this comes from the wedding ring association with the heart vein.)
In many places (possibly without tall servers or extra attendants), the carecloth was draped over the shoulders of the couples, and was associated with them being equally yoked. This is probably where the term “carecloth” comes from, because bride and groom were supposed to share all their troubles and cares. (Giving the bride and groom a crucifix is similar, as a warning that there will be suffering and work for both, in imitation of Christ.)
Sometimes the veil was held high over their heads on one side, but pulled down at a diagonal slant behind the couple, to veil them from the congregation.
It occurs to me that the “velatio nuptialis” is yet another example of how the early and medieval Church really disliked marriages to occur without lots of witnesses. If you’ve got two servers or two attendants or two sponsors holding the veil high over the couple, that’s two more witnesses.
Also, it explains a lot of art motifs.
I like this mutual veiling idea. I like it very much. It’s Catholic, it’s equal in dignity, and it fills in a sort of gap in formality, without being expensive. If a parish church had its own carecloth, it could offer this to all couples. It’s not in the rubrics, but it’s also not forbidden.
The couple in the article seem to have made their carecloth from white linen, with some colored embroidery motifs. They also seem to have kept the cloth (which is understandable because it involved heirloom cloth), but obviously this is the sort of thing that one could donate to a church instead.
One more note — In the Middle Ages, if the couple were marrying after repenting of premarital fornication, and if a child or children had resulted, it was the legal custom in many places to legitimize the children by also putting them under the carecloth. (Laid down, carried, or kneeling there.) Obviously this was meant to remove all questions by doing everything in public and in a memorable way, but it also has a lot of dignity and beauty.
Obviously it’s better for people not to have sinned. But there is such a thing as repentance and forgiveness, and it’s a beautiful way for parents to formalize their new family, dedicating all the household to God, and making a public parental statement that is humble and dignified.
Now, the Sarum Rite was the rite in force when the Philippines were discovered, and the Filipino people never gave up the “couple’s wedding veil” or velo. Two sponsors drape the veil over the groom’s shoulders and the bride’s head. The medieval “red string” has become a white figure-eight cord that helps hold the velo in place, and represents the infinite nature love.
In Mexico, they don’t usually have the carecloth, but they do have a cord — a giant set of two linked rosaries looped around the couple’s heads.
This may be related to the old old custom of binding the bride and groom’s hands with a wedding cord, or with the priest’s stole, which is associated with betrothal and marriage.
Another interesting article about the religious meaning and ancient Christian nature of Western marriage customs, including “a sixpence in her shoe.” This has pictures of carecloth use.
In this article, there is also evidence of Christian brides being veiled at their betrothal ceremony, and receiving a formal blessing from their bishop or priest. This was taken seriously enough that, if a Christian girl had been betrothed and the betrothal fell through due to death, the girl still could not receive the “conjugalis velatio” and the nuptial blessing at her wedding to another, at least according to early Western canon law.
The article also has the quote from St. Ambrose, with wording indicating that the veiling was _of the marriage_, not of the bride and/or the groom, but of the joint new thing. He calls it “velamen sacerdotalis,” priestly veiling, or literally, sacrifice-giver veiling.
Medieval names for the carecloth included “velamen caeleste” (heavenly veil – possibly associated with sky blue as a carecloth color), “pallium album” (white cloak, silver cloak), “velum”, “linteus” (linen cloth), “pannum” (cloth, garment), and “mappa” (cloth napkin). Carecloth’s etymology may be from carre (Fr. cloth square) or carde (ME fabric used for curtains).
This article views the “yoke over the shoulders” form as tons and tons older than the “veil held over heads” model. They all sound good, though.