We have been contemplating obtaining some decorative coverings for front of the Altar, the Ambo, the Tabernacle, and perhaps the credence tables in the Sanctuary, so that they convey in a coordinated way the liturgical color of the season or the particular feast that is being celebrated. In this way the whole sanctuary is “vested” beautifully and helps create a more thoroughly “liturgical” celebration. I came upon a very informative article concerning the frontal in the Catholic Encyclopedia which is summarized here.
The frontal (also called an antipendium, or pallium altaris) is an appendage which covers the entire front of the altar, from the lower part of the table (mensa) to the predella, and from the gospel corner to that of the epistle side. Its origin may probably be traced to the curtains or veils of silk, or of other precious material, which hung over the open space under the altar, to preserve the shrines of the saints usually deposited there. Later, these curtains were converted into one piece of drapery which covered the whole front of the altar and was suspended from the table of the altar (Pugin, Glossary).
The use of a frontal which covers only a small portion of the front of the altar is forbidden (Cong. Sac. Rit., September 10, 1898). If the altar is so placed that its back can be seen by the people, that part should likewise be covered with an antipendium (Crem. Episc., I, iii, 11). Its material is not prescribed by the rubrics. It is sometimes made of precious metals, adorned with enamels and jewels, of wood, painted, gilt, embossed, and often set with crystals, or of cloth of gold, velvet, or silk embroidered, and occasionally enriched with pearls (Pugin, Glossary), but it is usually of the same material as that of the sacred vestments. It is evidently intended as an ornament of the altar (Rubr. Gen. Miss., tit.). Hence if the altar is made of wood or marble, and its front is beautifully painted or decorated, or if the table is supported by columns, and a reliquary is placed under it, it may be considered sufficiently ornamented, and the antipendium would not be necessary; nevertheless, even in such cases, on solemn occasions more precious and elaborate ones should be used (Caerem. Episc., I, xii,11).
The antipendium may be ornamented with images, pictures of Christ, representations of some fact of His life, or such as refer to the Eucharistic Mystery, or with emblems that refer in some manner to the Blessed Sacrament—a lamb, a pelican, the chalice and host, etc. Pictures of the saint in whose honor the altar is dedicated to God, and emblems referring to such saint, may be used. It is forbidden to ornament the black antipendium with skulls, cross-bones, etc. (Ca rem. Episc., II, xi, 1). The antipendium may be fastened to little hooks or buttons, which are attached to the lower part of the table of the altar, or it may be pinned to one of the lower altarcloths, or attached to a light wooden frame which fits tightly in the space between the mensa and the predella. A guard about three inches wide (plinth), made of wood suitably painted, or of polished metal, may be placed at its lower extremity, resting on the predella, so as to prevent its being easily injured by those who move about the altar.
Regularly, the color of the antipendium should correspond with the color of the feast or office of the day (Caerem. Episc., I, xii, 11). The Missal (Ruhr. Gen., xx) says this should be the case quoad fieri potest, by which the Missal does not imply that one color may be used ad libitum for another, but that the more precious antipendia of gold, silver, embroidered silk, etc., in colors not strictly liturgical, may be used on solemn occasions, although they do not correspond in color with the feast or office of the day (Van der Stappen, vol. III, q. 43, ii). The following are exceptions to the general rule: (I) When the Blessed Sacrament is publicly exposed the antipendium must be white, whatever the color of the vestments may be.
If, however, the Exposition takes place immediately after Mass, or Vespers, the antipendium of the color of the Mass, or Vespers, may be retained if the celebrant does not leave the sanctuary between the Mass, or Vespers, and the Exposition; but if on these occasions he vests for the exposition outside the sanctuary, the antipendium if not white must be exchanged for a white one. (2) In solemn votive Masses the color of the antipendium must be that of the vestments. In private votive Masses (missoe lectoe) its color corresponds to that of the office of the day. In private votive Masses celebrated solemnly, i.e. with deacon and subdeacon, or in chant (missoe cantatoe) it is proper that its color correspond with that of the vestments. (3)
During a solemn Requiem Mass at an altar in the tabernacle of which the Blessed Sacrament is kept, the black antipendium cannot be used (Cong. Sac. Rit., March 20, 1869), but one of a violet color should take its place. The Ephemerides Lit., (XI, 663, 1897), states that this decree was revoked by a subsequent decree of the same Congregation, December 1, 1882. It seems strange that the former decree is retained in the latest edition of the Decrees of the Cong. Sac. Rit. The latter decree is an answer to the question: Under these circumstances may the antipendium and the conopoeum (cover of the tabernacle) be black? The answer seems to pass over the antipendium, and merely says: “At least the canopy over the tabernacle should be of a violet color’. The antipendium need not be blessed.