Early Christian Face Veiling

Early Christian Mosaic in Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy

Early Christian Mosaic in Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy

I came across some references to early Christian ritual vestments this morning in Matthew Brown’s The Gate of Heaven.  He cited The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation by Edward Yarnold, and The Archæology of Baptism by Wolfred N. Cote.  I looked up these references and they were intriguing in describing an early Christian practice of face veiling during initiation rites: 

In some places a white linen cloth was also spread over the candidate’s head.  Theodore took this to be a mark of freedom: slaves have to uncover their heads.  John the Deacon believed it to be a symbol of the priesthood: ‘for the priests of that time always wore on their heads a mystic veil.’ St. Augustine in a Low Sunday sermon takes the opposite view to Theodore: it is unveiling that symbolizes freedom:

Today is called the octave of the infants [newly baptized, not necessarily young].  The veils are due to be removed from their heads and this is a sign of freedom… Today, as you see, our infants mingle with the faithful and fly as it were from the nest.1

In another place Yarnold informs us:

St. Cyril tells the candidate that when he is exorcised he will be breathed on and his face will be covered to secure for him peace of mind from the dangers of a roving eye. 2

Wolfred Cote likewise agrees:

Some days before baptism they were veiled, or with their faces covered, in order that their mind might be more at liberty, and that the wandering of their eyes might not distract their soul. 3

I looked up St. Cyril of Jerusalem‘s word about this in the Procatechesis or Prologue to his catechetical lectures in the fourth century CE (see my intro to these lectures).  As part of the initiation rite was an exorcism, or a casting out of Satan and any devils from the initiate.  As part of that rite, Cyril tells us that the face was veiled as a means of focus:

Thy face has been veiled, that thy mind may henceforward be free, lest the eye by roving make the heart rove also. But when thine eyes are veiled, thine ears are not hindered from receiving the means of salvation. 4

The early Christian veil served many more symbolic purposes than shielding the eyes, but these we will study at another time.

Notes:
  1. Yarnold, The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation, 33, link. []
  2. Yarnold, The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation, 10, link. []
  3. Cote, The Archaeology of Baptism, 70, link. []
  4. Cyril of Jerusalem, Procatechesis 9, link. []

21 Comments

  1. Posted July 22, 2008 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    I have often wondered about the veil and if we know anything regarding its purpose and function. The information you have here is interesting, but it doesn’t answer the question of why only women would wear a veil, and its symbolic function. Has anyone seen/read/heard any explanation for the meaning of the veil?

  2. Posted July 22, 2008 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    I think the apostle Paul explained it well to the Corinthians in 1 Cor. 11:1–16. There have been many exegetical studies of these scriptures that we could look at (here is one), but basically it is because the woman is subject to the man who is then subject to God. The woman covering their head is a symbolic action of submission to their husband, and therefore submission to God and Christ. Paul also expressed this is Ephesians 5:22–25. I will explore the meaning of the actual veil as a head covering more in a future post, but this was mainly focused on the early Christian action of veiling the face.

  3. Posted July 22, 2008 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Just a reminder everyone that we shouldn’t directly refer to the temple ceremony here.

  4. Posted July 22, 2008 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    K, but then I wonder why these documents seem to mention that they only veiled themselves once? Paul doesn’t talk about *why* it is a dishonor for her to not be covered. That is what I am wondering about. There must be something else to this.

  5. Posted July 22, 2008 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    The symbolism of the veil itself is apart from the action of veiling. Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians doesn’t discuss the latter necessarily. This commentary on the scripture is insightful: http://www.traditioninaction.org/religious/d006rpVeil_2_Goodman.htm

    I hope to get into another discussion why the women wore the veil, and why Paul talked about it, in a future post. This post is concerned with the early Christian references to the action of veiling the face.

  6. Mark Greene
    Posted July 22, 2008 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Another point of view concerning women and veils: Part of the ancient Hebrew concept of a betrothed women was that she represented a holy temple. This is why she was veiled. Since, according to Paul, the glory of God is the glory of man and a woman is the glory of man, then to a man the women should represent the glory of God. The woman was created for man as a holy temple. Like a temple, the veiled women represents the presence or holiness of God.

  7. Posted July 22, 2008 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Doesn’t Paul’s statement in verse 10, “because of the angels” refer to the Book of Enoch tradition of angels falling from Heaven to have relations with women?

  8. Posted July 22, 2008 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Do you have a link to this tradition for further information about it…?

  9. Posted July 22, 2008 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    The New Living Translation of verse 10 is “So a woman should wear a covering on her head as a sign of authority because the angels are watching.”

  10. Posted July 22, 2008 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Apparently that particular verse is confusing to many theologians, but this pastor gives two popular views:

    Now, I wish he hadn’t of said that, because I was able to follow him pretty well up to this point. But what he meant by “because of the angels” is something that theologians have discussed through the years. One suggestion . . . now, we know that when we gather together, the angels of the Lord gather with us. And it has been suggested that the angels, being creatures of rank and order, respect the order of God, and they like to see the orders and the rankings of God followed.

    The second suggestion is that there are also evil angels present and a woman without a veil is attractive to them. I sort of reject the second idea, because nowhere in the New Testament where angels are mentioned in this sense are they fallen angels. I would prefer the former, but I am not satisfied with it. I don’t really know what he is referring to, to tell you the truth. (Pastor Chuck Smith)

  11. Posted July 22, 2008 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    Brad, I think this is what Justin is getting at:

    “However, Enoch’s theology differed from that of the later Church on a number of points. According to the story of the Watchers in chapters 6-16, fallen angels took human wives and bore offspring by them (a variation of the account of the Nephilim given in Gen. 6:1–4). From this it follows that angels are not entirely or eternally spiritual beings, but can take on material bodies. Several church fathers wrote about the fallen angels’ earthly activities and two of them, Tatian and Lactantius, speculated on the nature of the fallen angels’ material bodies. It has even been argued that 1 Cor. 11:10 (‘a woman should [cover] her head, because of the angels’) warns women to dress modestly so they do not arouse lust in the fallen angels—putting this teaching on angelic physical bodies in the New Testament!” (http://beforethenewtestament.com/rich_text.html)

  12. Steven B
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 12:12 am | Permalink

    There are certainly societies where women may not appear in public without a veil. However, I believe that not all cultures where veiling of women is common require strict observance.

    Although the veil most probably goes back to the subordination of women, in societies where the veil is an accepted part of everyday life, wearing a veil can take on some interesting connotations. One is the notion of freedom you have already pointed out. But more common is the simple sense of being properly dressed. By properly dressed, I mean, not casually dressed, but more formally attired.

    Women who may work outside the home would typically not wear a veil, especially while actively working as it would interfere with their work. Two things follow from this. First, single women would typically be required to work outside the home and, therefore, more inclined to be seen unveiled. As such, the distinction between veiled women and unveiled women is often an indication of their marriage status.

    Secondly, women who are being supported adequately by a husband would not be required to work outside the home. These women would not need to go unveiled as working women often would. Hence, the veil is a sign of affluence, stability and status in society.

  13. Posted July 23, 2008 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    I think it is interesting to note how far the symbolism of the veil has shifted from its ancient roots to modern connotations. I think it is unfortunate that some women today only relate with the modern “oppressive” connotations of the veil (which is largely created by the western media, the women who actually wear veils in modern societies will report a wider range of experiences and motivations). As your post and some of these comments point out that the wearer of the veil was actually in a rather exalted or protected position compared to those around them that were not veiled. Another famous veil reference in the scriptures is that of Moses having to veil his face before the house of Israel after having communed with the Lord, the house of Israel not being able to endure Moses’ presence in essence. The other veil is of course the veil of the temple with the most exalted or divine space being behind the veil from the perspective of the majority of the population.

  14. Sporgsmal
    Posted July 24, 2008 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    You may find some insight in what Cyril of Jerusalem said about the early Christian prayer circle. He said that some of the participants’ words during this activity were those of the Seraphim who surround God’s throne in the heavenly temple. Cyril noted that the Seraphim used one of their sets of wings to veil their faces (see Edward Yarnold, Cyril of Jerusalem [New York: Routledge, 2000], 183).

  15. Posted July 25, 2008 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Fascinating reference Sporgsmal. Thank you for pointing this out!

    In Cyril’s fifth lecture on the mysteries (ordinances) he notes that the early Christian initiates gathered “round God’s altar” and pronounced certain prayers, including:

    After this, we make mention of heaven, and earth, and sea ; of sun and moon; of stars and all the creation, rational and irrational, visible and invisible; of Angels, Archangels, Virtues, Dominions, Principalities, Powers, Thrones; of the Cherubim with many faces: in effect repeating that call of David’s Magnify the Lord with me . We make mention also of the Seraphim, whom Esaias in the Holy Spirit saw standing around the throne of God, and with two of their wings veiling their face, and with two their feet, while with two they did fly, crying Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of Sabaoth. For the reason of our reciting this confession of God , delivered down to us from the Seraphim, is this, that so we may be partakers with the hosts of the world above in their Hymn of praise. (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310123.htm)

  16. Posted August 1, 2008 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    As a woman in the church I am pleased with the insight that the early Christian veil was a sign of freedom. It fits well with my understanding of the veil itself.

    In Genesis 20: 16 we see an illustration of this very principle that you have discussed. It is here that Abimelech allows Abraham the freedom to dwell wherever it pleased him in his land. In turn, Abraham becomes a “covering of the eyes” for Sarah and all that is with her.

    I love this concept of freedom…

    Thanks.

  17. Cynthia
    Posted August 13, 2008 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    An interesting sidenote: In the Kabbalah, the feminine aspect of God (represented by the Menora in the temple) was veiled when the temple was ransacked and defiled by invaders. According to the Kabbalah, this aspect of God will remain veiled until the Messiah comes in glory. I would think that the veil MIGHT be considered in that light.

  18. Helen_of_Trout
    Posted August 24, 2008 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    Let me put it simply: That which is most sacred, and therefore to be protected, is veiled.

    The role of women on earth is symbolically represented through the veil as is Adams action in the garden. For Adam to partake of the fruit first would have taken away the sacredness of women on earth as mother as well as their choice to be a mother. By allowing Eve to partake fist, not only did he preserve her sacredness and her agency, but he showed the symbolic meaning of partnership by allowing her the choice even though he already knew they needed to partake to fulfill their purpose on earth. He counted her as the most sacred thing to him on earth and thus the symbolism continues in that the man is to protect and provide for a woman.
    Think of Moses when he came down after speaking with the Lord, he veiled his face. Glorious things are veiled, and his face was glorious from the meeting he had with the Lord.

  19. Stephanie Lyman
    Posted August 17, 2009 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    It looks like I am about a year late in posting a comment here, but I just felt so much that I need to comment about the subject of the veil since it is a subject I have been studying in depth for a number of months. I am so happy to see that others have this same understanding of the veil in regards to women.
    No woman in the church ever wants to feel that they are not viewed as equally vital or important in our Father in Heaven’s plan, although it seems that many women feel that way. With scripture passages that seem to relate so often to the men and with men on “center stage”, women often feel invisible and left behind or in the shadows-as if a woman’s glory is only in respect to what she does to glorify her husband. This really bothered me for a very long time and despite having a wonderful husband myself, I felt that there must be more to a woman’s value than I understood. I knew that a loving God would not put women here only to serve and support men while otherwise remaining invisible, and therefore I realized that I wasn’t looking closely enough to really see the truth. I went on a quest, searching the scriptures and asking to be led to the best books relating to this subject. This is when I started reading Hugh Nibley, beginning with Temple and Cosmos. I went on to read Abraham in Egypt, The message of the Joseph smith papyri, and then Mormonism and early Christianity. Along with reading, I attended the temple often and in keeping my eyes and ears wide open, I recognized that although I thought I understood what certain words meant, I was still misinterpreting them. I decided that from then on, I would look up every word I had questions about in a dictionary, even really basic words. This is when my eyes really began to open. I began to understand language in a way I never had before. I dove back into Nibley’s collected works and searched every index for subjects relating to Women, Mothers and Marriage among others, and finally looked up everything relating to the veil. I took notes on everything I read, studied related scriptures and spent hours hunting through footnotes. What I discovered made my hair stand on end. In an effort to be very careful about certain knowledge gained during the course of personal study, I will simply state it this way: If one wishes to understand the full meaning of women and the veil, one must first understand the holy garment and if one is to understand the garment, one must first understand the veil-or curtain- found in the temple. According to Hugh Nibley, the garment represents the veil in the temple, which separates – or shields – one world or kingdom from another. In this respect, when someone is clothed in the holy garment they then become a temple personified, someone who is separate or apart from the world. In Nibley’s “The message of the Joseph Smith papyri”, there is a certain chapter that contains ancient beliefs about Patriarchy and Matriarchy. At one point it is stated that some ancients believed that the woman “makes” the king, that the king would not be the king without his mother- as she is the “embodiment of the throne.” With this idea and the understanding that the holy garment makes a person a temple “personified”, then the wearing of a veil by only women would indicate the personification of the veil itself- or rather what the veil would be shielding, or in other words- protecting. The woman therefore becomes the personification of what is BEHIND the veil. There is more here than meets the eye, because as one questions what lies behind the veil of the temple, the answer still lies deeper. It is not a mere room or what the room represents as far as location goes, but rather what a celestial being is entitled to according to the promises made to Abraham. Understanding the Abrahamic covenant, the veiled woman would therefore represent that covenant PERSONIFIED. The embodiment of exaltation, worlds without end. It now becomes obvious why our loving and perfect Father in Heaven would, in his infinite wisdom, choose to shield and protect and keep this treasure a secret, the embodiment of his power and Glory- our Heavenly Mother. It is this understanding of the veil that changed the way I view women, regardless of whether or not I am right about this symbolism. The feelings I’ve had during this period of searching has settled in my heart an overpowering sense of peace and comfort. I am forever in awe of the miracles that come from the study of the Temple. Thank you for the opportunity to share something-and for this wonderful resource you have provided in an effort to promote further study and growth. I appreciate you!

  20. Melissa
    Posted January 16, 2010 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    Can anyone document where we can find this ancient Hebrew tradition referred to by Mark Greene? I am interested in reading more about this idea. Thank you.
    Mark Greene
    Posted July 22, 2008
    Another point of view concerning women and veils: Part of the ancient Hebrew concept of a betrothed women was that she represented a holy temple.

  21. Patricia
    Posted November 27, 2010 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Stephanie!

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