There are five types of eucharistic veils used in the Coptic church: altar veils, chalice veils, mats, paten and chalice veils, and paten veils.
Altar Veil: The altar veil is a set of cloth coverings and curtains on and around the altar to provide the right protection and veneration during the liturgy. After a church has been consecrated, the altar should at no time be left uncovered. Three cloth coverings are required: (1) a tight-fitting case (Arabic, kiswat al-madhbah) made of linen or cotton reaching to the floor on all four sides; (2) a second covering usually made of silk with embroidered crosses on all sides; between these two coverings is placed the altarboard; and (3) a third and smaller covering to be placed over the oblations immediately after the prayer of thanksgiving until the end of the prayer of reconciliation, when it is lifted by the priest and the deacon. This covering is called the prospherein (from the Greek term prosphora, offering), and represents the stone that was rolled away by the angel from the sepulcher at the resurrection.
The canopy over the altar, upheld by wooden, stone, or marble pillars, used to be surrounded with curtains hanging down from rods, as may still be seen in the Church of Abu Sarjah (Saint Sergius) in Old Cairo. These curtains were drawn at certain times during the liturgy, for example, at the descent of the Holy Spirit and the Fraction Prayers. In modern times, however, such curtains no longer form part of the altar coverings, since the curtains on the iconostasis doors provide the necessary protection.
These coverings, which are also consecrated by means of special prayers, help protect the oblations in the paten and chalice (see EUCHARISTIC VESSELS) so that, should any of their contents inadvertently fall, it can then be properly disposed of, in accordance with church ritual.
In the earlier days of Christianity, when churches were open to heathen attacks at times of persecution, priests used to remove these coverings, together with the altar vessels, and take them to a safe hiding place.
Chalice Veil: This is a mat similar in shape and color to the paten veil, used to cover the chalice in the ark on the altar.
Mat: Liturgical mats are square or circular pieces of fabric, white, pink, or blue in color, with a cross embroidered in the center. They are used for various purposes: to wrap the Lamb (the Body of Christ) and the cruet of wine (the Blood of Christ) during the offertory prayers at the beginning of the liturgy; to cover the Lamb in the paten, and the wine in the chalice, before both are to be covered with the large prospherein on the altar; to be held by the celebrant priest in both hands while saying the prayers of the liturgy.
Mats are distributed to the communicants a short while before administering Holy Communion, so that they can cover their mouths after receiving the Body. But they have to be laid aside before receiving the Blood.
Paten and Chalice Veil: This is a rectangular sheet made of silk, measuring about 6 feet by 4 feet (180 by 120 cm), usually white or red in color, with a large cross embroidered in the center and smaller ones in the corners. At the beginning of the celebration of the liturgy, this veil remains over the oblations on the altar until the prayers of reconciliation have been said, after which it is removed by the celebrant and a deacon. It is then neatly folded and placed on the altar until the end of the liturgy. Then, after the altar vessels have been carefully washed and wiped, it is unfolded and spread once again over the empty vessels on the altar until the next celebration of the liturgy.
Paten Veil: This is a square or circular mat, white or red in color, with a cross embroidered in the center, used to cover the Lamb in the paten. At the beginning of the liturgy, after the celebrant has said the prayer of reconciliation, he removes this veil with his right hand and, holding it, makes the sign of the cross over the people, then the deacons, and lastly himself.
- Burmester, O. H. E. The Egyptian Coptic Church. Cairo, 1967.
- Butler, A. J. The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt, Vol. 2, pp. 30-32. Egypt and Oxford, 1884.