Lent is almost upon us, as we approach Sexagesima, which means that Ash Wednesday is only a week and a half away. Churches of the Roman rite only veil the statues and icons from Passion Sunday. We in the Sarum tradition veil them, not in violet, but in off-white or ash colour, from the beginning of Lent.
Lenten Array is the characteristic veiling of the altars and statues of churches following English usage, which follows medieval north European precedent. The purple you see in many churches is a Roman Catholic custom which was only followed universally from the nineteenth century. Lenten Array negates colour to a large extent, marking the penitential character of Lent. It is highly effective.
The material is usually unbleached linen, but I found an off-white cotton that looks almost identical to linen, but much cheaper. The red is crimson as used in Passiontide, rather than the scarlet used for Martyrs and Sundays outside Eastertide, Advent and Lent. Unlike the Roman Rite, in the English Use, the statues and icons are veiled not only in Passiontide but also throughout Lent. The altar cross should also be veiled if the figure of Christ shows a triumphant character. The veil bears a black cross.
Vestments for Lent are black or ash grey, and the orphreys are dull red. During Passiontide, the usual liturgical colour is bull’s blood red with black orphreys. Violet was not unknown in pre-Reformation England.
Why is English Lenten Array different from the Roman violet (with violet veils in Passiontide)? I refer the reader to look at this lovely article in the New Liturgical Movement.
I also found this explanation (see Full Homely Divinity – Lenten Customs):
“In [the Sarum] tradition “according to the rules that in all the churches of England be observed, all images [are] to be hid from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day in the morning.” This is called the Lenten Array and it includes a curtain which hides the reredos, a frontal which covers the altar, and veils which cover other statues and pictures in the church. The colour was Lenten white which was natural linen material, sometimes referred to as ash colour. According to An Introduction to English Liturgical Colours, “The explanation of this use of white, which is closely akin to ashen, is ‘in this time of Lent, which is a time of mourning, all things that make to the adornment of the church are either laid aside or else covered, to put us in remembrance that we ought now to lament and mourn for our souls dead in sin, and continually to watch, fast, pray, give alms….,’ wherefore ‘the clothes that are hanged up this time of Lent in the church have painted on them nothing else but the pains, torments, passion, bloodshedding, and death of Christ, that now we should only have our minds fixed on the passion of Christ, by whom only we were redeemed.” This practice made a startling transformation of the church for the whole of the Lenten season so that Easter literally burst forth like the Lord from the tomb when the church was returned to normal state.”