Riddel Posts

One of the standard features that identifies a church sanctuary as “English Use” is the appearance of a particular feature called a riddel post. These are two posts that stand at the north and south horns of the altar and have curtains (the “riddels” from whence the name comes) that extend back to the dorsal, the curtain mounted on the back wall right above the altar.

Like many of the features that adorn the English/Sarum Uses, this wasn’t actually a distinctively English characteristic. Instead that which is “English” tends to be that which is 1) pre-Baroque and 2) common to many of the diocesan uses in England and parts of northwestern Europe, especially France.

Recall that the English Use people of the later half of the 19th an early twentieth century were arguing a position against two different opponents. On one hand, they rejected the opinion of their Romanizing Ritualist colleagues that proper “catholic” expression should mimic the aesthetic of the Roman churches of the day which were Baroque or Rococo. On the other hand, they were arguing against the Low Church party who decried any ornamentation as a form of Popery. The English Use position was that, contra both the Romanizers and the neo-Puritans, they were the only ones who were holding properly to the rubrics of the Prayer Book since they were conforming their chancels to the Ornaments Rubric of the BCP which stated that chancels and vestments should be as they were in the second year of Edward the Sixth. So, they were in essence reviving a Renaissance (perhaps even early Mannerist?) aesthetic.

What prompted this post was the new background at the Breviary. For Lent, I’ve chosen to shift away from the leaves from the Little Office of the BVM that I’ve had up and I substituted some pages from the Office of the Dead. During today’s collect my attention was somehow caught by the image of the funeral mass and I realized that the altar in the picture had a nice set of riddels and riddel posts. As a point of reference, this image was taken from the famous Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry and is probably the work of the Dutch Limbourg brothers or someone in their workshop from around 1416. (It’s from the WikiMedia Commons and is believed to not be under copyright.)

Here’s the image. Notice two things: first, the riddels and their posts. Second, note the directions that the angels are facing atop the riddels. Normally they face outward towards the congregation whereas here they face one another. A friend and I had been discussing whether angels facing were an authentic pose and, if so, what that indicated in terms of the classical authenticity of Dearmer’s “open position” where the deacon and subdeacon face both the celebrant and one another. This image is indeed a period attestation of both inward facing angels and, presumably, the open position.

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About Derek Olsen

I'm a layman within the Episcopal Church with a PhD in New Testament and an interest in most things medieval, monastic, and liturgical. My chief job is keeping up with my priestly wife and our two awesome kids. In addition to that, I earn a living, run the St Bede's Breviary, listen to loud goth/industrial music, and do some stuff for the church. I currently serve as Secretary to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music where I'm also co-chair of the Calendar committee and chair of the Digital Publications committee.
This entry was posted in Liturgy, Medieval Stuff, Sarum. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Riddel Posts

  1. Isaac says:

    Are the D/SD in ‘open position’ or in a triangle position for the consecration? Hard to tell where things go before perspective was discovered. The Dominicans stand in something akin to open position for the Agnus Dei, standing on the footpace facing inwards towards the celebrant.

  2. Derek Olsen says:

    I wondered about that myself, Isaac, and decided that it was the consecration given that they’re kneeling on the same step.

  3. Joe Rawls says:

    The angels remind me of the seraphim on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant. Were 15th century Catholics that familiar with the ritualistic texts of the OT?

  4. Derek Olsen says:

    Quite, Joe. Their understanding of the priesthood was grounded in a typological understanding of the priesthood of the Old Law which accounts for some of the specific canon law around priests. (And is one of their arguments against the ordination of women.)

  5. John-Julian Swanson says:

    I have always thought that the whole purpose of the riddle set-up was to reduce the cold drafts…and I always assumed that what you refer to as ” the dorsal, the curtain mounted on the back wall” was not on the back wall at all, but was free standing — and if you look closely at the illustration you provided, I think you will see that the “dorsal” does not seem to be “against the back wall” (note how it stands in front of the windows!).
    For once, I have absolutely no expert or historical citation to provide — one of those (few) things I never got around to questioning, and based, I guess, on the principle that even most silly liturgical oddities sprang from originally practical needs or purposes.

    • I don’t know whether anyone here would have seen this post at Vitrearum but it finishes with an altar with riddel curtains, and again, the dorsal is close to but not, as far as I can tell, against the wall. Of course this is current, not sixteenth-century usage, but maybe we’re splitting hairs anyway.

  6. Steve Rice says:

    Very interesting. I remember hearing a debate at Christ Church, Bronxville as whether or not the angels were facing the “right” direction. If memory serves, they were facing each other.

  7. ambly says:

    Facing or not, there ought to be 4 posts, not 2. Yes there is the practical matter regarding drafts, however, the concept of the “veil of the temple” ought not be discounted completely. and numerous ciboria still extant show that curtains were hung from each of the columns.

    In our time, riddels are still being removed to encourage vesus populum.

  8. Pingback: Weekly Round-up 4 « Contagions

  9. Finn Froding says:

    Yes, a very telling picture, and it raises two of the points mentioned in the reports on the Sunday morning mass at Christ Church. It confirms the “open position” of the ministers, which is also illustrated in the Alcuin Club booklet “Ceremonial Pictured in Photographs [1912?] as the position at the Sursum Corda. http://anglicanhistory.org/alcuin/pictured.html As for the figures on the riddel posts, these appear to be facing inward as well, like those at Christ Church. I believe this was true also at the “English Use” parish of St. John’s, Roxbury Crossing, before the fire that destroyed the church building. Yes, riddels have been removed for “versus populum” but Christ Church strongly states their reason for rejecting versus populum. From their web site:

    ” Facing East ( http://www.ccbny.org/?page_id=5 )
    From very early on in our faith’s liturgical life the orientation of the church (the people, the Body of Christ) was symbolic of our expectation and belief that Christ will come again to gather us and bring us home. We symbolize the unity of that heavenly community through our unity of direction in prayer – congregation, choir and clergy all face east (defined as toward the altar in churches that don’t meet the geographical requirements). “

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