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The crucifix is the principal ornament of the altar. It is placed on the altar to recall to the mind of the celebrant, and the people, that the Victim offered on the altar is the same as was offered on the Cross. For this reason the crucifix must be placed on the altar as often as Mass is celebrated (Constit., Accepimus of Benedict XIV, 16 July, 1746). The rubric of the Roman Missal (xx) prescribes that it be placed at the middle of the altar between the candlesticks, and that it be large enough to be conveniently seen by both the celebrant and the people (Cong. Sac. Rit., 17 September, 1822). If for any reason this crucifix is removed, another may take its place in a lower position; but in such cases it must always be visible to all who assist at Mass (ibid.). We remarked above that a crucifix must be placed on the altar during Mass. To this rule there are two exceptions:

  • when the Crucifixion is the principal part of the altarpiece or picture behind the altar. (We advisedly say the principal part of the altarpiece or picture, for if the picture represents a saint, e.g. St. Francis Xavier holding a crucifix in his hand, or St. Thomas kneeling before the cross, even if the cross be large, such a picture is not sufficient to take the place of the altar-crucifix -- see Ephem. Lit., 1893, VII, 408) and
  • when the Most Blessed Sacrament is exposed.
In both these cases the regular crucifix may be placed on the altar ; in the latter the local custom is to be followed (Cong. Sac. Rit., 2 September, 1741), and if the crucifix is kept on the altar it is not incensed (29 November, 1738). From the, first Vespers of Passion Sunday to the unveiling of the cross on Good Friday, even if a solemn feast occur during this interval, the altar-crucifix is covered with a violet veil (Cong. Sac. Rit., 16 November, 1649), except during High Mass on the altar at which Mass is celebrated on Holy Thursday when the veil is of white material (Cong. Sac. Rit., 20 December, 1783), and on Good Friday, at the altar at which the function takes place, when the veil may be of black material. This is the custom in Rome (Martinucci, Van der Stappen, and others). From the beginning of the adoration of the Cross, on Good Friday, to the hour of None, on Holy Saturday inclusively, all, even the bishop, the canons and the celebrant, make a simple genuflection to the cross (Cong. Sac. Rit., 9 May, 1857; 12 September, 1857). At all other times during the year a simple genuflexion is made to the cross, even when the Blessed Sacrament is not kept in the tabernacle, during any function, by all except the bishop, the canons of the cathedral, and the celebrant (Cong. Sac. Rit., 30 August, 1892). The altar-crucifix need not be blessed ; but it may be blessed by any priest, by the formula "pro imaginibus" (Rituale Rom., tit. viii, cap. xxv). It may be well to note that if, according to the Renaissance style of architecture, the throne is a permanent structure above the tabernacle, the altar-crucifix may never be placed under the canopy under which the Blessed Sacrament is publicly exposed, or on the corporal which is used at such exposition (Cong. Sac. Rit., 2 June, 1883). It is probable that the custom of placing a crucifix on the altar did not commence long before the sixth century. Benedict XIV (De Sacrificio Missae, P. I, 19) holds that this custom comes down from the time of the Apostles. However, the earliest documentary evidence of placing a cross on the altar is canon III of the Council of Tours, held in 567: "Ut corpus Domini in Altari, non in armario, sed sub crucis titulo componatur". Mariano Armellini (Lezioni di Archeologia Sacra) tells us that the early Christians were not accustomed to publicly expose the cross for fear of scandalizing the weak, and subjecting it to the insults of the pagans, but in its stead used symbols, e.g. an anchor, a trident, etc. A simple cross, without the figure of Christ, was fixed on the top of the ciboria which covered the altars.

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