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An altar cloth is used by various religious groups to cover an altar. Because many altars are made of wood and are often ornate and unique, cloth is commonly used to protect the altar surface. In other cases, the cloth serves to beautify the rather mundane construction underneath. Covering an altar with cloth may also be a sign of respect towards the holiness of the altar.
Special cloths (not necessarily made of linen) cover the altar in many Christian churches during services and celebrations, and are often left on the altar when it is not in use. According to the Roman Catholic Church  and the Anglican Communion  the only materials acceptable for use as an altar cloth are linen made from flax or hemp. The cloths historically used by Roman Catholic and Anglican churches are (working from the table of the altar itself up through the layers):
There are also special linens which pertain to the Eucharist:
When the Holy Vessels are prepared on the altar for the Eucharist, the following order is traditionally observed:
In the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion all of the linen cloths are white, including their decoration. Other more decorative cloths are used to decorate the front and back of the altar such as:
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, altar-cloths were commonly used prior to the 4th century. Pope Boniface III is reputed to have passed a decree in the 7th century making the use of altar cloths mandatory. The use of three cloths most likely began in the 9th century and it is obligatory to do so at the present time, for Roman Catholic churches.
Previously, all Christian churches used altar cloths. However, today some churches use no cloths on the altar at all, or maybe only the fair linen. Several variants of the above cloths and linens are also in use. Some churches use a frontlet and no frontal, and this is especially desirable where the altar is richly decorated and the use of a frontal would hide it. Where only a frontlet is used, in many cases the frontlet is permanently attached to the linen cloth, and so the linen cloth must be replaced with the frontlet. Many churches dispense with the cere cloth and the coverlet.
Many churches of the Anglican Communion follow the tradition of the Western church in preparing the altar for the Eucharist. There are varying practices in the Episcopal Church; some do not use the same elaborate altar dressing as the Roman Catholic Church and many other provinces of the Anglican Communion, but usually use only a white fair linen cloth to cover the top of the altar. According to a glossary found on an Episcopal parish's website, the altar cloth they use "...covers the top of the altar and hangs down the sides almost to the floor."  Lutherans also use a single fair linen on their altar, though many use the coloured frontlet or frontal as well.
In the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, the altar is referred to as the Holy Table or Throne (Church Slavonic: Prestol). Although there are variations, normally it will be completely covered on all four sides with three clothes.
The Antimension (Church Slavonic: Antimens) is similar to the Western corporal, though it serves a function similar to an altar stone. It is a piece of silk or linen which has an icon of the Deposition from the Cross depicted on it, and relics of a martyr sewn into it. Unlike the Western corporal, the Antimension is not removed from the Holy Table after the Eucharist is over, but is kept in the center of the Holy Table, covered by the Gospel Book.
The Antimension is wrapped in a slightly larger coth, called the Eiliton to protect it. The Eiliton is often red in color.
The Eastern chalice veil is called the Aër and is quite a bit larger than the chalice veil used in the West. In addition to the Aër, there are two other smaller veils. These are often cross-shaped like the Indítia and one is used to cover the chalice, and one is used to cover the diskos (paten).
There are usually one or two communion cloths (houselling cloths) kept on the Holy Table. These are made of cotton or some similar material that can be easily washed and are often dyed red. They are used like the Western purificator to wipe the lips of the communicants and to dry the chalice and other sacred vessels after the ablutions.
A dust cover is frequently used, either to cover only the Gospel Book or the entire top of the Holy Table. This cover is not, strictly speaking, a liturgical object, but is purely utiitarian. Because it will rest upon the Holy Table it is usually made of a fair material, but not normally as rich as the inditia.
Towels are used to dry the hands after lavabo, though their design and use are not as fixed as in the West. When a bishop washes his hands, a larger and more ornate towel us used to dry his hands.
According to the Bible the Jews were using altar cloths at the time of the Exodus, "...And the table and his furniture, and the pure candlestick with all his furniture, and the altar of incense ... and the altar of burnt offering with all his furniture, and the laver and his foot, and the cloths of service..." (Exodus 31:8-10)
The Jews traditionally used colour, "And of the blue, and purple, and scarlet, they made cloths of service..." which were to be used by the priests inside the tabernacle. Since all of the other items made from fabric for use in the tabernacle were made from fine linen it is reasonable to assume that the cloths of service were also made from linen.(Exodus 39:1) Unfortunately, Exodus does not give the dimensions of the cloths, nor does it indicate how or when the cloths were to be used.
The practice of using altar cloths disappeared when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. The focus of worship turned towards the synagogue and the need for an altar disappeared. There is a table where the Torah scrolls are laid for reading, called a bimah, and another lower table called an amud that is a lectern. The lectern is covered with an embroidered cloth covering the area on which the Torah scroll will rest during the parashah (lection—see Torah reading). The Ark in the synagogue is covered with a cloth called the parokhet to recall the veil which covered the entrance to the Holy of Holies.
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The altar is simply a table or sometimes two tables (placed together along their widths) and butted up against the wall. The table(s) is usually decorated with a cloth, most commonly silk.
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