Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Tenebrae Hearse

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The Tenebrae Hearse is the triangular candlestick used in the Tenebrae service. The name is derived, through the French herse, from the Latin herpex, which means a harrow, and is the same as that now used in connection with funeral processions. The funeral hearse was originally a wooden or metal framework, which stood over the bier or coffin and supported the pall. It was provided with numerous prickets to hold burning tapers, and, owing to the resemblance of these prickets to the spikes or teeth of a harrow, was called a hearse. Later on, the word was applied, not only to the construction above the coffin, but to any receptacle in which the coffin was placed. Thus it came to denote the vehicle in which the dead are carried to the grave. Likewise in the case of the Tenebrae hearse, the term was employed because the prickets were supposed to resemble the teeth of a harrow. The triangular candlestick for the Tenebrae dates back at least as far as the seventh century, being mentioned in an ordo of that period published by Mabillon. The number of candles, however, has varied at different times and in different places. Thus Amalarius of Metz speaks of a hearse of twenty-four candles; other references show that hearses of thirty, twelve, nine, and even seven candles were used. At the present day, the Tenebrae hearse is made to bear fifteen candles, all of which, according to the "Caeremoniale Episcoporum" (II, xxii, 4), should be of unbleached wax, though in some churches a white candle is used on the apex of the triangle. During the service, these candles are gradually extinguished, one at the end of each psalm, alternately on either side of the candlestick, beginning with the lowest. Since there are nine psalms in the Matins and five in the Lauds, only the highest candle of the triangle is left burning after the psalms have all been sung. As each of the last six verses of the Benedictus is chanted, one of the six candles on the altar, also of unbleached wax, is extinguished. Likewise, all other lights in the church are put out, except the candle on the summit of the triangle. This candle is then taken from its place, and hidden behind the altar, to be brought forth again, still lighted, at the conclusion of the service. The symbolism of the Tenebrae hearse and its candles is variously explained. The triangle itself is said to be a symbol of the Blessed Trinity; according to some the highest candle represents Christ, while the other fourteen represent the eleven Apostles and the three Maries; again we are told that the centre candle is a type of the Blessed Virgin, who alone believed in the Resurrection, while the gradual extinction of the others symbolizes the waning faith of the Apostles and Disciples. (See TENEBRAE.)

A good account of the Tenebrae hearse, with a discussion on the origin of the custom of gradually extinguishing the candles, may be found in THURSTON, Lent and Holy Week (London, 1904); ROCK, The Church of Our Fathers, ed. HART AND FRERE (4 vols., London, 1903), II, 399 sqq., describes and gives illustrations of the ancient funeral hearse. For the ceremony of extinguishing the candles and other lights, described above, see Caeremoniale Episcoporum (II, xxii, 4 sqq.). Cf. WISEMAN, Four Lectures on Holy Week (Baltimore, 1854); POPE, Holy Week in the Vatican (Boston, 1874); Handbook to Christian and Ecclesiastical Rome: Liturgy (London, 1897).

LEO A. KELLY