Tenebrae on Wednesday

Tenebrae candles


The ancient Holy Week service of Tenebrae is now often held on Wednesday and this year there are opportunities to be present online.

‘This arduous service has mystical beauty,’ observed art historian Brian Sewell who described it as ‘the most disturbing and convincing service’, which was also ‘poetic, theatrical and terrible’.

The responses in this service, which developed between the 8th and early 12th century, are sometimes described as ‘ethereal’.

The name Tenebrae comes from the Latin word for darkness or shadows. It is a combination of monastic matins and lauds for Maundy Thursday sung in anticipation.

The focus of the two hour service is a triangular candle stand known as a hearse which is placed before the altar. Hearse is corruption of harrow suggested by the spikes for the candles.

There are normally 15 candles –7 on each sloping side
representing Mary Magdalene, Mary wife of Cleophas and the twelve Apostles whilst on top there is a white candle for Christ. This white candle was first seen at York in the 11th century.

The number of lights has varied with the Sarum Rite (Salisbury) prescribing 24.

The candles, which can be unbleached as at a funeral, are extinguished one by one as each psalm ends recalling a deepening gloom as Christ is abandoned by his followers.

Near the beginning is the singing of the Lamentations in the form of three lessons from the Old Testament’s First Lamentation of Jeremiah (Lamentations 1:1-14).

The sad haunting chant forms part of the Jewish liturgy which would have been heard by Christ.

Near the end of the service there is the Song of Moses which will be heard again on Saturday after the Easter Vigil’s third reading.

During the Benedictus the other lights in church are put out leaving only the white candle at the top of the triangle burning. This light is then hidden behind the altar whilst Psalm 51, usually Allegri’s Miserere, is sung.

Soon after a loud noise is made off-stage like a clap of thunder. This is the Great Noise said to represent confusion, the crowd seeking Christ’ arrest at Gethsemane or an earthquake at Christ’s death or resurrection.

However it is not over as the hidden light is brought back to the pinnacle of the triangle. This represents Christ overcoming death on Easter morning.

St Paul’s Covent Garden is well-known for Tenebrae on Wednesday evening. This year there will be a recording online at 7.30pm.

Winchester Cathedral is making a recording available at 5.30pm.

The online St John’s Smith Square Holy Week Festival is making a Tenebrae recording available online from Wednesday.

Tenebrae can be seen live from All Saints Margaret Street W1 at 7pm.

Trinity Wall Street in New York is broadcasting Tenebrae live at 11pm BST.

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