An occasion on which a Western woman is likely to wear a veil is on her white wedding day. Brides once used to wear their hair flowing down their back at their wedding to symbolise their virginity. Veils covering the hair and face became a symbolic reference to the virginity of the bride thereafter. Often in modern weddings, the ceremony of removing a face veil after the wedding to present the groom with a virgin bride is skipped, since many couples have already entered into conjugal relations prior to their wedding day – the bride either wears no face veil, or it is lifted before the ceremony begins, but this is not always the case. Further, if a bride is a virgin, she often wears the face veil through the ceremony, and then either her father lifts the veil, presenting the bride to her groom, or the groom lifts the veil to symbolically consummate the marriage, which will later become literal. Brides who are virgins may make use of the veil to symbolize and emphasize their status of purity during their wedding however, and if they do, the lifting of the veil may be ceremonially recognized as the crowning event of the wedding, when the beauty of the bride is finally revealed to the groom and the guests. It is not altogether clear that the wedding veil is a non-religious use of this item, since weddings have almost always had religious underpinnings, especially in the West. Veils, however, had been used in the West for weddings long before this. Roman brides, for instance, wore an intensely flame-colored and fulsome veil, called the flammeum, apparently intended to protect the bride from evil spirits on her wedding day. Later, the so-called velatio virginum became part of the rite of the consecration of virgins, the liturgical rite in which the church sets aside the virgin as a sacred person who belongs only to Christ.
In the 19th century, wedding veils came to symbolize the woman’s virginity and modesty. The tradition of a veiled bride’s face continues even today wherein, a virgin bride, especially in Christian or Jewish culture, enters the marriage ritual with a veiled face and head, and remains fully veiled, both head and face, until the ceremony concludes. After the full conclusion of the wedding ceremony, either the bride’s father lifts the veil giving the bride to the groom who then kisses her, or the new groom lifts her face veil in order to kiss her, which symbolizes the groom’s right to enter into conjugal relations with his bride.
The lifting of the veil was often a part of ancient wedding ritual, symbolizing the groom taking possession of the wife, either as lover or as property, or the revelation of the bride by her parents to the groom for his approval.
A bride wearing a typical wedding veil
In Judaism, the tradition of wearing a veil dates back to biblical times. According to the Torah in Genesis 24:65, Isaac is brought Rebekah to marry by his father Abraham’s servant. It is important to note that Rebekah did not veil herself when traveling with her lady attendants and Abraham’s servant and his men to meet Isaac, but she only did so when Isaac was approaching. Just before the wedding ceremony the badeken or bedeken is held. The groom places the veil over the bride’s face, and either he or the officiating Rabbi gives her a blessing. The veil stays on her face until just before the end of the wedding ceremony – when they are legally married according to Jewish law – then the groom helps lift the veil from off her face.
The most often cited interpretation for the badeken is that, according to Genesis 29, when Jacob went to marry Rachel, his father in law Laban tricked him into marrying Leah, Rachel’s older and homlier sister. Many say that the veiling ceremony takes place to make sure that the groom is marrying the right bride. Some say that as the groom places the veil over his bride, he makes an implicit promise to clothe and protect her. Finally, by covering her face, the groom recognizes that he his marrying the bride for her inner beauty; while looks will fade with time, his love will be everlasting. In some ultra-orthodox traditions the bride wears an opaque veil as she is escorted down the aisle to meet her groom. This shows her complete willingness to enter into the marriage and her absolute trust that she is marrying the right man. In Judaism, a wedding is not considered valid unless the bride willingly consents to it.
In ancient Judaism the lifting of the veil took place just prior to the consummation of the marriage in sexual union. The uncovering or unveiling that takes place in the wedding ceremony is a symbol of what will take place in the marriage bed. Just as the two become one through their words spoken in wedding vows, so these words are a sign of the physical oneness that they will consummate later on. The lifting of the veil is a symbol and an anticipation of this.
In Christian theology, St. Paul’s words concerning how marriage symbolizes the union of Christ and His Church may underlie part of the tradition of veiling in the marriage ceremony. In this respect, veiling may signify the waters of baptism, with the wedding dress (& veil) being but a larger version of the First Communion dress (& veil), which in turn is but a larger version of a baby’s baptismal garment, which is the distinguishing garment of all Christians, signifying the presence of Sanctifying Grace and the Holy Spirit. At an even deeper level, the waters of baptism themselves symbolize the waters of death,which must be accepted in faith, and passed through, before truly complete joy can be experienced inHeaven. In this respect, the wedding veil is a reminder to the bride that she is dying to her previous life, and being admitted to a new kind of life, symbolic of eternal life in Heaven. For this reason, nuns are veiled—often with a black veil—with the veil not merely signifying the veil of death, but actually—in some real way—being that veil, since they will one day be buried in it. The wedding veil is also a symbol of the veil of faith in Jesus Christ, the Heavenly bridegroom, that He will one day come and redeem our mortal bodies, by the lifting of that veil, so that we shall see Him face to face in Heaven. Lastly, the wedding dress, either with, or even without a veil, may be a symbol of the radiance of the resurrected body in Heaven, which will not be a mortal body, but which will have been changed “in the twinkling of an eye” into something new that we cannot now even imagine.