I have often spoken of the value of the Benedictine arrangement of the altar, not only for re-orienting our liturgies, but also in assisting in the re-enchantment of a sanctuary and altar generally, by lending a verticality and presence to it. In the same vein, I have often sought to emphasize the importance and the value of employing dignified forms of altar frontals (for indeed, not all altar frontals are created equal -- for more on that, see this post: The History, Development and Symbolism of the Antependium, Altar Frontal, or "Pallium Altaris"). The next photos, I believe, will give some inkling to how an otherwise uninspiring form of altar can be significantly changed by these two elements, with little in the way of cost.
Beyond this however, there are of course other important elements and aspects when a budget is available for more extensive projects. This particular project will give us a chance to look at both.
These particular before and after images come from Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Rhode Island in the United States. Let us consider the before and after.
There are a few things going on here.
The form of the altar is not terribly inspiring, and worse, it has used the all too typical method that far too many parishes seemingly try employ in order to compensate for this: by piling up items and decorations before the altar -- and in this case, also before the ambo. But since I have touched upon this in recent days, I won't belabour that point further.
The carpet is not terribly appealing (and would further have a negative affect upon the music), and the wood backdrop is rather uninspiring. As well, the crucifix, while visible, has little iconographic impact.
A sense of clutter and a corresponding lack of focus are what seem to characterize this sanctuary as we are seeing it.
Now, let us consider the revisions.
Here we are, after the revisions. I think you will agree that there is quite a different sense and feel to the sanctuary. Evidently, the woodwork behind has greater detail and richer colour to it, with a much more traditional character, one which gives emphasis to the tabernacle that is located there. Its gothic styling also draw the eye upward, whereas previously, the old wooden backdrop tended to push downward.
The crucifix, which is now more substantial, more colourful and placed higher, lends to this vertical thrust, further setting itself up nicely for the meditation of the faithful.
The richer colours generally on the walls also bring a warmth to the sanctuary, whereas formerly, it was much more sterile in feel.
The orienting of the celebrant's chair toward the altar is also quite a good (and simple) change in this sanctuary -- also placing focus upon the altar.
Turning our attention to the altar itself, it now employs a dignified altar frontal which not only ties it into the liturgical seasons, but further gives the altar a far greater presence and substantiality within the sanctuary.
The use of the Benedictine arrangement is also effectual in lending the altar a greater substantiality and verticality, and the candlesticks are themselves quite beautiful. (I do have a suggestion about this however. More on that in a moment.)
Another Word on Altar Frontals
It strikes me that some might be tempted to think that I am over-stating the case as regards the extremely positive impact of placing a (good) frontal upon an altar.
In the case of the project in question, one might think that what is making the primary difference are the other aspects of the revision, and that a frontal really wouldn't add to or take much away overall. I wish to address this, particularly for the benefit of our priests who might be considering such a possibility, or who haven't sufficiently considered it.
There is no question that there are a variety of important factors, particularly here in the project we have been considering, but to even the playing field, I'd like to ask you to consider two photographs that show this same altar and sanctuary in its revised, "after" state; the one showing the altar without the antependium, and the other showing it with the antependium.
In other words, both sanctuaries show the same altar with all the other benefits in place; all but the antependium. Consider the difference:
Same Altar and Sanctuary, With Altar Frontal
The key here, again, is not simply that a frontal is used, but that it is a well made frontal, fit to the altar, hangs well, and is made from dignified materials. All of these factors lend the altar a greater presence and substantality.
Some Friendly Suggestions
One friendly suggestion that I would make in this instance, is that for an altar of this small width where the Benedictine arrangement is being employed, candlesticks of about half or two-thirds the height of those seen here would probably be in better proportions to the altar while it is in that "Benedictine" configuration. This is mainly because the altar is so compact. This would also allow for the use of taller candles.
Here is how this might look:
(A theorized revision of the candlestick height)
Of course, this consideration would be different for the altar when setup ad orientem.
If I were to make one other recommendation, and it is one I often make, it is to install a traditional oriental style carpet leading up to the altar from the stairs to the base of the altar. This leaves a freestanding altar less "stranded" in a sanctuary where there isn't a greater height difference between the nave and sanctuary. It also further visually assists in giving that centrality and verticality that we so often speak of.
All said, some very nice revisions to the altar and sanctuary, and one which certainly brings back a sense of continuity with our tradition, as well as an orienting focus.