Monday, September 25, 2006

A too-forgotten ornament of the altar: the altar frontal

When one thinks of ornamenting the altar I would daresay most would think of the candlesticks on the altar, the altar cross, flowers used for solemnities, or one might even think of the materials used in constructing the altar and so on. These are all very important things that should be taken seriously.

However, it seems to me that there is a particularly liturgical and edifying ornament which is too often forgotten: that of the altar frontal, or antependium as it is also known.

I say this is a particularly liturgical ornament because such frontals are typically changed to match the liturgical colour of the feast or time in the cycle of liturgical seasons. In that sense, the altar frontal might be thought of as the vesture of the altar, just as the chasuble or dalmatic is for the priest or deacon, which, of course, likewise change in accordance with our liturgical cycle.

The origins of the antependium were described in the Catholic Encyclopedia as follows:

"Its origin may probably be traced to the curtains or veils of silk, or of other precious material, which hung over the open space under the altar, to preserve the shrines of the saints usually deposited there. Later, these curtains were converted into one piece of drapery which covered the whole front of the altar and was suspended from the table of the altar."

There is of course an entire theology behind that which is veiled. We veil that which is sacred and holy. This aspect was not absent from the old covenant, and in the Christian liturgy we see the veiling of the paten and chalice, of the tabernacle and hanging pyx's, of the ciboria within the tabernacle and of course even the priest himself in his "casula". So too then do we see the altar and the relics there also veiled, not only by canopies but by these frontals.

From a practical dimension, priests and parishioners who find their altars less than edifying will find this a simple and fairly cost effective manner in giving their altars that traditional sense of dignity and form that they might otherwise lack. Such frontals needn't be masterworks of embroidery. Even the simplest brocade with gold trim can make a most edifying ornament that draws us further into the liturgical cycle and which highlights the altar to its proper dignity and centrality in our parishes.

Let me qualify that I am most certainly thinking of traditional altar frontals in this regard.

But to give you a case in point, allow me to show you an altar frontal used in an Anglican Church in Canada, whose altar of wood is not of itself without some edification in design. But consider the altar with and without the frontal:

Without frontal:

With Altar Frontal:

There is a dignity to this ornament of the altar which I hope and pray will be rediscovered in more of our churches, both Tridentine and Reform of the Reform. Recent pictures from the high altar at Chiesa Nuova and from Merton College Chapel also, I think, demonstrate the beauty and propriety of this ornament.

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