Monday, November 27, 2006

Liturgical Thunder from Down Under

An Unfortunate Renovation Afoot at St. Mary's, Sydney

Sydney possesses one of the few truly spectacular bits of the Gothic Revival on the Australian continent. Its massive cathedral was begun by the Puginesque convert William Wilkinson Wardell after fire claimed the previous church on the site in 1865, and not fully completed until the turn of the following century. At the moment, the rich and coherent fabric of the edifice is at risk through a well-intentioned but essentially misguided renovation of the chancel planned to coincide with the Pope's visit for World Youth Day 2007.

A view of the Cathedral's current main altar, in the context of its historic chancel.

Unlike most previous cathedral renovations, such as the complete liturgical Armageddon that Archbishop Weakland dropped on Milwaukee before his departure, the unfortunate of the design is not immediately apparent. Nor is it the result of a patently heterodox agenda; the theology behind it is hardly of the radical variety. Indeed, it's rather painful for me to criticize the design at all, being under the aegis of one of my personal heroes, Vox Clara's very own ex-footballer-turned-Cardinal, George Pell, who I once had the honor to meet at a reception in the headquartes of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre.

Let me make it clear that my remarks here are not a criticism of Cardinal Pell, this noble man, this strong and great prelate, who has toiled long and hard for the sake of the Church in the Antipodes. This work should not be construed as a comment on his long history of service, his unimpeachable orthodoxy, or his strong support of the proper translation of the Mass. Nor should that Most Eminent Lord be blamed for the individual, unsupervised choices of his designers. Any man who knows Cardinal Pell's work knows his devotion to the liturgy, both in its present-day and classical forms.

That being said, the choices being made in His Eminence's name, if not by him, are unfortunate. In the end, the renovation remains unnecessary. However, to undertake a renovation of a historic cathedral on short notice, and particularly during a time where the fate of the liturgy is once again up for grabs, seems at the very least imprudent. The problems of the design stem not from bad theology but from a misapprehension of the architect's original intention and a general inability on the part of the designers, rather than their patron, to grasp the essence of Gothic revival. Cardinal Pell deserves better from those he has charged to undertake this design.

Essentially, the problem is that there is no problem to solve. Nothing needs to be done to this church to make it perfect for the Pope's arrival.

View towards the sanctuary with the east window.

At first glance, the design apparently has much to recommend it. A broad new chancel, parclose screens, an altar with a proper footpace, and a new bronze ambo to be designed by a well-known artist, Nigel Boonham. However, God is quite typically in the details, and the details are sadly insensitive to the context they've been placed in here.

The wall-like partition of the new choirstalls risks relegating the old high altar to unjustifiable obscurity.

The original focus of the church, the window and its high altar, are poorly served by the massively beefed-up choirstalls that sever any connection between the old high altar and the new freestanding one. The placement of the choir behind the altar where clergy attending in quire formerly sat is a dubious liturgical proposition at best. The massive wainscoted stall-ends only succeed in turning the old chancel into an irrelevant appendix. Should the liturgical climate change in the near future, the new choirstalls would render the hemmed-in old high altar virtually impossible to use.

The proposed Altar of the Entombed Christ in perspective: the breadth of the altar, as well as its minimal footpace, suggest a future traffic-flow problem to be inevitable.

Another puzzling detail are the crude screens that surround the old ambulatory. I am, by nature, fond of the mystery brought by screens and liturgical curtains, but these new additions run counter to the openness prized by Wardell's design. They're Disneyland pseudo-Gothic. Up to a certain point one should applaud the designers for trying a little, at least; but we are reaching a stage in the liturgical renewal when more really has to be demanded from our architects. If screens are deemed necessary, a very handsome and transparent effect could be achieved by the use of gilded and wrought iron in harmony with the existing altar-rail. Proper seating within the chancel should also be provided for concelebrants and assisting clergy, and this should be considered first before the implementation of screens of any sort.

The basic outline of a screened chancel with substantial choirstalls could be achieved without destroying the original context by substituting iron for wood and adaptively re-using the existing benches with new pew-ends and a discrete stepped base that would leave enough of a passage between the main and high altars to create an appropriate visual link. Any new choirstalls should be designed to minimize the amount of platform-space in order to best show off the chancel's splendid mosaic floor, one of the cathedral's undoubted treasures.

Plan of proposed chancel re-ordering. The excessively narrow connection between the old high altar and the new main altar effectively makes any future ad orientem masses virtually impossible.

In addition to the layout of the new chancel, the iconography of the altar and ambo and their relationship to the sanctuary's other furnishings is muddled. One might well question the need for a freestanding altar at all; at the very least, the existing main altar has the virtue of being properly vested in a frontal, with an accompanying crucifix and candlesticks of appropriate substance atop the mensa.

The new design is to be applauded for including a predella--a broad platform or step round the base--but nonetheless this footpace is entirely too small to be of real liturgical use. It does not permit the circling of the altar at the incensation, and would make any attempt to celebrate ad orientem masses impossible. The extreme width of the altar, while otherwise unlikely to excite comment, is likely to cause problems of liturgical traffic-flow in the narrow sanctuary.

The altar proposed is liturgically unsuitable.

Decorated sculptural altars are already difficult to properly vest with antependia in the accepted liturgical fashion; furthermore, if the conceptual art is true to life, the abstracted sculptural decoration, especially the pillars and the mandorla around the figure of the Dead Christ, lacks the subtlety of similar works in the church.

The Pelican Ambo: a baffling exercise in misplaced and unduly novel symbolism.

The Pelican ambo, while likely to be beautiful piece of metalwork, nonetheless is equally symbolically awkward, and, as with most modern ambos, misnamed, as it is essentially a glorified reading-desk. The pelican's Passion imagery is alien to the long iconographic tradition of ambos. Furthermore, the iconography--which depicts a family of pelicans representing a Christian family living under the Gospel--shifts the emphasis from the proclamation of the Word to our reception of it, and exchanges the Christological symbolism of the pelican for a more horizontal one. Even when one sets aside the question of symbolic propriety, the Christian pelican is a creature of myth and legend and to depict it with the gawky zoology of the real thing divests it of its sacrificial majesty.

The cathedra: architecturally naive and not in line with current rubrics.

One final criticism concerns the cathedra. The proposed canopy has since been discontinued, and while I am quite fond of canopies, one has to face up to facts and admit they're no longer allowed. More to the point, putting a canopy over the bishop's chair when the altar stands naked, would be a remarkable display of symbolic insensitivity; in this instance, it can be chalked up to the superficial sort of Gothic being practiced by the renovators. (Sadly, a tester over the new main altar is probably also impossible.)

It would also be better, to stress the linkage of the cathedra to the altar, for it to be made of stone. Wooden cathedras are appropriate in churches where the choirstalls seat a cathedral chapter, but St. Mary's has none, and since the chancel is likely to house a robed lay choir, a wooden throne would be unsuitable.

Cardinal Pell is a great and good man, and one of the lights of the Church under the Southern Cross. He should not be blamed for these bad artistic choices, and indeed, for having the vision to consider Gothic forms at all in his renovation, he should be thanked. However, the Cathedral does not really need any changes at this point in history, and indeed, may be rendered redundant in a few decades. If the design must continue, the designers must more fully the challenge they have been given and seriously study the Gothic that Wardell derived so much beauty from in his original project.

The design has been undertaken at breakneck speed, to spruce up the church for the arrival of the Vicar of Christ. Still, this does not mediate the lesser quality of the work proposed, nor the lack of proper attention paid by the designers to certain liturgical questions. In this time of continued liturgical flux, my advice to the Cathedral is to wait a century or two, see which way the priest is facing, and then start worrying about redecorating. Otherwise the work may prove to be an intrusive addition to this most historic of Australia's precious and small patrimony of church architecture. Cardinal Pell, his cathedral, and Australia, deserve better.

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