Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Remarks on an Interesting Altar

This high altar by the Gothicist Sir Ninian Comper stands in the (Anglican) parish church of Bishop's Lydeard in Somerset. Rather curiously, it appears to have been adapted for versus populum celebration by pulling it away from the wall without altering the medieval riddel-posts and curtains, boxing in the celebrant in a very strange way. In such a situation, the dossal and posts now fulfil no true liturgical function and it would have really made more sense to leave the altar be. That being said, if one ignores the odd and unsubtly-adapted riddel-post arrangement, this arrangement suggests a good many ideas to a parish with an existing freestanding altar.

First, it is raised up on the highest step in the sanctuary, while more importantly, it is still covered by the enormous tester or canopy, serving to mark the idea of the altar's sanctity and giving it a prominence often lost in many island sanctuaries in today's churches. Lastly, the cross and candles are placed between priest and people in a way reminiscent of that called for by the then-Cardinal Ratzinger in The Spirit of the Liturgy, as a method for creating a sense of inner Godward orientation when the eastward position of prayer is physically or politically impossible. The east window surrounded by painted seraphs also serves to give shape to the solar imagery inherent in such symbolism.

One should also take note of the altar's cloth frontal, the sanctuary lamps and the cushions for the missal (though the Roman rite currently requires only one cushion or missal-stand rather than the two seen here) which make it both easier to read and also serve to give dignity to the words the book contains. While in a new church with a freestanding altar there is no real equivalent place for riddels, the overall layout of this modified sanctuary suggests a series of easy fixes for an otherwise badly-arranged church.

Photo from Flickr.

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