Friday, December 28, 2007

Adorning God's Altar: Some Thoughts upon Floral Ornamentation on a traditionally oriented Altar

A discussion in one of the comment boxes about the use of gilded lilies upon the altar (in fact, upon the gradines typically) as a form of ornament led me to a consideration on my part of the use of flowers on the altar generally.

The Context of the Discussion and the Rubrics

My main consideration here are for altars that are oriented to the liturgical East and where Mass is celebrated that way. Sometimes these will have gradines, other times not.

What one can do and be in accord with the rubrics will depend also upon which form of the Roman liturgy one is using. In the modern form, GIRM 305 seems to state that that flowers are not to be placed upon the mensa of the altar. Obviously however, if there are parishes using the modern Roman liturgy and an altar is being used which does have gradines (which implies it is traditionally oriented) such flowers can be placed upon the gradines (or "shelves") which are attached behind the altar itself. This would preserve the rubric found in paragraph 305 of the GIRM. Likewise if one is in a parish using the modern liturgy where the older high altar remains in tact and a free-standing altar is used before it, it would seem to me that flowers can be placed upon the old high altar (or its gradines if it has them) and likewise be in accord with the relevant rubrics. Insofar as those conditions are present, the considerations presented here are relevant to the modern form of the Roman liturgy.

In the case of the 1962 Missal, so far as I can see, there is nothing to prevent flowers from being even on the very altar itself, unless there are gradines present in which case they should be used instead. Moreover, tasteful restraint is also called for as is only common sense and this would apply to any form and sanctuaries generally. (Too often "more" is thought of as being better, but that is not always the case.)

Evidently during Lent flowers are avoided, and Advent, while not as strict in this regard, does bear a certain sobriety with it as well.

As I mentioned, this discussion was spurred by a discussion about flowers upon the altar and specifically a question about gilt floral like ornaments.

(Detail from a Vernon Quaintance photograph of the London Oratory showing such gilt floral ornaments)

Having seen such in person, I can tell you that they are quite edifying. That said, there is also something to be said for the use of natural flowers, not the least of which for the reason that they are more affordable and a little more versatile.

The Tasteful Adornment of God's Altar: Some Possible Considerations

This matter of floral ornamentation upon the altar is not, however, simply a matter of haphazardly putting such upon the altar or its gradines. As with anything in the sacred liturgy, there must be some care and consideration put into what will work best and what will not, while also keeping in mind the regulations of the Church.

The following then are simply private suggestions upon what might be a tasteful and edifying use of this option.

In adorning the altar with floral arrangements a few considerations come to mind for me:

1. The proportions of the altar. The flowers should not seem either too large nor too small for the altar, such that they either dominate the altar and its other appointments, nor seem so small as to appear to make the altar under-dressed and an afterthought -- in the case of the latter, no floral ornamentation would be preferable and more dignified.

2. The height of the altar candlesticks and candles. Smaller candlesticks and candles would typically seem to merit arrangements that are proportioned accordingly. Likewise, an altar with tall candlesticks and candles would seem to merit the use of taller altar vases with flowers that have some height to them. There may be some exceptions to this, particularly in the case of extremely short altar candles.

3. The symmetry of the arrangements. Four arrangements (set between the altar candlesticks) seems to work the best from the perspective of some kind of balance and symmetry, though two may also work, but with more difficulty. If two alone are used, it seems to work best if these are put between the two candlesticks closest to the altar cross.

4. The colours of the liturgical vestments and also the colours within the sanctuary generally. In my experience, floral arrangements typically work best when there is a strong co-relation between the liturgical colours used in that church (i.e. for vestments, altar frontals, sanctuary, etc.) and the colours within the floral arrangements -- including other complementary colours. Greenery is always being assumed as well of course. (In the case of the use of liturgical green, the greenery can help accomplish this tie in.)

The most tasteful arrangements I have seen either include flowers all of one colour (plus the greenery), though possibly in multiple varieties of flowers to add interest in that way, or possibly one dominant colour with one or two others that are complementary (plus the greenery). Which will work best is tied to the unique considerations listed above, and will vary from place to place, season to season.

Examples of these Principles in Action

It can be difficult to describe such considerations, so I have searched through the FSSP photo album to show some examples of the floral adornment of the altar that I think works quite well and which may show examples of these suggestions in action.

In the following two pictures from St-Eugene St-Cecile in Paris, France, we can see an example where a unity of colour in combination with more than one variety of flower was used to great effect. Sometimes one colour (combined with the greenery) is better than multiple colours, and in this case, they well tie into both the liturgical vestments and the sanctuary surrounding them. The height of this altar with its candles seemed to demand some height as well to the flowers present on it, to keep it proportioned accordingly.

The height of next altar warranted the fullness of the arrangements, and the silver coloured candlesticks and white marble together with the green vestments made the use of ample amounts of greenery and white flowers a good choice. The addition of small yellow flowers to coincide with the vestment trim might have made it even better; another alternative would have been ample greenery with yellow flowers and small white one's. In point of fact, in the case of green vestments, full amounts of greenery, any number of other colour combinations would have also worked quite well here:

This next photo is a very good example of the consideration of the colours in the vestments as well as those surrounding the altar.

The vestments are green but filled with other colour highlights and the stained glass windows above are likewise quite a dominant influence in this sanctuary. As such, the extreme variety of colours in the arrangements work well here where they might not work so well in other places.

Likewise, while these flowers would be too short (on their own at least) on the altars above, they work reasonably well in proportions in this case, though they perhaps might have been even better if they were just a little less full:

The next two pictures come from two different sanctuaries and both show good examples of proportion considerations as well as relationship of the colours of the flowers to the colours of the vestments.

In the second picture, I would not have chosen to put flowers up behind the altar cross -- and if they are on the tabernacle, they should not be I don't believe.

In the first picture, the colours and the size are well done such that the altar candles and altar itself are not overpowered:

Some final pictures from one of my favourite churches, the church of San Simeon Piccolo in Venice, Italy. The flowers on the gradines here are examples which I think also have a tasteful effect:


Of course, flowers must be put in something and ideally keeping in theme with the liturgical nature of such adornments, it would seem most ideal to have brass or silver coloured liturgical vases to put such arrangements in. You can see such in the first Venetian picture above, and here is another example, complete with an IHS monogram on the front:

Short of the availability of such, plain, non-etched and non-cut, clear glass vases that mimic the style and form of the above in some fashion would seem to be the next best option, being noble, tasteful and beautiful.

Plants still in planters, rather than cut flowers and greenery, would seem best to avoid -- and a reference I found in the rubrics for the usus antiquior seems to suggest such should be avoided for the altar.

Flowers as a form of Domestic Liturgical Apostolate

It seems to me there is also an opportunity here for people, and particularly families, to also connect the sacred liturgy and the altar of sacrifice in their domestic life.

If you have the property to do so, one very edifying practice might be for families, during the growing season, to grow certain varieties of flowers (and perhaps such could be discussed with the priest or sacristan) that are specifically intended to be cultivated for Feasts of the church to be arranged to adorn the altar. This would be a marvelous opportunity for parents with children particularly, and from a liturgical perspective, it would also be a practical way to offset the costs of such.

Concluding Thoughts

Evidently, as I said in the beginning, these are simply personal considerations and suggestions based upon what I have found to work liturgically and what I have found does not. You may take them for what they are worth.

The use of flowers for the adornment of the altar seem to me to be an edifying practice that ties the beauty of God's handiwork to the creations and works of beauty that mankind offers in return to God.

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