Friday, January 25, 2008

Bringing Verticality and Presence back to Free-standing Altars

One of the liturgical aspects that has arisen following the Council has been the predilection for free-standing altars. Free-standing altars are not new of course, but in the West development had occurred where it became most common to see altars fixed either to a reredos, the apse wall, or gradines were attached to the back of the altar for candlesticks, cross and tabernacle to be situated.

One of the great benefits of these forms was that it easily allowed for some manner of architectural or ornamental decoration that made the altar a clear point of central and dramatic focus. Reredos' would grow up from the altar, rather like branches coming forth from the trunk of a tree. Where there was no reredos, one would often find large paintings forming the backdrop. Common to both of these, and also altars which simply had gradines attached to it, tall candlesticks and cross further gave the altar that same point of focus.

Some examples of these three variants:

Common to each of these is that there is a strong vertical ascendancy coming forth from the altar. One of the great problems with the way in which freestanding altars are often approached today is precisely that they more often than not lack this verticality for the altar cross has often been removed -- or made short -- and even the candlesticks are often not tall, or if they are, they are placed upon the floor. Beyond that, they are also placed on the same level as the rest of the sanctuary (or one mere step up) rather than rising up a few steps which thereby enthroned the altar.

What happens as a result is that the dramatic presence of the altar is reduced, and it can often seem to be orphaned in a sanctuary.

Consider the difference between these free-standing altars, pictured below, and those pictured above. Please give particular consideration to the leftmost altar in the pictures above, which is most proximate to the free-standing altars below, and consider the difference.

This problem can be mitigated somewhat by the presence of a former altar that preserves the features shown in the first images. What occurs is that the free-standing altar inherits the verticality from the former high altar. The problem is, this is not always present and it really is an illusion that doesn't address the deeper issue; it's a solution that tends to be more accidental and circumstantial.

If one is considering "workarounds", the presence of ornamental altar frontals also can be of help, and most certainly the presence of tall altar candlesticks and cross upon the altar itself in the Benedictine, or Roman basilica, arrangement.

But again, these are merely workarounds to otherwise unsatisfying architectural arrangements.

Certainly a more structural solution is to have the altar again to be raised up a few steps from the rest of the sanctuary. Doing this and adding the tall Benedictine altar candles and cross -- as well an altar frontal -- will go a very long way and may solve the matter if done well. However, for the those who want to go to another level with this, the tradition presents another possibility that all the more captures the significant vertical thrust that was accomplished by reredos's and the like, bringing back the grandiosity of the Catholic altar and sanctuary as it developed while using a free-standing altar. This solution comes in the form of the "canopy" over the altar, sometimes referred to as a "baldacchino" or "ciborium magnum".

The most famous example, of course, is St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, but permit me to show you a few other examples just in the city of Rome itself:

Here is a little bit of what the Catholic Encyclopedia has to say about it:

"The early history of the baldachinum is obscure, but it probably originated in the desire to give to the primitive altar table a more dignified and beautiful architectural setting. The arcosolium altars of the catacombs perhaps foreshadow this tendency. With the construction or adaptation of the larger church edifices of the fourth century, the baldachinum became their architectural centre, emphasizing the importance of the sacrificial table as the centre of Christian worship. Thus, while the altar retained its primitive simplicity of form and proportions, the baldachinum gave it the architectural importance which its surroundings demanded. By its dais-like effect, it designated the altar as a throne of honour. It served also the practical purpose of supporting, between its columns, the altar-curtains, while from its roof were suspended lamps, vases, richly ornamented crowns, and other altar decorations. The summit was surmounted by the altar-cross."

It seems to me that this is an option that is all too-often forgotten, but one which should be explored more.

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