Thursday, May 29, 2008

Thomas Aquinas Chapel Update

We've discussed already Duncan Stroik's work at La Crosse, and I mentioned in passing his in-progress chapel at Thomas Aquinas. I was recently sent a nice little clip of a walk through a very well-done computer rendering of the interior--a handsome, simple fusion of Florentine Renaissance precedents, some Spanish mission elements, and a baldachin reminiscent of St. Peter's--which might be of great interest to our readers. The overall aesthetic is, admittedly, far more restrained than the basilica in La Crosse, but offers an elegant solution to high-quality work within relative budget constraints.

Some of our readers have commented on Mr. Stroik's practice of placing the altar at the head of the chancel close to the crossing in recent projects, and the relative complications this could conceivably cause the celebration of a solemn high mass in the Tridentine rite. It is important to recall these two designs were begun long before the Motu Proprio was even a likely possibility, even before the election of Benedict XVI. I have no doubt Mr. Stroik meant no slight to either form of the Roman liturgy, and I speculate each solution arose from careful consultation with his clients regarding their needs. Architects can certainly shape the direction such planning can take with gentle suggestions but often, prudentially, certain aspects are sometimes beyond their control.

In any case, such an arrangement is not necessarily a novelty, and I have no doubt there are ways to ceremonially work around this situation. There is room for a multiplicity of chancel plans under the aegis of tradition--several right answers as well as several wrong ones. Similar arrangements, with the altar close to the people, appear in Sir Ninian Comper's work at St. Philip, Cosham, and his proposed baldachin for Downside Abbey. Both were intended for oriented worship and owed their planning to very ancient Roman North African models.

Indeed, even the then-Cardinal Ratzinger admitted in The Spirit of the Liturgy that many pre-Conciliar churches possessed altars that had grown somewhat distant from the faithful, for better or worse. I certainly would say my favorite memories of the Traditional Mass come from my experiences in Rome's tiny chapel of San Gregorio, where you could be within whispering-distance of the altar even during a solemn high mass with all three ministers and a fair number of attendants. While I think there is much to be said for deep chancels--especially in greater churches and especially cathedrals--such an arrangement represents a logical attempt to discretely and gently re-connect a contemporary sanctuary arrangement with tradition, a sensitive and pragmatic response to the current politico-liturgical climate.

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