Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Seasonal and Festal Decoration of Altars and Sanctuaries

A reader sends in the following question which I wanted to open up to our readership:

This is the season when sanctuaries are decorated with dead branches, rocks and Sand. From my impressions the sanctuary is to represent HEAVEN and should never look like a desert.

On the other hand, I have also seen some traditional churches which have far too many flowers around the altar.

What are the criteria for seasonal decoration? and are there any documents that speak on this topic.

I shall leave the specific question of Lenten decorations to the comments, but I would like to pass a brief comment upon the use of flowers and other items as they apply to sanctuary decoration generally, and particularly in relation to the altar.

The all-too-common practice of placing flowers or other objects (including statues and images) before a versus populum oriented altar is, it seems to me, problematic on a variety of levels. The problem is worsened all the more so when these items are multiplied in quantity -- which is often the case.

There are practical angles upon this, including the matter of the difficulty it can introduce at the incensation of the altar, as well the fact that it excludes the possibility of ad orientem. But outside of practicalities, there is also a matter of principle.

The altar is the central point of architectural and liturgical focus in our churches. Accordingly, making it a backdrop by placing flowers or other items before it, or even by crowding these things immediately around it (which is often another problem seen today when altars are being setup to be used both versus populum and ad orientem) seems liturgically less than ideal.

In both instances, I would propose that these arrangements tend to distract from or obscure that centrality. Geoffrey Webb in The Liturgical Altar speaks of
...the supreme importance which the Church attaches to the altar in her liturgy. Not only does she consider it the central focus of the whole liturgy, the raison d’être of the building in which its stands ... not only does she look upon it as the sacrificial stone, upon which Christ, our Priest and Victim, offers Himself daily in His Eucharistic Sacrifice, which is the central act of her liturgy; but she has proclaimed again and again that in her mind the altar represents her Lord Himself... the reverence for the altar, expressed in the restraint and dignity of its design, symbolizes the reverence due to Christ Himself. (p. 18-19)

He continues quoting Edmund Bishop who remarked in his essay, "On the History of the Christian Altar" (found in Liturgica Historica) that this principle is frequently lost sight of by virtue instead of "bring[ing] into prominence some accessory feature at the expense of the principle and main object." (p. 23) While Bishop had various considerations in mind, in our own day, crowding flowers or other items around or, worse yet, in front of it would certainly seem to apply.

In the case of non-freestanding altars, the crowding of the gradines with a mountain of flowers and other items, as is not infrequently witnessed at times like Christmas and Easter (see image), is likewise an issue for precisely the same reasons.

Proper placement and moderation are the key. In the case of altars with gradines, a tasteful restraint seems best. In the other cases, avoiding placements as those described above, in combination with the same tasteful restraint, is of crucial importance. So too is remembering that, while we wish to avoid minimalism and functionalism, at the same time, more is not always better.

This desire to place these items in front of or around the altar seems to stem from a desire to mark certain liturgical seasons with some kind of additional decoration, and in a certain sense, is very likely rooted in a recognition of the central importance of the altar since it desires to ornament it or tie it into those seasons in some fashion. Without excluding a proper manifestation of these things, I would take this opportunity to again propose that as regards the altar itself, far better and far more liturgical is it to do so by vesting the altar with a proper altar frontal, letting the colour of the liturgical season speak to the time in the liturgical year. This has the effect of not only fully vesting the altar, but further emphasizes the centrality of the altar itself, thus accomplishing both ends.

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