Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Retro Tablum: The Origins and Role of the Altarpiece in the Liturgy

While I have only had a chance to skim this, this certainly appears to be an interesting article which I discovered on the website of the journal, Sacred Architecture: The Origins and Role of the Altarpiece in the Liturgy.

An excerpt:

Early Forms of Sacred Imagery at the Altar

The Imperial church-building program ushered in by Constantine employed fixed freestanding altars and sacred imagery, which can be traced from the palimpsest of patristic artifacts and decoration, as well as from contemporary textual accounts, such as the Liber Pontificalis. The organization of sacred imagery around the altar was greatly affected by the position of the altar relative to the presbyterium, the part of the church reserved for the bishop and his clergy. Since altars in early Western churches often stood in front of the presbyterium, this position would have likely precluded the possibility of situating any large-scale works of art that would have eclipsed the bishop’s cathedra or faldstool. However, the triumphal arch and hemi-dome of the apse typically featured extensive decorative programs depicting Christ as the h accompanied by a retinue of holy figures including the titular saint of the church, the Apostles, and the Evangelists, as exemplified by the oldest parts of the apse mosaic in Santa Pudenziana in Rome. Yet, sacred symbols and figures also came to be incorporated into the ciborium, the monumental fixed canopy that sheltered the altar, and in the antependium, the ornamental appendage affixed to the vertical supports of the altar. Antependia were designed to extend across the entire altar front, from the underside of the table top (mensa) to the altar step (predella), and were sometimes applied to the back and side faces of the altar as well. Comprised of precious metals, ivory, wood, or rich brocades, and usually bejeweled, the principal subject of early medieval antependia was Christ in Majesty, often flanked by angels, the Evangelists, and the Apostles. In the ninth and tenth centuries, the repertory grew to include the Virgin and Child, as well as titular saints. Episodic narratives from the life of Christ or the titular saint were then often disposed symmetrically on either side of the principal subject. The lavish and analogous sacred imagery of early medieval Gospel covers with that of antependia is striking, and, as a note of observation, it would seem that these largely parallel decorative formats were intended to stress the liturgical relationship between Christ’s presence in the Word and the Eucharist.

The fifteenth century high altar retable in the pilgrimage church of Saint Wolfgang in Austria by Michael Pacher contains representations from the life of Christ and the church’s titular, Saint Wolfgang, with the Coronation of the Virgin at the center. Photo: www.wga.hu

Engaged Altars, Reliquaries, and Gradines

The engaged altar emerged from the introduction of the private Mass. The separate oratories that had been established in proximity to Western churches for the celebration of private Masses by individual canons or monks began to be subsumed into the bodies of those churches at least as early as the sixth century, and led to the gradual proliferation of chapels and side altars. Side altars were the first to be set against the walls of the church, a gesture in deference to the principal or high altar, which generally remained freestanding well into the Middle Ages. Without a ciborium above or a richly decorated apse beyond, the wall to which the side altar was engaged became the spatial and visual terminus, so that its decoration would seem a natural consequence.

Read the entire article: The Origins and Role of the Altarpiece in the Liturgy

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