Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The High Altar in the Abbey of Our Lady of Tongerlo (1858-2011)

Guest article by Frater Anselm J. Gribbin, O.Praem.

Part Two - Further alterations, 1919-1930

Although the abbey church at Tongerlo was more or less completed at the end of the nineteenth century, further, important changes were to take place under Abbot Hugo Lamy (1915-37). There was a significant problem with the size of the choir, as it could not accommodate all the community, especially when large numbers of canons returned home from the external apostolate. This was due to the fact that the community enjoyed successive periods of growth. The new east wing of the abbey, with refectory and rooms above, had already been built to accommodate rising numbers in 1911. In 1887 there were 66 religious ; in 1896, 82 religious (and lay brothers were again accepted in the abbey the following year) ; in 1906 there were 113 religious, of whom 78 were priests. The number of religious continued to rise during Lamy’s abbatiat : by 1936 there were 223 religious, of whom 128 were priests. Just after, if not during World War One, it was decided that choir ought to be enlarged. Three plans were considered :

1. Removing the two altars at the entrance to the choir, and enlarging the choir by one aisle, which would thus shorten the nave, leaving the High Altar intact.

2. Taking the choir benches across to the transept crossing.

3. Erecting a High Altar in the transept crossing, and removing the altars at the entrance of the choir and the old High Altar, thus allowing space to enlarge the choir.

There were also plans to erect more side altars around the choir in neo-gothic chapels, as there were still too few side altars for low masses. A young architect was chosen for this work, Jules Ghobert of Brussels (1884-1971). However ‘neo-gothic’ had fallen out of favour in this period, and ‘art décor’ was the preferred style for the new work. It seems that the abandonment of neo-gothic did not meet with everyone’s approval, at least initially, and it was said, rather mischievously, that Ghobert had lost the neo-gothic plans for the new side chapels on a train ! In any case, as far as the expansion of the choir was concerned, the third plan was the one that was chosen, and it was, for its time, quite radical. Ghobert was the architect responsible for this work, and it included an extensive redesign of the interior of the church, in favour of art décor : though the keen eye will see that other styles were also used. The imposition of art décor in a neo-gothic church can be compared to the introduction of the baroque and rococo styles in many medieval churches.

Apart from the removal of the all the neo-gothic altars in the church – except the altar of St. Siardus – and other adaptations, sections of the walls of the nave, and elsewhere, were covered with grey bricks, and the floor level of the choir, and the site of the new, central High Altar, was raised, to incorporate a crypt, where the abbey’s relics were to be kept. The existing choir benches of greenwood (groenhout), were extended, and an elaborate ‘throne’ (‘prelaatstroon’) was made for the abbot.

The new choir at Tongerlo, with abbot’s throne and relocated area for cantor and succentor (pre-1929). Note the old organ (top right).

The choir could now seat seventy canons, and the lay brothers were re-located to the side of the new High Altar. Curiously, but perhaps understandable, the abbot’s ‘throne’ was designed in the neo-gothic style, based on a design by Fr. Milo Bertram, and matched the existing neo-gothic confessionals in the nave. The walls of the choir were further decorated, with geometric designs, as were the lower sections of the pillars in the nave.

The new, free-standing High Altar, southward facing (in the direction of the nave), stood under a ciborium, made of grey bricks. This was intended as a temporary arrangement : the grey bricks would be easy to dismantle at a later date. The ciborium was decorated with various motifs, painted on paperboard, which were to be eventually replaced by mosaics. Surmounting the corners were various armorial shields, including those of Abbot Lamy and the abbey of Tongerlo. Hanging underneath the ciborium was a beautiful ‘corona’ (chandelier) : a similar example can be still be seen in the church of the sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Antwerp. The first Mass was celebrated at the new High Altar – before the new ciborium was in place - at Christmas 1919. The first pontifical Mass, with the new ciborium in place, took place on 15 August 1920.

View from the choir of the new High Altar and ciborium at Tongerlo (c. 1920-30)

View of the new altar and ciborium from the nave, with the entrance to the crypt

Close-up of altar and crypt entrance, decorated for the feast of St. Siardus

There were also further additions to the church in the same period, two of which were also intended to play a role in the solemn liturgy of the High Altar. Ghobert designed two ambos, in black marble (‘belge noir’) – this material was used elsewhere in the remodelling of the church - one for the reading of the epistle (southward facing), and the other, for the proclamation of the gospel (eastward facing). The upper part of the gospel ambo was added by 1935, and both ambos were decorated with mosaics by Charles Counhaye (1884-1971).

Ambo for the Gospel

Ambo for the Epistle

The gospel ambo was decorated with the Lamb of God, the sower, and the four evangelists, while the epistle ambo was decorated with a bust of St. Paul, symbols representing the four great doctors of the Latin Church (SS. Ambrose, Gregory, Jerome and Augustine). A new Blessed Sacrament chapel (with stained glass by Charles Counhaye), of black marble, was also constructed in the west transept, and also an altar in honour of Our Lady in the east transept.

Blessed Sacrament Chapel, in the west transept, designed in 1920, constructed in 1927-28

Altar of Our Lady, in the east transept

Plans were also made to construct an ambulatorium with side chapels, thirteen in total. However sufficient funds were not forthcoming to complete the ambulatorium. Yet sections of the ambulatorium were realised, with altars in honour of the Sacred Heart, the Holy Family and St. Thérèse of Lisieux (west side) and two altars on the east side. On 1 May 1928 the altar of the Blessed Sacrament was consecrated by Mgr. Micara, the papal nuncio, the altar of the Holy Family by Abbot Lamy, and the altar of St. Thérèse by (titular) Abbot Seadon of Corpus Christi Basilica, Manchester: our abbots have the privilege of consecrating altars.

Altar of the Sacred Heart

The unfinished ambulatorium (west side)

It is clear that Abbot Lamy was very much the driving force behind these far-reaching changes in our abbey church. The necessity to enlarge the choir also presented him, and the canons of Tongerlo, the opportunity to express other ideals. The ambos for the reading of the sacred scriptures during Mass, the free-standing altar and ciborium, the elaborate throne for the abbot (which was also decorated for use during pontifical services) and other, modern features of the redesigned interior of the abbey church, point towards the strong influence of the old ‘Liturgical Movement’, not excluding some of its negative aspects. This influence can be seen in an openness to newer styles of architecture, and the re-interpretation of older styles, and clearly a certain ‘romanticism’ for the liturgy of the early Church, as well as solid liturgical convictions. We should be aware that Tongerlo, at this time, was very much involved in promoting devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, and to enhancing divine worship, as well as spreading the ideals of the Liturgical Movement (e.g. the work of Fr. Antoon Van Clé), which were encouraged by Pope St. Pius X : the emphasis on Eucharistic piety was clearly not viewed as undermining the Liturgical Movement. The following extract from our old abbey magazine, from 1920, recalls the first pontifical Mass on the new altar, before the erection of the ciborium (Christmas 1919), and relates much about the motivations behind the re-ordering of the church, and the enthusiasm for the liturgy. It appeared under the title, ‘Tongerlo’s new liturgy’ :

Whoever was present at the divine service in our abbey church at Christmas, would certainly have been deeply moved, more than usual, by the excellence of our Norbertine liturgy. This is more apparent (lit. ‘it has come into its own’) than in former times, now that our church - due to the continual increase of the number of religious - is undergoing a fortunate change, that qualified persons find most agreeable, and that the [new] arrangement comes close to the sanctuary of the early Christians … Before the entrance of the previous choir stands the High Altar, a simple stone table, as it was before the third century … a simple table [‘tafel’] of sacrifice … How solemn, how enthralling, was that [first] Mass sung by our abbot … behind [sic] the altar stood the religious in their temporary choir ; in front [sic] of the altar, in the church [i.e. the nave] kneeled the flocking faithful. Everyone, the canons as well as the multitude in the church, could watch every action of the sacred ceremonies: we prayed with him [i.e. the abbot], we offered with him the divine lamb of atonement to the heavenly Father … It was as if Heaven became opened, before our eyes … “Then I saw standing in the midst of the throne and the four living creatures and the elders, a Lamb that seemed to have been slain. I looked again and heard the voices of many angels who surrounded the throne and the living creatures and the elders. They were countless in number, and they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honour and glory and blessing’” [Apoc. 5 : 6, 11, 12] … the High Altar must still be crowned with … the ciborium … which directs the attention of the visitor … to the altar, and says to him “This is God’s throne”.

The beauty of the liturgy of the re-designed abbey interior is also evident from an old film apparently made in the 1930’s to raise funds for the rebuilding of the abbey after a devastating fire in 1929: thankfully the interior church was largely spared any damage. It was after this that the abbey was to obtain a permanent High Altar.

Canons in the choir (early 1930s, before 1935)

The conclusion of pontifical High Mass at the new High altar : Abbot Lamy, with the sacred ministers and assistants.

Preface : the deacon begins the incensing of the altar



General view of the altar and ambos from the nave (about 1929)

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