Monday, February 20, 2012

The Altars of Santa Prassede

The basilica of Santa Prassede is one of the most interesting in Rome, not least because of its beautiful mosaics which date to the reign of Pope Paschal I (817-824), and the impact of the Council of Trent on its interior, thanks to St Charles Borromeo, who was titular of this church from 1564. St Charles, for example, had no qualms about obscuring the ancient mosaics with two new display cabinets for the relics of the saints, and knocking out 24 Carolingian windows and replacing them with eight large ones.

At some point in the 13th-century the High Altar of this basilica was given a Cosmati front, but following the Council of Rome in 1725, yet another remodelling was thought to be necessary to "stress the importance of the main altar". As such, a new baldachino in the then-current Baroque style was produced, albeit utilising four columns of red porphery from the medieval baldachino. And, to match this, a new altar was put in place to a design by Francesco Ferrari. The medieval altar was thus relegated to the newly-enlarged crypt, and a fresco from the 1700s was painted above it.

To my mind, the medieval altar surpasses the Baroque altar that replaced it both in its form and in the dignity of its decoration. But at some point, someone decided that a Council necessitated a change, and the older altar was replaced. And history repeats itself, so that today even that Baroque altar is unused, having been superseded by a table covered with an unsightly white sheet, no doubt thought to have been necessitated by the Second Vatican Council despite the fact that the existing High Altar was already free-standing.

Considering the history of this basilica, and the changing of its altars, it is instructive to see how each Council stirs up in its wake such considerable structural and decorative changes, even to a venerable church such as Sta Prassede. This fact, I think, may help put into perspective the changes we have seen to our beloved churches since the 1960s, and the restoration that is, thankfully, now occurring in some places. But I suppose it's too much to hope that the medieval altar of St Prassede will be restored as the new High Altar!

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