Three Noble Altars

Recently I've spoken of the symbolic importance of vesting and veiling the altar with antependia (i.e. altar frontals). As important as that is, this doesn't mean that the construction of the underlying altar itself should be neglected.

One of the laudable goals that could be found within the most authentic and appealing aspects of the twentieth century Liturgical Movement was a desire for a certain authenticity, nobility and quality in the realm of the liturgical arts; a quality that moved away from the mass produced, often overly sentimentalist form of liturgical art that came to be referred to as "l'Art Saint-Sulpice."

The philosopher Jacques Maritain expressed this very point is his 1924 address, "Some Reflections Upon Religious Art" (later published in Art and Scholasticism) given to the Journées d'Art religieux. In his commentary, he certainly pulled no punches:
Just about everything has been said about what is called the art of Saint-Sulpice -- an ill-chosen phrase, it must be said, and one that is very insulting to an estimable Parisian parish, the more so because the scourge in question is world-wide in scope; about the diabolical ugliness, offensive to God and much more harmful than is generally believed to the spread of religion, of the majority of the objects turned out by modern manufacture for the decoration of churches; about the kind of bitter contempt that still reigns in some "respectable" circles with regard to artists and poets; lastly about the absence of taste and artistic formation that makes so greatly to be desired the establishment in seminaries of courses in aesthetics or the history of art such as Pius XI, before his elevation to the Pontificate, organized at Milan.

Yes, indeed; but on the other hand there are a great many parish priests who ardently desire to fulfill the wish of Pius X, "to have their people pray before beauty," and who are trying to rid their churches of the products belched forth from the cellars of religious mercantilism. Yet many of these, we must candidly confess, are not satisfied with what is proposed to them in the name of modern Art. I am clearly not referring to a few superior works, but to the average run of works produced these last few years.

Maritain sets the stage of a Catholic world that was caught between two poles of a mass produced and lacklustre 19th century form of "traditional" religious art and an unsatisfactory "modern" approach to religious art that was often characterized by a kind of unhewn primitivism. Maritain would continue his address giving the qualities of legibility and finish as "two requisite conditions" for religious art.

Picking up from these themes, I wanted to show a few examples of altars which, in my estimation, are examples of the kind of nobility and beauty that was rightly sought after by the Liturgical Movement.

High Altar of the Monastery of Le Barroux

High Altar, Blessed Sacrament, Washington, DC
High Altar, Collégiale Saint-Just, Lyon

Each of these altars are very pleasing examples of stonework which is not only warm and inviting to the eye, but give the altars substance, permanence and gravitas. This in turn is complimented by crisp and clean designs carved on them -- designs which are, at root, reasonably simple, but do not lack ornamentation (and thus do not mistake simplicity for minimalism). What's more, in the first and last examples, they utilize primitive Christian symbols and styles, and yet they are executed in a way that is not undesirably primitivistic; there is a refinement to them.

For myself then, each of these are examples of what "noble beauty" and "noble simplicity" in the liturgical arts ought to be.
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