Candelabra Magna

As a follow-up to our recent piece on the canopying of the altar, it seems like it might be a good time to consider some other interesting furnishings of the antique sanctuary. Whereas our previous piece focused on various forms of altar canopies, and especially the ciborium magnum, let us now turn our attention to candelabra magna and their various forms.

Candelabra magna are typically manifest either as very large candlesticks (in pairs of two or more) that are set on the floor, as large candlesticks that hold multiple candles, or they might also appear as large candlesticks placed upon some sort of balustrade (i.e. railing), often separating the nave from the chancel and sanctuary. To give a better sense, here are a few examples showing candelabra magna.

Carthusian Charterhouse, Marienau, Germany. (The photo depicts the celebration of the Carthusian rite.)

La Grand Chartreuse. There were four candelabrum in total. (Full picture at the end of this article.)

You will note the seven candles on top of the balustrade of the Cappella Paolino in Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome
The Trivulzio Candelabrum in the Duomo, Milan
This might seem curious to some as in our own time we tend to think of candles as being placed on the altar; so why then, it might be asked, these extra candles? A bit of historical context would seem in order.

In the previous piece on the ciborium it was mentioned that, historically, lamps were suspended from the ciborium. To understand why that was done it must also be understood that in the earliest history of the Christian altar, candlesticks were not placed upon the altar itself but were rather placed near it and around it.  Peter F. Anson comments on this in his excellent work, Churches: Their Plan and Furnishing:
"In the early centuries of Christianity, lights were certainly placed round and near the holy table, but they were suspended from the ceiling or from the ciborium over the altar, or on brackets round the walls..."
The Catholic Encyclopedia further comments that:
"It does not seem to have been customary to place lights upon the altar itself before the eleventh century, but the "Ordines Romani" and other documents make it clear that, many centuries before this, lights were carried in procession by acolytes, and set down upon the ground or held in the hand while Mass was being offered and the Gospel read." 
One can see then how these great candlesticks, placed in proximity to the altar especially, are very much tied to the ancient practice in this regard.  I would add as a point of historical interest that this matter of the acolytes setting their candles down near the altar is something that is yet seen within the Dominican rite liturgy today:

Dominican Rite. You will note the acolyte having placed the candle on the second step.
It is also seen in some monastic contexts:

The same earlier practice is also seen here in the Benedictine context of the Abbey of Le Barroux
While most churches do not have standards today, they are yet a common feature of many churches and chapels in Rome and are also seen routinely in the chapels of Carthusian monasteries as well as some other communities -- such as the London and Birmingham Oratories.

Standards are indeed a very early bit of Romanitas, being mentioned in the Vita Desiderii and featuring in early basilica inventories, tied to no less than the Emperor Constantine in the case of the papal basilicas:
The emperor Constantine, in the 4th century, gave seven great bronze candlesticks to be set before the high altar of the Lateran in Rome; and four were placed before the tomb of St. Peter. The number seven may have been inspired by the seven golden candlesticks of the Apocalypse. (O'Connell, Church Building and Furnishing, p. 213)
Book one of the Liber Pontificalis gives some further descriptive details of this great Constantinian gift:
"7 brass candlesticks before the altars, 10 feet in height, adorned with figures of the prophets overlaid with silver, weighing each 300 lbs."
If we have briefly covered off the 'what' of the matter, the 'why' still remains. Quite simply, the purpose of these great candlesticks and candelabra was two-fold. In the first instance they helped to provide necessary light for the celebration of the sacred rites. However, beyond mere practicality, they also provided for greater solemnity on feast days. In some instances it is is mentioned that the number of candles lit upon the balustrade (where they took that form) varied based upon the class of feast being celebrated.

The balustrade with its candles in the Sistine Chapel.
Indeed, what a sight it must have been. One thinks of the poetic words of St. Paulinus of Nola, written in the late fourth or early fifth century, speaking of the beauty of the candlelight of the church of St. Felix:
"The bright altars are crowned with thronging lamps. Lights burnt fragrant with waxed papyri. Day and night they burn; thus night is radiant with the brightness of day, and the day itself, bright in heavenly beauty, shines still more, its light doubled by countless lanterns."
Here are a few more photos of standards to leave you with.

St. Hugh's Charterhouse, Parkminster
Cappella Paolina, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome
Birmingham Oratory

Blessed Sacrament Chapel, St. Peter's Basilica, Rome
It is worth noting that Raphael, in his painting which depicts the original Constantinian basilica of St. Peter, depicted the balustrade with candles on top, similar to those seen in the Sistine Chapel.
Standards in Mariawald Abbey
A broader view of La Grand Chartreuse showing the four standards the lined the edge of the sanctuary
We will leave off with the London Oratory. That church has various examples of standards both at the high altar as well as at various side altars. You can see the two great candelabra on either side of the altar, as well as the two seven branched candelabra at the edge of the sanctuary -- which were modelled after those taken as spoils from the Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans and which were depicted on the Arch of Titus.

Just by way of concluding comment, these ancient liturgical features would certainly be a worthy introduction into our churches today. They are not only steeped in history, they also are an effective means for adding greater beauty and solemnity to feasts of particular importance.

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