Lessons in Liturgical Arrangement Found in the Pantheon

If you have ever looked at the venerable basilica of S. Maria ad Martyres -- better known as the Pantheon -- and thought something just doesn't look quite right with its present altar arrangement, you would be correct in my estimation. This might seem shocking, even presumptuous to say of such a venerable basilica, but it must be understood that its present arrangement is not as it always was.

We have been talking a fair bit about proportionality and its importance when considering the altar, candlesticks and cross in relation to not only each other but also the greater church building itself. In other pieces we have spoken about the importance of the antependium and ciborium magnum as an important means of, amongst other things, drawing attention to that which is most central: the altar.

In the case of the Pantheon specifically, we also recently spoke of how the candles on the high altar are out of proportion with the candlesticks. LAJ provided this mockup as a point of consideration:

Left: The altar as it appears today. Right: LAJ proposal of what would look more proportionate.

(The potted plants here are another issue which we have addressed in our piece on tasteful floral arrangements but we shall leave that point aside. Suffice it to say they should be avoided.)

Less than a century ago this altar not only exhibited candles like those shown above, all of the other features we have noted here were also employed, making for a very prominent and balanced sanctuary arrangement.

Previously a hanging baldachin, or tester, was in place above this altar -- and it looks like it might have been the sort where it could be lowered and a textile component changed to match the colour of the liturgical season.  I have little doubt that proper antependia would also have been used. The original gradine was wider than the altar itself, both framing the altar and also allowing the candlesticks and cross to be spaced in a more pleasing way. On either side were side altars and a marble altar rail around it all -- all of which also helped to frame the high altar and draw one's eye toward it.  The end result was much more noble and balanced than the present arrangement and also ensured the high altar had a prominence that could otherwise be easily lost in the enormity of the Pantheon -- which is indeed one of the very problems the current arrangement now faces.

Here are a few historical photographs and drawings of the sanctuary of the Pantheon in its previous form.

Copyright: © Courtauld Institute of Art (Source)


Copyright: © Courtauld Institute of Art (Source)
This seems to be a particularly pertinent example where we can pull together these various recommendations.

The examples above show an altar arrangement that was much more appropriate for a building of this size.  By comparison, the current arrangement finds the altar rather lost -- almost a footnote:

(Note: due to the lower resolution of the photo, I have added in a higher resolution section for just the altar and  the area beneath the apse generally.)
Let's begin to add some of the elements we've been promoting here recently, beginning with taller candles and an antependium:


Already one can see how the addition of an antepnedium alone begins to draw attention to the altar in a significant way.  While difficult to see in this photo, the addition of taller candles is not only in better proportions to the candlesticks, it likewise draws attention to the altar by giving the altar a greater overall presence.

However, in a building of such size, something more is needed. In some instances that might be a reredos. In others a ciborium in one or another forms. So, let us now restore the original baldachin, or tester, which was placed over this altar historically:


This completes the essential picture that I wish to show. One can see how the addition of the baldachin precisely fulfills its function of giving prominence to the altar.

Here are a few more views showing a side by side comparison of the present arrangement and an arrangement which restores the taller candles, the baldachin and which uses a traditional Roman antependium:

(Click to enlarge)
A closer view.
It is unknown to me when or why the original arrangement was changed. It is perhaps not too much to hope that, one day, we might see something like this arrangement once again restored here.  However, beyond the Pantheon, it is my hope that this example might provide further lessons in the importance of these liturgical elements not only here, but everywhere in the Latin rite.
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