The Neglected Predella: Its Importance for Altar Arrangements

(Photo Source)
As parishes, cathedrals, abbeys and the like seek to re-enchant their sanctuaries, bringing greater harmony, balance, clarity, noble beauty and noble simplicity back to them -- which, ironically enough, was more often than not better expressed in the traditional Roman arrangement that was so often and so needlessly dispensed with in the 1970's -- it is important to study historical examples so that we might be consciously aware of the various elements that gave them their particular beauty and clarity.

Recently we spoke of the importance of the ciborium magnum, or baldachin, as a means of giving architectural and liturgical prominence to the altar.  We have made similar notes with regard to the antependium (or altar frontal) as well as the 'Benedictine arrangement.' Today I would like to turn your attention to another feature, but one which seems to be sorely neglected as parishes restore their altars and sanctuaries -- or even build new one's.  That of which I speak is known as the predella -- or what is sometimes simply referred to as the "footpace."

What is the predella?  The predella is a step and/or platform onto which the altar is placed. The root of the word comes from Lombardic word "predel" which refers to a platform upon which a piece of furniture is erected. It is probably something that one is so accustomed to seeing that it is easily forgotten -- and thus also easily neglected.  Here is an example of an altar and predella:

It was also common to see one or two (sometimes more) additional steps placed beneath the predella such as this:

The above examples are shown within the context of a non-freestanding altar that would either have a reredos attached or be fixed to the wall -- or even placed toward the back of the ciborium -- and as such the altar is pushed toward the back edge of the footpace. In the case of a freestanding altar the only difference is that the altar would typically be centred on the middle of the predella accordingly:

It is worth noting that the predella was traditionally required for all altars (see S.R.C. 1265, ad 4) and St. Charles Borromeo certainly considered it important enough that he gave specific instructions for its dimensions in his liturgical directives.

Let us take a look now at a few different altars, all of which are found with the predella.

Sint-Andriesbij, Bruges, Belgium 
Sint-Andriesbij, Bruges, Belgium

You can see in this example above, which is from St. Andrew's Abbey in Bruges, an altar with ciborium, predella and two additional steps upon which the ciborium is placed.  This particular form could be utilized either in a way in which the footpace and steps go around the entire altar, or as seen here in non-freestanding form.

An example of the full-fledged freestanding form can be seen at the National Shrine in Washington, D.C. where the altar is centered on the predella:

Here, a typical arrangement where we have an altar with a reredos:

High altar of St. Vincent Ferrer, New York City
In the case of smaller altars -- such as side altars or the altars found in chapels -- we likewise see this feature utilized. Here is another example coming from St Andrew's Abbey in Bruges:

Sint-Andriesbij, Bruges, Belgium
Finally. here are two examples coming from within the 'Other Modern' context that shows a freestanding altar without either reredos or ciborium in the first instance, and with a very modern form of ciborium in the second instance:

Basilica of Notre Dame de la Trinite, Blois, France
Cathedral of Christ the King, Johannesburg 
What one will see in each of these illustrated instances is how the predella offers a couple of distinct benefits. In the first instance, practically speaking, it serves as a place for clergy and servers alike to kneel, whether during the Mass, Benediction or otherwise.  This may seem a small point but it is likely one appreciated by clergy and servers alike.

In the second instance, and it is the more important one, as you can see in these illustrations the predella architecturally assists in giving the altar a place of prominence within the sanctuary. If the sanctuary is set apart from the nave, then the predella (and any additional steps as well) set the altar apart from the rest of the sanctuary. A visual hierarchy is thereby created in which one's attention is drawn to the altar -- precisely where it should be liturgically. This also emphasizes the importance of the liturgical action that takes place at the altar, tying into that narrative of the priest “ascending” to the altar; "going unto the altar of God." This image, literal and figurative, of the priest or bishop ascending to the altar is replete with rich liturgical and theological symbolism and also adds a certain drama and gravitas to the sacred liturgy.

By contrast, without the predella an altar not only typically lacks in this visual hierarchy and liturgical symbolism, it also tends to become rather un-moored and orphaned in the sanctuary; the altar seems both unfinished and unfixed in such a case.  (To assist in making the point at hand, we shall utilize examples from traditional churches and sanctuaries so that we ensure an "apples to apples" comparison.)

St. Anthony's, Bryan, Texas. The altar is quite handsome. But, as noted, without the predella it is left rather orphaned and un-moored within the sanctuary, being of visually no greater importance than any other object found within the sanctuary.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Keller, Texas. The image shows a new altar rail being installed in the parish by King Richard's -- an excellent firm that many of you will no doubt be familiar with already. However, focus here is on the original altar without the predella which, again, comes off in the ways described above. 
There are a number of beautiful and remarkable details in this church. The design of the altar, which was executed by the talented craftsmen at Atelier Wilfried Senoner, is quite impressive taken on its own, but without the predella, the altar seems incomplete. This particular photo provides a good example for comparison between it and the altar with predella seen behind. 

The beautiful Cathedral of the Madeleine, Salt Lake City, Utah.  Beautiful, but missing something.
If, when you look at each of these examples, you feel there is something missing, you are correct in my estimation. It is missing the predella to anchor the altar and set it hierarchically apart from the rest of the sanctuary.

Now you might be tempted to think that if a ciborium were only placed over these altars, or perhaps a reredos behind them, that is what would compensate for the absence of the predella and make all right. While those features would certainly be beneficial taken on their own, they would not, in fact, eliminate the issue of the absence of the predella either practically or visually. We have seen many examples in our modern times of re-constructed sanctuaries which include altars, even with ciboria, but which have not included the predella --  in many instances I believe, because they are likely trying to emphasize the tabernacle behind -- and in each and every instance its absence is always felt in the same way.

An example of an altar with ciborium but no predella was one that we recently showed here on LAJ:  the inspiring and beautiful St. Mary, Help of Christians in Aiken, South Carolina, designed by our good friends at McCrery Architects. That particular church includes a very beautiful altar and ciborium (amongst its many other beautiful features); though it has no predella:

Detail from a photograph by Steve Bracci
As I think you'll agree, this is an incredibly beautiful church and sanctuary already. However, I do think the addition of the predella, and in this instance two more steps in addition, would only add to it's beauty, completing this wonderful liturgical arrangement. (Indeed, I set myself specifically to this task with St. Mary's because this is such a rightfully and universally acclaimed piece of contemporary church architecture that, if the case can be made here, then surely one might see its potentialities anywhere.) To test my thought, I set about creating a quick mockup of this same altar with the arrangement I propose. Here is what I came up with:

Left: With predella. Right: Without.
(For the record, I happen to know that McCrery is on the same page with regard to this matter of the importance of the predella, which is another reason why I am comfortable utilizing one of their projects for my mock-up design. I know they agree.)

Concluding Thoughts

As noted at the beginning of this piece, the omission of the predella is quite a common modern trend. These matters can, of course, be driven by various external circumstances; space, cost, the particular desires of clients, a diocese, etc.. Sometimes too they may simply be neglected or felt unimportant. Our goal here is not to criticize, but simply establish awareness of the importance of this architectural feature as a point of principle -- and from there the particular circumstances will need to be factored in for each particular instance. This is only reasonable of course, but if we don't at least start out with the principle in mind, then we may well miss an opportunity, or even work contrary to our own purposes.

If a recommendation might be made to clergy who are either building new churches or renovating / restoring old one's it might be this: start with the altar and work your way outward. The altar is the central point of the church or chapel; make it your priority in your design considerations and work your way outward from there. Compromises may still need to be made of course, but always try to make them elsewhere with other elements of the sanctuary first; this may not always be possible of course (as the various requirements of the liturgy need to be properly met), but explore that possibility first before moving to the altar itself and its various associated components, such as the predella, the ciborium and so on.

My hope is that by showing these examples both with and without, this architectural element, seemingly so minor and yet so very important both liturgically and architecturally, will once again find its place in our minds and ultimately in our sanctuaries -- which is to say, beneath our altars.

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