Two Altars, One Cathedral: St. Patrick's, New York City

For quite some while I've had it in mind to consider the two historical forms of high altar that have graced the sanctuary of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. They represent, in many ways, the story of the first half of the 20th century when the Liturgical Movement was yet in its most promising and interesting of phases.  One of the areas that came into focus in that period of the movement was a greater emphasis on the altar and its forms and accoutrements. Part and parcel with this came the recovery of the 'baldachin' or ciborium magnum, a great canopy placed over the altar (which was now often freestanding). Many will recognize this as the model of many of Christendom's most ancient and venerable basilicas.

St. Patrick's Cathedral underwent a transformation that essentially ran in parallel with this -- no doubt inspired or influenced by it -- moving from a high altar with a reredos to one covered by a ciborium.  Here was the original high altar of that cathedral in the early decades of the 20th century:

You can certainly see that it was a grand altar -- though it might also be said that the altar was rather overshadowed -- proportionally speaking -- by the reredos; not because of its height, but rather because of its width. 

Around the late 1930's a new high altar was installed in the cathedral under the direction of Francis Cardinal Spellman. The new arrangement included a bronze ciborium and, in accordance with many of the liturgical principles promoted at that time, there was no gradine. The arrangement also included an ornamental dossal curtain toward the liturgical east -- which helped to give some focus and separation to the high altar from the rest of the sanctuary and the Lady Chapel behind. 

New High Altar of St. Patrick's, 1942
No doubt some readers may note the presence of the tabernacle in the former arrangement and its absence in the latter. What must be understood, of course, is that this is perfectly suitable and traditional in a cathedral arrangement due to the liturgical requirements of the pontifical liturgy of the usus antiquior -- wherein there would not only be a seventh candle on the centre of the altar, but also the tabernacle, if it were present, would need to be 'vacated' for the pontifical liturgy. In this regard then, as in the Roman basilicas, having the tabernacle present elsewhere in the cathedral, such as its own chapel, was liturgically the most ideal.

This is, in point of fact, one of the reasons why I personally prefer the 1940's arrangement: it is that which is most suited to the demands of the traditional pontifical liturgy. By virtue of this, it is doing what liturgical architecture ought to do: grow outward from the liturgical rites and ceremonies themselves.  The previous arrangement with the reredos -- as worthy as it was in many regards -- not only tended to dwarf the altar for reason of the size that was required to make its presence felt in such a large architectural space, it was also an arrangement that was liturgically better suited to a parish church than it was to a cathedral.

One point I would like to emphasize here is of the importance of the dossal curtain seen in the photo above.  When looking at this altar in St. Patrick's Cathedral today, one might feel as though the altar and ciborium somehow 'get lost' with all that is going on around it and especially behind it. To my mind this is precisely because of the absence of this dossal curtain, which, when present, would have helped to create a more self-contained space that emphasized both the ciborium and most especially the altar itself.

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