A Brief Consideration of Classical Versus Contemporary Sanctuary Arrangement

Very much has been made of the principle of noble simplicity these past few decades. It has often been utilized as a justification for sanctuary reorderings, vestment tossings (or "museuming") and the like. Fortunately this approach is quickly becoming a relic of the past as the fretting and in-fighting of the period from 1970-2010 has, for all intents and purposes, become confined to select generations, waning and fading ever more rapidly as newer and younger generations rise up through the ranks. This is preferable for a variety of reasons, not least of which that a more natural, less 'reactive' and, dare I say, less ideological approach is being assumed -- one where the common sense appeal of tradition is beginning to re-assert itself rather than being viewed with suspicion.

Of course, there can be real merit in thinking about things like actual (sic) participation, noble simplicity and so on. There were some good principles and goals that came forth from the Liturgical Movement, especially in its pre-1950 and monastic instantiations. The key is finding that balance of solid liturgical principles rooted in good theology and good taste that is attached firmly to the lived and received liturgical tradition (as opposed to abstract archeologistic ideals) and without contemporary assumptions or prejudices.

It is in this latter regard that there is still much clean-up work to be done for while the ideological positioning fades and wanes with each passing year, the task of 'mopping-up' after remains in great part.

One area in particular that I have found myself thinking on lately is the specific matter of sanctuary ordering -- or arrangement if you prefer. Two factors tended to inform these re-orderings. The first factor was the particular liturgico-theological emphases and schools of thought that were given prominence around this same period of time. The second was a minimalistic aesthetic (interpreted by some as "noble simplicity"). However it was the first factor which was the real driving force behind this new ordering and where liturgical art and architecture was concerned, the end result was more often than not one of complexity rather than noble simplicity as the various liturgical parts were simultaneously pulled apart and pushed together.

Interestingly, for all the talk about nobility and simplicity, very often the classical liturgical arrangement of sanctuaries is found to be significantly more harmonious, balanced, orderly and, thus, simple and noble, by comparison to its newly ordered counterparts. This is a result of the contemporary liturgist's desire to juxtapose various liturgical symbols. I won't go into all the detail of what underlies that, but the end result could at times be extraordinarily asymmetrical, and at very least one would frequently end up with sanctuaries that simply appear cluttered, busy and without focus.  Here are just a few examples of what I mean -- and I would ask you to focus not on the style, but rather on the arrangement of the liturgical parts:





In each of these examples, which are by no means uncommon (they could be almost any parish arrangement most anywhere in the world in our time), we see these various liturgical symbols and components here and there throughout the sanctuary. Thus, even despite the fact that each of these particular examples have a contemporary, almost minimalist aesthetic, they still send up seeming rather "busy."

As I say though, this has less to do with the contemporary styling employed as it does the arrangement of the parts for the same issue likewise appears in traditional churches that have been re-ordered according to this contemporary ordering:



In short, questions of style and questions of ordering are two distinct questions and they must be treated of accordingly.

If we turn back to the classical ordering, even when you use a more ornate architectural and artistic style, the end result is much cleaner, more harmonious and much less 'busy':


(Source)
This, incidentally, is the same building as that shown above with the red carpeting.
What aids the classical sanctuary in its harmony and visual simplicity is that there is no tension or complexity created by trying to pull apart the altar from tabernacle and reredos, nor of trying to arrange the sedalia of the clergy so as to be facing the people, nor trying to set the altar and ambo into a kind of parallel priority, nor the common trend of moving the baptismal font into or near the sanctuary or of having a cabinet present in the sanctuary to display the holy oils and so on.  The irony in trying to give everything focus is you end up giving nothing focus -- the result tends to be visual chaos and complexity. The classical arrangement, even when set within a more ornate artistic and architectural context, has an end result that is much cleaner, more orderly and visually simpler.

To my mind this is not only more noble and tasteful artistically speaking, this is also preferable (and more practical) liturgically, theologically and ceremonially.
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2 comments:

  1. I like the crucifixion group in the first example. The rest of the sanctuary (except for the seating) does not do it justice. Some short-term fixes until proper refurbishment:

    1) get the tabernacle back behind the altar.

    2) Move the sedelia over to the side, in the more traditional arrangement.

    3) move the credence table to its proper spot.

    4) cover the altar with an elegant laudian frontal and the ambo with a coordinating pulpit fall, to get some more color in there.

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  2. I've seen many older photos of churches where the pulpit/ambo is not even in the sanctuary, but rather in the nave. I quite like that setup, as it really has the altar as the main focal point and keeps the sanctuary from being cluttered. I'd be very interested in reading your thoughts, or even an article on this topic.

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