A Vision of Loveliness and a Paradigm for Marian Altarpiece

Enclosed by a fetching garden, off the corner of Locust and 17th in central Philadelphia, only a short walk from the Rittenhouse Square, stands the historic St. Mark Church, Decorated Gothic style edifice and one of the most picturesque landmarks in the city. The crown jewel of the opus sacrum installed inside St. Mark’s is a remarkable Marian altar housed in the Lady Chapel. This altar is not only one of the most beautiful instances of Marian art still in liturgical use, it is also the only one of its kind in the United States.

A lavish silver altar dedicated to Mary, Mother of God, was commissioned as a memorial after sudden and untimely death of Fernanda Wanamaker in 1900. Rodman Wanamaker, Fernanda’s husband was a prominent Philadelphia entrepreneur, philanthropist, and parishioner at St. Mark’s. During her lifetime, Mrs. Wanamaker was an active member of the Altar Guild in St. Mark’s – an association of parishioners who invested great care and own resources in fashioning an impressive and very fine artistic heritage for the interior of the church and the sacristy. The guiding principles for the Altar Guild at St. Mark’s were the ideals of the Oxford Movement in England which actively sought the reinvigoration of Christian art and liturgical practice and found greatest stylistic inspiration in the Middle Ages.

On a fine bright day, enough light penetrates through the colorful stained glass window into the Lady Chapel to illuminate the altar of Our Lady and make it radiate something akin to a soft lunar glow. This vision of loveliness was designed and crafted by the Barkentin & Krall workshop of London. The work on the altar was carried out over several years, with the predella and the mensa completed first, in 1908 and the extension completed in 1923. The entire altarpiece is permanently clad in sterling silver, with wooden load-bearing structure on the interior. The mensa is a 7 feet long solid slab of beautiful gray-black Irish marble chosen to blend in as seamlessly as possible with the polished silver of the altarpiece. The edifice is surmounted by mother of pearl plates that form gabled roof with three prominent spires featuring in their respective niches from left to right: St. John, Agnus Dei, and Our Lady.

The iconography of the altar is centered around the standing figure of Our Lady and Child, located front and center in the body of the altar. The figure of Our Lady is shown in a niche, set against a blue lapis lazuli background decorated with gold fleur-de-lis pattern, and framed by a floriated arch. The lower part of the altar is organized around the twelve-scene narrative illustrating the story of Virgin Mary’s life. Columns that serve to organize the frontal plane of the altar are decorated with niches and 144 statuettes of saints. Each saint figure was designed individually and does not repeat anywhere else on the altarpiece.

Set atop the marble mensa is an extension with the relief of Pentecost and two scenes from the life of Jesus. In the Pentecost, the Holy Spirit portrayed as Dove is hovering above the Virgin Mary who is sitting amidst the Apostles. The Pentecost is flanked by two scenes from the life of Our Lord: Resurrection and Ascension. All scenes are composed according to Classical principles of design, and the overall effect is elegant and serene.

Barkentin & Krall pursued this special commission with great interest not only because it involved a rather lucrative financial gain, but most of all because they considered it a truly happy privilege to put the very best of their design and crafting skill to create a work that would pay homage to the Virgin Mary and at the same time be a sort of precis of their silversmithing craft.

Once the design and fabrication of the altar were formally approved, Barkentin & Krall confirmed that they were following in the creative footsteps of Tommaso Ghiberti, Bernardo Cennini, Antonio Pollaiuolo and Andrea Verrocchio – master metalworkers and great Renaissance artists who all contributed to the completion of the altar in the Florentine Baptistery. The B&K design for the Marian altar shadows the organization devised for the famous altar of the Baptist in Florence, with the central presentation of the Holy Forerunner and scenes from his life shown in relief on the front elevation of the altar’s body.

Commissioning an art piece in Fernanda Wanamaker’s memory was urged by grief yet it remains an inspiring, loving and generous tribute to a woman who was known for her sensitivity to art and who deeply cared for the quality of artworks put at the service of the liturgy. The Marian altar will celebrate the 110th anniversary of its dedication in just a few days, this Christmas Eve.

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