The Dramatic and Catechetical Quality of the Traditional Church Orderings

Historically within the Latin rite there are two predominant church orderings one tends to think of in relation to the altar and sanctuary. The first is the ancient basilica arrangement with the ciborium magnum set over a freestanding altar -- which, in its most historical incarnation, is then in turn set over the confessio, a tomb-like structure that contains the relics of a martyr. The second major arrangement is one we find in many medieval and post-medieval churches with the ciborium being replaced by the reredos -- which had a similar function of lending architectural prominence to the altar. It is this arrangement of the nave, choir, altar and reredos that I wish to speak about today.

Very often in this particular arrangement one would see the floor progressively raised as one moved from the nave to the chancel, and then once again as one proceeded into the sanctuary and finally the steps of the high altar itself.  This in turn was set against the dramatic backdrop of the reredos and apse. The effect this had was visually profound and highly symbolic as one moved from the nave, up through the choir and finally to the high altar itself -- and echo of our earthly journey toward the heavenly; from the worldly to the throne of God that is surrounded by choirs of angels. This traditional ordering utilized verticality and perspective then to not only make an impressive visual impact, it also echoed and communicated certain truths. 

Within the post-conciliar age, however, this ordering was frequently complicated and compromised as the desire for freestanding altars and versus populum liturgies came into vogue and, with it, a corresponding desire to push the altar out past the choir and to the cusp of the nave itself. Architecturally (and liturgically) this was frequently problematic. In fairness, some of the architectural re-orderings were much better than others, but to my mind, they all tend to lack the symbolism I have mentioned when they are set within the context of the arrangement presently under consideration. Even the very best and most tasteful of these re-orderings tend to disrupt this narrative. It would be very easy to make this case using bad or mediocre re-orderings, so I thought we should look at this question in the context of a very moderate and tasteful one as seen in the beautiful Jesuit church of Munich.

Here, then, is the (re-ordered) sanctuary as it looks today:

Photo by David Iliff. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

I believe many will agree that this is a reasonably modest and tasteful re-ordering. In this particular instance the historical high altar has been preserved and a new freestanding altar has been placed toward the end of the choir, near the nave.  In addition a lectern style of ambo has also been placed near the altar, just behind one of the standards.

While this re-ordering may have indeed been reasonably done, the disruptive effect of the new ordering should not be underestimated. To demonstrate the point, I thought I would graphically alter the photo to show what this church would look like with a more traditional ordering, removing the forward altar (as well as the lectern). Here was the result:

Graphically altered version
Graphically altered version
Despite the fact that the re-ordered version of this church was very tastefully executed, I believe our readers will be able to see some noteworthy difference here. In the historical arrangement one is dramatically led through the nave, up into the choir and, finally and climactically, to highest point of all, the high altar. The reredos, being joined to the altar, has become an extension of it, leading one's eye at one and the same time heavenward and back down to the altar itself.

By contrast, in the newer arrangement this hierarchical progression has been compromised and, what's more, the altar has been set in tension with the reredos, rather than in the symbiotic and complimentary relationship they are meant to have. A side by side comparison may be helpful to illustrate. (It will also be important to consider this in three dimensions. i.e. as these two orderings would look, not only from the single perspective of the central aisle, but also from other angles where this variance becomes even more extreme.)

In the re-ordered version, while there is a laudable attempt to marry the new forward altar to the reredos there are also significant limits to this that no amount of talent or sensitivity can ever hope to combat. In the one instance, we know that the altar is not in fact united with the reredos and we mentally and visually process it accordingly. In the second instance, any amount of visual unity that is in fact to be found here is, in truth, only to be found from this one particular perspective taken from the centre aisle of the church; from any other perspective, the divorce between the two becomes even more evident.

Of course, the other point that is worth noting here is that the traditional ordering, formed as it is by the immemorial tradition of ad orientem liturgicum, (celebration toward the liturgical East) also lends itself toward the greater visibility and hierarchical ordering that is embedded within the sacred ceremonies themselves. This may well seem counter-intuitive to some as much ink has been spilt over the past few decades around the notion that versus populum somehow gives greater visibility to these ceremonies, however what happens in actuality is frequently quite the opposite: the liturgical ceremonies and sacred ministers become obscured behind an altar (akin to actors acting our their drama backstage) as well amidst the crowd of liturgical ministers themselves who have all been put on generally the same visual and ceremonial level; far from bringing greater liturgical visibility then, this has an affect of obscuring the clarity and visibility of both the sacred liturgy and its ministers. By comparison, in the traditional ordering this narrative is preserved in tact, the various liturgical actors set in their particular proximity to the high altar on its steps and within its chancel, each according to their particular liturgical station.  In this regard then, the traditional ordering for this type of sanctuary arrangement is not only a better artistic instantiation of noble beauty and simplicity, it is not only hierarchically and symbolically clearer at an architectural level, it is also liturgically and ceremonially to be preferred.

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