The Sacristy Series: Antependia of St. Mary's in Wausau, Wisconsin

Today LAJ is happy to launch a new occasional series (much like our "Before and After", "Sacristy Tips" and "Other Modern" themed pieces) called "The Sacristy Series."  (The idea being to show the liturgical accoutrements of a particular place; items that would typically be found in the sacristy -- hence the name of the series.)  To launch this new series I thought we would begin at the parish of St. Mary's in Wausau, Wisconsin since it was our recent architectural tour of the same that spawned the idea. Today I wished to focus specifically on the antependia, or altar frontals, of the church -- but first, a comment and some background:

The altar frontal is one of those liturgical items that is far too neglected in my estimation. To understand why I say so, I would point readers to Geoffrey Webb's book, The Liturgical Altar. In that work Webb describes the frontal as "a covering of honour for the body of the altar which... represents Christ Himself." He further comments on how the frontal brings emphasis to the liturgical colour of the day or season and "serves to give to the altar that architectural prominence which its central position in the liturgy requires..."  I would also point readers to Canon J.B. O'Connell, author of Church Building and Furnishing, who speaks of their "deep, symbolical value" as the clothing or robes of the altar (one might even go so far as to call them the "vestments" of the altar). He likewise notes that the frontal "lends variety and new beauty to the altar, and helps to mark the degrees of festivity in the Church's liturgy."

In point of fact, the origins of antependia are traceable to ecclesiastical antiquity with some academics speculating that they may have been derived from the curtains or veils which hung before the confessio (where the relics of martyrs were deposited in Roman churches). The ancient use of altar coverings is also testified to by the fifth century writer Palladius who, writing in A.D. 421, spoke of certain Roman noblewomen donating precious coloured silks to be turned into altar coverings. Suffice it to say, for all of these reasons related to their pedigree, their symbolism, as well their ability to further speak to and augment the beauty of the altar and the sacred liturgy, their use ought to be encouraged and fostered.

Turning back to the topic at hand then, here are some of the antependia of St. Mary's.

A very nicely done red frontal. I particularly like the damask pattern which both adds to its visual interest and also ties into the colours of the reredos. You will note that the chasuble matches the antependium in this instance, further cementing that connection between the 'vestments' of the altar and those of the priest. 
This white frontal is also nicely done with a very subtle gold pattern throughout. This would be a nice choice for the general Easter season. 
For solemnities like Easter and Christmas, we have this beautiful gold (i.e white) frontal. You can see how this, paired with the previous white frontal, serves to set those "degrees of festivity" that Canon O'Connell spoke of.
Another striking damask pattern. This particular arrangement also gives you a better view of the 'superfrontal' -- the horizontal strip at the top that sits before the larger frontal behind. 
Black. Here again you can see the contrast this sets forth, particularly by comparison with the other frontals in the parish. This one is much more sober and sombre, as is appropriate for black, and yet still very beautiful. 
Blue is a rare liturgical permission used by a select few to mark Marian feasts. You can see that this particularly striking blue damask includes golden fleur-de-lys, thereby further emphasizing the Marian character.
Similar to the black frontal above, this violet frontal helps to set a penitential character by way of a more sober design.  This is not a requirement by any stretch of the imagination, but set against the others shown above, it certainly makes for a nice contrast. 
By way of comparison, I thought it would be of interest to show our readers the altar of St. Mary's in its  'un-vested' form:

By way of summary then, this is a very nicely done series of antepnedia. I should note that the particular form of these antependia fall most generally into a medieval Northern European style -- with the separated super frontal and frontal, loosely but neatly hanging from the altar. This is certainly very fitting for a church like St. Mary's, heavily influenced as it is by northern gothic style generally.

This is, in fact, a further point of comment. The church in question includes a great deal of goldleaf work on its reredos, statues and vaulting and so the use of textiles with notable gold components is a very good choice here as it helps to tie these frontals into harmony with the overall architecture and design. What's more, I also appreciate how the different frontals do tend to accomplish what O'Connell suggests when he speaks of them helping to mark the different degrees of festivity -- to which I would add the different degrees of sobriety as well.

Very nicely done.

We're not done with St. Mary's yet however. In our next instalment of The Sacristy Series, we will look at some of their vestments.

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.