Four Altar Arrangements and One Church - The Importance of Altar Design

The parish of San Martino in Randazzo, Sicily, provides a rare opportunity for an interesting case study in the influence and importance that different altar and sanctuary arrangements can bring to a sanctuary ordering.

At this particular parish, from what I can tell, they seem to regularly modify their sanctuary arrangements in accordance with the particular classes of feasts in the parish -- to what degree I know not, only that it seems to be the case that this variability is a normal course of affairs here. Whatever the case, it provides an interesting opportunity to demonstrate the importance of these elements in a clear "apples to apples" comparison.  (I would add that while some readers will be tempted to focus on the forward altar -- i.e. the freestanding altar -- that is not the point of focus. What is the point of focus is rather the traditional high altar and the ornamentation found behind it.)

With that in mind, let's take a look a few of the different arrangements, beginning with one which utilizes little to no ornamentation.

This sort of arrangement is not atypical, relying primarily on the basic architectural components. The issue that one can face here is that the altar can become somewhat lost in the rest of the architecture, particularly where neutral colours are utilized.

The next arrangement utilizes a similar arrangement, but adds a large crucifix:

This too is quite common. A large cross makes symbolic sense -- the Mass, after all, being the renewal of the Sacrifice of the Cross upon the altar. Certainly the crucifix helps to focus attention on the altar, however, here again, with the neutral colours that are utilized, the crucifix itself becomes the primary focal point.

In this next example we see a large painting placed above the altar. There are a few things to note here. In the first instance, the painting adds some additional colour to the sanctuary and accordingly draws our attention toward the high altar itself. What's more, the addition of some colour also highlights the ornaments of the altar -- and thus draws our attention to the altar itself.

The next arrangement, however, is to my mind the pièce de résistance. This particular arrangement utilizes a red velvet dossal curtain as well as a corresponding canopy above the altar proper. This not only sets off the entire altar scheme by way of its rich colour and texture, it also has the effect of highlighting the centrality of the altar further by means of the canopy.

Here is another view of it from a different angle which helps to demonstrate the point:

The end result is one which makes clear what the central focal point of the church is.

Here is a side-by-side comparison of the three primary arrangements:

Evidently, what arrangement will work best in a particular church will be dependent upon a variety of factors. However, my hope is to highlight just how important these design choices are.

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