A Model Roman (Side) Altar

The well known Alcuin Club tracts of Anglo-Catholic fame included various considerations of "English altars" (namely, medieval altars found within England) throughout their course and today I wanted to show what I consider a very good model for a "Roman altar" set within the specific context of a chapel or the side altar of a church. The altar which we are considering for this purpose is that of the Little Oratory found within the London Oratory. Of course, these distinctions between 'English' and 'Roman' altars are somewhat tendentious as they each pertain to Catholic altars, only of different periods with their co-related styles. In this particular instance then, when speaking of a "Roman" altar what I really intend is an altar in the renaissance and post-renaissance tradition as particularly found within Italy and Rome proper.

It is worth re-emphasizing that what we are considering here is not a high altar, which is why you do not see the usual six candlesticks which are so iconically associated with altars of the Roman rite. While this is by no means universal (many Roman side altars do, for example, include the six candlesticks) I believe that what we see here is a very good model that not only follows the spirit of the liturgy and its ceremonial directives, it also has the effect of setting apart the high altar proper from the other altars within a church.

The proportions here are very nice all around  We see the usual set of steps, including the predella, that particularly service the ceremonial of the ancient rite of the liturgy. As for the altar itself, it is made of noble materials and the candlesticks are very well proportioned in relation to it.  Some readers will also note the portapalme, so typical of Italianate altars of this period and style -- metallic floral ornaments. The altar is clean and crisp, yet also ornamental, reflecting a character we typically speak of as "Romanitas" -- a Roman character that is simple and yet not unduly minimalistic.

This particular chapel also has a rather model instantiation of a Roman altar setup for a Requiem Mass (i.e a Mass for the Dead) which I would be remiss to not also make note of:

Here you can see how six candlesticks have been added in this instance for a Missa Cantata (which is always an option for these altars of course), but in addition the portapalme and silver candlesticks and altar cross have been replaced by ornaments and unbleached beeswax candles that reflect the more sombre signs and tones of the Requiem Mass. In this comparison, I believe readers will see just how powerful these ceremonial distinctions can be, just as can be the distinction between a high altar and other altars within a church.

Elements such as the number of candles lit on an altar are, of course, determined by various rubrical and ceremonial considerations, not merely aesthetic one's, however our considerations here assumes that which usually takes place, liturgicaly speaking, at altars such as these. It is in that regard that I believe that we see here a very good model for our churches and chapels.

Photo credits: The first two photos are courtesy of the Schola Sainte-Cecile

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