The Noble Simplicity of the Traditional Sanctuary Order

Readers may recall that I have spoken of the noble beauty and simplicity that is to be found in traditional sanctuary arrangements of the Latin rite. For those who do not recall, it is my contention that these traditional arrangements, taken in their core essentials, present the very definition of Roman "noble simplicity,"  The enemy of noble simplicity is neither beauty, nor ornamentation; it is clutter -- and clutter seems to invariably arise from a lack of clear liturgical focus.

Now in the pre-conciliar period this did exist as well and it was frequently manifest by the multiplication of free-standing plaster statues here, there and everywhere in and around the sanctuary -- not to mention other devotional odds and ends. I tend to call this "devotional clutter" because it arises from piety; piety attached to particular saints and particular devotions that accumulate over time in a place. I would not say that this was a universal problem by any stretch and the matter seems particularly tied to the churches of the 19th and 20th centuries -- a time when cheap, mass-marketed religious goods like plaster statues and art prints became readily available. Within this milieu, devotional clutter was given the means to thrive. Where it did, we can perhaps say that the clear liturgical focus of the traditional sanctuary ordering, while yet present, was obscured by a kind of devotional haze.

However, this problem did not end with the post-conciliar period; if anything it worsened, being either augmented by or replaced with a new form: the clutter of liturgical ideas and symbols that came out of the trends and ideas of the liturgists of the time. The end result of this is one we know only too well. The clean lines and clear hierarchy of the classical ordering was lost as freestanding altars were set before traditional one's (at least in the most historic churches), as priest's chairs were pushed out from their traditional location and into the sanctuary -- often awkwardly placed so as to face toward the people; lecterns and ambos were installed, baptismal fonts frequently made the pilgrimage from the church's entrance to the sanctuary itself, and if not the former chorus of plaster statues then frequently a chorus of potted plants.  If the other was a competition of saints, we might say this was a competition of symbols.

In both instances the net result is a sanctuary cluttered and without a clear sense of focus -- though in the first instance, extraneous devotional items can simply be removed to thus let the noble simplicity and beauty of the traditional sanctuary ordering to once again shine through.  In the case of contemporary post-conciliar liturgical orderings, it could be much more of a challenge depending upon the particular place. Some places may require full renovation / restoration, however, in other instances, it could also be as simple as removing those pieces which have been added to the sanctuary to thus restore the classical arrangement:

Left is how the church stands today. Right is a graphically altered image that approximates how the sanctuary would look if restored to its classical ordering by simply removing the forward, freestanding altar
Of course, it helps, as in the case of the church shown here, if there is already a high quality artistic foundation from which to work, but regardless, what the classical ordering offers is a church and a sanctuary which has a clear sense of focus and direction; one which leads us from the entrance, up through the nave, passing the threshold of the chancel and sanctuary, finally and leading us up to the high altar itself. It is an ordering which is at once dramatic and clear, catechetical and hierarchical; noble and simple.

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