The Liturgical Construction of the Altar - Part 1 of 2

Our previous reprint on the "textile appurtenances" of the altar from Liturgical Arts Quarterly proved of great interest to many, so I thought I would reprint another similar article from the Fall 1931 issue of the same (the very first issue in point of fact), this time on the liturgical construction of the altar. As before, we will split it into two parts in the interests of brevity.

The author of the article -- and its corresponding illustrations -- may already be familiar to some LAJ readers: Fr. Edwin Ryan, author of Candles in the Roman Rite.

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The Liturgical Construction of the Altar

The Reverend Edwin Ryan, D.D.

There is no appurtenance of a church which is more essential to the performance of Divine Worship than the altar, for without it Mass cannot be celebrated. Furthermore, the altar is architecturally the focal point of the interior of any Christian church; to it all eyes are turned, and its artistic perfection can make or mar the beauty of the entire edifice.

The purpose of this article is entirely practical, viz., to illustrate for priest and architect the liturgical requirements of the Church for the construction of altars and to suggest certain arrangements which have proved useful in the past or have been hallowed by tradition. The color plates shown herewith are the essential part, and will show at a glance what is intended. But they are not to be taken as the only models of altar construction. They are merely samples, deliberately avoiding any "style" or "period," illustrating the principles by which one ought to be guided.  The reader may, by various combinations, suggest plans of his own. He may prefer, for example, to combine the position of the crucifix as depicted in one plate with the dossal and tester of another, etc. Within the requirements of liturgical correctness and good taste the fullest liberty is of course permissible.

Before entering upon a detailed discussion of the subject, it may be well to describe the authorities by which one must be guided in constructing any altar. There is first of all the twentieth chapter of the General Rubrics of the Missal: "The altar, on which the most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is to be celebrated, should be of stone and consecrated by a Bishop (or an Abbot having this power from the Apostolic See); or at least there should be a piece of stone (ara lapidea) large enough to support the Host and the greater part of the base of the chalice, similarly consecrated by a Bishop (or Abbot as above), inserted in it. This altar should be covered with three cloths, or clean coverings (tobaleis mundis), blessed by a Bishop or some other person having the authority, the upper being at least long enough to reach the ground at the ends, the other two shorter, or consisting of one cloth folded double. The altar, moreover, should be adorned with a frontlet (pallium) of that color suitable to the feast or office if this is possible. On the altar should be placed a crucifix, in the centre, and at least two candlesticks containing candles on either side. At the foot of the cross should be placed the Mass card; on the Epistle corner, the cushion necessary for the support of the missal, and at the same Epistle side the wax candle (Sanctus Candle) to be lighted for the elevation of the Sacrament. A small bell, small glass cruets for water and wine, together with a small laver and clean towel should be ready on the same side, in a small orifice or on a table. Absolutely nothing should be placed upon the altar which does not pertain to its own adornment or to the Sacrifice of the Mass."

These essentials have been amplified by decisions on specific points promulgated by the Congregation of Sacred Rites and by general instructions and recommendations to be found in such authorities as the Rituale Romanum and the Caeremoniale Episcoporum. Tradition likewise plays its part, and has, in some cases, proved more powerful than the Congregation of Sacred Rites, even in Rome itself.

In summary it may be said that the Church has two prime requisites in mind for Her altars: permanence and dignity. All the decisions of the Congregation of Sacred Rites are based upon profound conceptions of these two attributes; often a specific ruling will seem inconsistent with the letter of some previous ruling on the same subject, but the underlying spirit will be found to be the same.

The Altar Proper

Two types of altar are specifically provided for in the section from the General Rubrics quoted above. These are generally known as "fixed" altars and "portable" altars. In the former type, the entire table (mensa), which must be a single slab of stone, and its support (stipes), which must likewise be of stone and firmly cemented to the mensa, are consecrated. In the latter only a small piece of hard stone, large enough to support the Host, the ciborium, and the greater part of the base of the chalice, is consecrated. It is then inserted in a frame, which may be of stone, metal, wood, or any other fitting material.

The mensa of a fixed altar has engraved upon its surface, which should be highly polished, five Greek crosses. Four of these should be at the corners, about six inches from the edges; the fifth should be in the centre. The stone of a portable altar bears the same arrangement of Greek crosses, except that those at the corners must naturally be nearer the edges; such a stone may be raised a little above the level of the mensa into which it is set, so that the priest may feel its limited through the altar cloths and thus avoiding placing the Host anywhere except upon the altar proper. The mensa in either type of altar had best be flat; it may, however, have one gradine (a little step at the back), but never more than one. The size of the mensa is not governed by any authority except that of convenience in the celebration of the Mass. For this the minimum size is about twenty inches wide by about eight feet six inches long. It should be about three feet five inches above the platform on which the priest celebrates.

The stipes, or support, of a fixed altar may consist of either four or more stone columns, or of a solid stone base. If columns are used, the interstices between them may either be left open, or filled with some suitable material: brick or cement. If there should remain a hollow space under the mensa, it is never to be used as a closet, even for sacred vessels. As a portable altar, properly speaking, consists or only a small piece of stone, it cannot be said to have a stipes. But the framework in which it rests should be designed with the requirements for the stipes of a fixed altar in mind.

The third, and final, element in the altar proper is the sepulchrum, or cavity, in which the prescribed relics are placed* (*a portion of the body of at least one canonized martyr, C.S.R., 16 February, 1906). in a fixed altar this chamber is made to contain a reliquary of some non-corroding metal. The sepulchrum must be hewn in the solid stone of the altar. It may be located (1) in the front or back of the altar, midway between the mensa and the footpace; (2) in the mensa, near its front edge; (3) in the top of a solid base, the mensa serving as cover. In either of the first two cases, a cover must be provided for the sepulchrum. It must fit the opening exactly. It should have crosses engraved on the upper and nether sides. In a portable altar the relic is placed directly in the sepulchrum, which should be cut out of the stone on top, either near the front edge or in the centre. In this case likewise a tight cover is necessary.

The entire altar should stand upon a platform (predella, footpace), being thus at least one step (about six inches above the floor. An altar at which solemn functions are held should be three steps high.

[To be continued... Watch for Part 2 in a coming article.]

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