The Altar and Its Related Parts: Avoiding Abstractions

Within the Liturgical Movement of the twentieth century there was often a critique around traditional altar arrangements where it was said that the gradines and/or reredos overtook the altar itself. In some ways this critique can, at first glance, seem valid. One has to think only of the grandiose altarpieces which accompany so many altars and think of their great prominence and beauty. As I consider this critique, however, it strikes me as being some what "rigid" and even "fundamenalist" at root; a case of not seeing the forest for the trees.

When one puts to mind the great altar arrangements of so many early Christian basilicas -- which include the ciborium magnum -- the whole point of such structures was that in such large spaces as a basilica, some equally grandiose structure was needed, not the replace or compete with the altar, but precisely to draw one's attention to it and to its importance. One need only think of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome to consider the truth of this arrangement.

Outside of basilicas, be they in Rome or elsewhere, the whole point around reredoses, or in other instances gradines ornamented by altar candlesticks and surmounted by paintings, sculpture and what not, was precisely the same motive. These architectural features helped to ensure that the altar was not lost in the otherwise overwhelming features of the church building which surrounded it. 

In this regard then these architectural features were quite successful in their purpose. To give an example of this success I thought I would show the following Italian church. Within the vast architecture of this church. the gradine, the altar ornaments and the painting above the altar all draw attention to the altar. To help illustrate the point further, I would point out that what you may not notice, however, is the contemporary altar that is set before this traditional altar arrangement. It disappears -- swallowed up by everything that surrounds it. This is because that contemporary altar has nothing that would draw one's attention to it and thus it becomes lost in the overall scheme of things. The solution is not to minimize the surrounding architecture, but to do precisely what the wisdom of the received tradition has shown us to do.  The end result is a church of great beauty where the altar -- with its accompanying parts -- takes prominence.

To bring this all back to where we began, the temptation to pull all of these component pieces apart and distinguish what is and isn't the essence of the altar proper (and then set these pieces into opposition) strikes me as misguided and akin to debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It is, as I said earlier, a case of not seeing the forest for the trees. It is essentially an exercise in abstractions. But the altar and the liturgy is not a matter of mere intellectual abstractions; it is something sensual and experiential. 

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