New Romanesque Tabernacle and Sanctuary Lamp by Granda Liturgical Arts

Some of our readers might already be familiar with the project of the new Premonstratensian Abbey being constructed in Silverado, California. The Norbertine fathers of St Michael’s Abbey have outgrown their present facilities, founded in 1961 by members of the order exiled from Csorna, Hungary. The New Abbey, set within the Cleveland National Forest, is being built in a traditional Romanesque style. The original design for the new complex was developed by French architect Jean-Louis Pagès, who had previously designed, together with Dom Gerard Calvet, the Abbey of Le Barroux. Granda was engaged by the Norbertine Fathers to create, among other items, the Tabernacle and Sanctuary Lamp for the new Abbey Church.
The design for this oversized tabernacle and lamp needed to be coherent in style with the rest of the Romanesque Abbey Church. Given that during the Romanesque period the Blessed Sacrament was not reserved in such a public and prominent manner as it is today, Granda’s designers had to come up with alternative sources of inspiration for the new pieces.

The Aralar Altarpiece. Sanctuary of San MIguel in Excelsis, Navarre.
Picture by Theklan (CC)

The tabernacle is based on one of the most important examples of Limoges enamelwork, the Aralar Retable. It is believed that this masterpiece of twelfth century craftsmanship was a gift of King Richard the Lionheart of England as a sign of good will after his betrothal to princess Berengaria of Navarre. The Retable has since been kept at the Sanctuary of St Michael in Excelsis, which was built on a mountaintop of the Aralar range in Navarre. It is likely that the piece was initially intended as an altar frontal, and later placed above as a retrotabula.

The design for St Michael’s Abbey was customized to the specifications of the Fathers, with a rich iconographic program. The central motif, covering the door, is a depiction of Our Lady with the Child Jesus on her lap, set in a Mandorla and surrounded by adoring angels, A reference to the fact that Mary was the first Tabernacle to contain the Body of Christ.

On both sides we find figures from the Old Testament, precursors to Christ’s roles as Priest, Victim and King. These are set within twelve arches that represent the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem as described in the Apocalypse.

Upon the upper row are Abel, who offered the first sacrifices agreeable to God; Abraham and Isaac, whose sacrifice on mount Moriah was stopped by an angel; Moses, who established the tabernacle as dwelling place for God, Levi, founder of the priestly lineage and Melchisedech, king of Salem and high priest. The lower register features King David, builder of the first temple; the prophets Zechariah and Malachi, both involved in the restoration of the second temple; St John the Baptist and his father Zachary the priest; and St Simeon, the first to recognize Jesus as Savior.

On the top register, four female figures precursors of Mary: Eve, the first Mother, Sarah and Hannah, who through divine intervention conceived Isaac and the prophet Samuel, and Miriam, Moses’ sister, who sang praise to the Lord after the crossing of the Red Sea. The Tabernacle is surmounted by a Cross and Orb representing Christ’s sovereignty over creation. The inside of the tabernacle is also decorated with two enameled icons.

For the Sanctuary Lamp, the designers drew inspiration from the ancient votive crowns that were hung over the altar, in particular one made by order of the Visigothic king Recceswinth in the seventh century. The custom of hanging votive crowns above the altar, which was begun by the Christian emperors of Rome and Byzantium, likely arrived in Visigothc Spain when St Gregory the great gifted one to King Reccared upon his conversion from Arianism.

Receswinth's votive crown. National Archaeological Museum, Madrid
Picture by Ángel M. Felicísimo (CC)

The Lamp created for the abbey consists of an enormous 16-inch wide chiseled fretwork diadem, covered with cabochons, from which hang twelve pendilia or pendants. The artificial stones were used instead of sapphires and pearls. Right below the circlet the actual lamp is suspended, a large reservoir for liquid fuel. The setting of the stones on floating bezels and the position of the lamp hanging in front of the apse windows will provide a nice interplay between the light and flame.


The New Abbey is scheduled to be completed in 2021. If you would like to know more about the project, please visit Uniting Heaven and Earth, a video series discussing the New Abbey’s Art & Architecture hosted by Fr Justin Ramos O.Praem. 

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.