The Silver Altar Dressings of the Huesca Cathedral

This spectacular ensemble, collected over several centuries, with pieces dating from the 16th to the 19th century, consists of the frontal for the altar, together with three gradines and a decorative canopied dossal for the exposition of the blessed sacrament, along with other elements such as reliquaries, candlesticks, altar cards etc. The “Altar de Aparato” as it was known, would be used only on the most solemn occasions, such as the Octave of Corpus Christi or the feast of the Transfiguration. Unfortunately, this custom was discontinued in 1969.

The Altar de Aparato as is displayed today in the Huesca Cathedral Museum,
with an incongruous, though exquisite black embroidered antependium.

The decorations would have been set up on the high altar of the cathedral, at the foot of the spectacular altarpiece carved in alabaster by Damian Forment in 1532. Interestingly, the altar proper was never connected to the altarpiece, dating back to the 14th century. This original altar was sadly dismantled in the early 70’s and a modern replica build further out into the nave. 

The High Altar of the Huesca Cathedral set up for the Octave of Corpus with the Altar de Aparato.
Note also the pair of Candelabra Magna on either side. keen eyes will also spot a tiered display credence on the epistle side. In typical Spanish fashion, wrought iron railings separate the sanctuary from the transept and enclose the via sacra connecting it with the choir.

A central medallion in the center of the great altar frontal features a chiseled relief of the Pietà and is flanked with the figures of Saints Lawrence and Vincent on either side. This frontal is usually displayed on the main altar of the Cathedral, and only removed during Lent. 

The 17th century Altar Frontal is commonly used to dress the High Altar built in 1970.

Two great corbels support the gradines on each side to accommodate the oversized width and includes in its center a tabernacle. The parcel gilt silver dossal takes the form of an open canopy, with a tasseled tester framing a relief of the Resurrected Christ. The lower register features medallions with the three theological virtues, Faith, Hope and Charity. This rococo piece would have served as a background for the monstrance during the Octave of Corpus Christi. 

Detail: Tabernacle integrated into the lower gradine, a Chiseled silver altar card can be seen set on the next level.

The medallions of the three theological virtues frame the Monstrance.

Six reliquary busts are usually set up as part of the display, created by different artists during the 17th century. These represent Saints Lawrence, who according to tradition was originally from Huesca, and Vincent a native of nearby Zaragoza, Saints Orientius and Patientia, Parents of St Lawrence; and Saints Orientius and Martin, Bishops. 

Reliquary bust of St Lawrence, by silversmith Cesar Estrada.

At the center of this decorative apparatus would have been of course the monumental monstrance. Weighing over 193kg it is built in the shape of a 4 story tall classical tempietto. The ostensorium is housed in its second story, surrounded with statuettes representing the resurrected Christ, the Immaculate Conception, the Apostles, etc.

The grand Monstrance, completed by Velázquez de Medrano in 1605.

The “Altar de Aparato” is presently preserved in the Cathedral’s Museum. On the occasion of the feast of the Transfiguration, the Museum has presented the complete ensemble together with the set of vestments that were prescribed by the Cathedral’s Ceremonial. A superb “terno”, a full suite of Chasuble, Dalmatic, Tunicle and Cope in white silk damask embroidered with gold thread in the from of garlands and foliage, enriched with sequins and beads of rock crystal. The Chasuble features two medallions embroidered with high relief of the Agnus Dei and the Pelican in her Piety. 

One may always hope and pray that the Octave of Corpus Christi may some day be revived and these beautiful pieces of art might be restored to their true purpose. 

Exhibit of the Altar de Aparato together with the festal Terno

A curious image of the previous set up of the silverwork exhibit of the museum. while the arrangement is quite chaotic, including several sets of relics, candlesticks, capitular maces, calices etc, it does convey the brilliance and magnificence with with the Blessed Sacrament was surrounded.

Image Credits: Huesca Cathedral Museum, Fernando Alvira, Paloma Torrijos, stock photo service.

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