The Form of the Altar and the Liturgical Movement

The Liturgical Movement of the twentieth century was, as we well know, a bit of a mixed bag. Like any movement, its adherents were not always on the same page with some factions being more conservative and others more "progressive"; some more traditional, some more extreme  In relation to the altar, there was an appropriate focus in this movement upon it given its central role in both a church and within the sacred liturgy. Very frequently this was manifest by the very good desire to ensure that the altar was made of noble materials (such as marble or stone) and another subset sought to restore the use of the ciborium magnum -- another noble inclusion. But another form this focus took was less ideal; namely, some polemical and archeologistic notions started to creep in where the form and shape of the altar are concerned. I refer here not only to the question of a table form of altar or not, but also the altar in relation to its other associated parts and pieces. In particular there began to be some circles who casted aspersions on altars as they had come to frequently develop, with the idea that the altar had become "a mere shelf" before gradines or a grand reredos. It was felt these parts and pieces had come to overshadow the altar itself and this notion became tied to the supposed ideal of the free-standing altar. 

The 'shelf theory' as I am going to call it, had all sorts of downstream architectural and liturgical implications; implications related to versus populum, architectural implications leading to massive (and arguably unnecessary) renovation campaigns, but what's more it had a kind of abstracting, intellectualizing effect where the altar was concerned. What do I mean?

Essentially the altar began to be viewed in its various parts and pieces in a very abstract fashion. For example, this school of thought was very much against the use of the "gradine" (the shelves on which would be stood things like candlesticks, altar flowers and reliquaries -- a very practical application that kept the rest of the mensa of the altar clear of these objects). They were not, they would point out, "part of the altar" and as such they were viewed as not only dispensable but even undesirable. By the same token, this same line of thought came to also extended to things like the reredos (or even the ciborium magnum itself in even more extreme manifestations later on)-- the ornamental screen that was frequently attached to the back of the altar.  

Now strictly speaking, identifying these different parts and pieces (we can add to it the predella) was not incorrect taken on its own. The issue was that, from both an aesthetic and liturgical point of view, this sort of separation was really little more than an intellectual abstraction created by professional liturgists, but divorced from the popular, liturgical and artistic way these things are actually perceived or function in practice. In practice, no one would look at an altar in this way. The altar, along with the gradines, the reredos, ciborium, or whatever else was attached to or around the mensa was understood and interpreted as a whole and not rather as a series of distinct, abstracted parts and pieces. In this regard it seems some in this school of thought within the Liturgical Movement became lost in their own abstractions and couldn't see the forest for the proverbial trees. 

The reality was that, whether we are talking about the grand gradines and ciboria of Italy, or whether we are talking about the ornamental gothic reredos' so often found in other countries, these artistic features all sought (successfully so I might add) to accomplish the purpose of drawing attention to the altar as the most important feature of a church building. It in in this regard that the zeal of the later twentieth century to remove or abandon these features was surely entirely misguided. The net result has been the de-beautification of many Catholic sanctuaries and the loss of focus on the altar itself. 

Too often in the history of liturgical art and architecture, not to mention the liturgical rites themselves (something we have seen now only too recently as well in relation to the venerable ancient Romen rite), a certain ideological or fundamentalistic subset can take root which seeks to turn these matters into one of "either/or" rather than "both/and."  There is, and always has been, room within the Church for these various expressions and the temptation to make any one form or another absolute is not only impoverishing it is also needlessly divisive. 

At the end of the day, what matters is the noble beauty of these structures and that they serve to give the altar the prominence and importance it merits whatever form they take. With that in mind, let us conclude by taking a quick survey of just a few of the noble variations that can be found in the form of the Latin rite altar.

Altar and ciborium magnum

Marble altar with a small gradine and a dossal curtain and canopy

Italianite sttyle altar with gradine, candlesticks and hanging canopy

Gothic altar with gradines and marble reredos

Freestanding altar on predella without gradines

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