St. Charles Borromeo's Instructions on the Form of the Tabernacle, Altar Cross and Candlesticks

St. Charles Borromeo was the Cardinal Archibishop of Milan, home of the Ambrosian rite, and there is always plenty of interest in St. Charles' liturgical instructions. It should be noted these liturgical instructions were issued by him for those under his jurisdiction and as such, these should not be mistaken for universally applicable decrees. The most commonly known instruction of St. Charles pertained to sacred vestments but what is sometimes less known is that St. Charles issued decrees to the Milanese on all manner of liturgical arts. Two years ago, for instance, we published his instructions on the form of the high altar, Today, we turn our attention to his instructions around the tabernacle and other ornaments of the altar.

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The Tabernacle

The tabernacle in which the Most Holy Sacrament is reserved shall be of wood, or other proper material. It shall be lined with silk. It shall be covered with a decent canopy. It shall be so arranged that the Blessed Sacrament may be easily reached by the priest, without the necessity of ascending upon the altar. And nothing but the Blessed Sacrament is to be kept therein.

It is fitting that a lamp burn before it, near it and not at the side. Ancient tabernacles [custodiae] in the rear wall are to be removed, or, their specific indications having been entirely destroyed, to be used for relics or the oil of the sick, if constructed according to the prescribed form.

The tabernacle in larger churches shall be, where it is possible, of silver or gilded bronze, or very precious marble. It shall embody smooth workmanship and even joining, be equipped with carved depictions of the mysteries of the Passion of Our Lord, and in appropriate parts judiciously decorated in gilt by a skilled workman, exhibiting a form of decoration reverent and compatible with religion.

It shall be lined interiorly with poplar wood, or with some other wood, to protect the Blessed Sacrament from moisture condensing on metal or marble.

Where the tabernacle is not of this sort, it shall be built of wooden panels (not of such wood as admits moisture, but of poplar or the like), gilded and furnished, as before, with carved depictions of sacred scenes.

The size of the tabernacle shall be appropriate to the dignity, size, or character of the church, upon whose principal altar it is to stand.

In plan it may be octagonal, hexagonal, rectangular, or circular, the choice depending on what form considerations of aesthetics or religion may establish as most appropriate to the design of the church.

On top there should be an image of Christ Risen, or one showing the Sacred Wounds. Or if, on the altar of a small church, by reason of the space occupied by the tabernacle, a suitable place can not be found for the cross (which might otherwise be placed upon it), the cross may, instead of other ornament, be fixed on the top of the tabernacle - either permanently, or in such becoming manner as to permit its removal for the purpose of processions; in either case an image of the Crucified Christ is to be affixed to the cross.

The tabernacle shall be fixed and grounded in a firm position: whether upon a base resting upon the altar, or upon the gradines, or on statues of Angels, or on other supports exhibiting a religious mode of ornament. More over it shall be provided with a good lock and key.

The tabernacle should be placed at some distance from the outer edge of the altar, not less than one cubit and sixteen uncii [24-30"], so that there may be sufficient room to spread the corporal and for placing the box, when that vessel comes into use; on the other hand the tabernacle should not stand so far back that the priest require the use of a step in removing the Blessed Sacrament. Exceptional conditions may require other arrangements.

In more important churches, where more frequently the choir is placed to the rear of the altar, and where the width of the altar is greater to comport with the scale of such structures, the tabernacle may be placed somewhat farther back on the altar. For in such cases there should be, in accordance with prescriptions, an additional door at the back of the tabernacle, through which the Blessed Sacrament may be conveniently and fittingly removed. No cupboard is allowed under the altar, not even for books or other sacred furnishings.

Where the tabernacle cannot, because of the narrowness of the altar, rest or be supported in its entirety upon the altar, it may be propped, whether in part or wholly, upon a base or support back of the altar; but in this case the space between the altar and the wall must not be so blocked as to impede a free circuit of the altar.

The tabernacle is to be completely lined within with silk, red, if the church be of the Ambrosian rite, white, if of the Roman rite.

The Altar Cross

The Cross which is located upon principal altars (or upon the tabernacle [see above]) is to be of quadrangular shape, the lower part fitting into a socket so that it may be removed if the cross is used in procession.

The size of the cross should be proportioned to that of the altar. It shall be of gold, or, if means do not permit that, of silver in cathedrals and collegiate churches. For less solemn functions and ordinary days there should be another of gilded bronze.

The same rule as to material holds in the case of parochial churches, at least as regards the principal altar.

The base by which the cross is supported upon the altar should be of gold, or silver, or gilded bronze, or even of gilded wood, elegantly decorated, and rising to a sufficient height.

The cross which is placed on a minor altar, with its base, should be of the same form but smaller (and it need not be detachable). It should be at least of gilded bronze, but may be of wood, painted and decently gilded.

The Candlesticks

The candlesticks of the principal altar (which formerly were made even of gold), if means will not permit the more solemn offices, and they shall match the cross as to material and design.

Others, for daily use, may be of gilded bronze. It is proper that this material be used in all churches. But for other altars wooden ones may be used, if means do not permit gilded bronze, of turned wood (carvel),

The base of the candlestick (called the foot) should preferably be round or triangular, and by all means harmonizing with that on which the cross stands. It should be sufficiently large to hold a long and heavy candle safely.

The shaft, of carved work decently ornamented. should taper gradually as the style of the altar or church requires, spreading again to a circle at the top.

The rounded top should form a bowl (of silver or bronze gilded) into which the candle may be inserted.

In the lower part should be a ball (knop) binding all together. An iron rod may be placed in silver candlesticks to insure greater rigidity. The paschal candlestick, of silver, bronze gilded, or of solid wood gilded and ornamented, should be approximately five cubits high [about seven feet] with a firm base, especially if it is to stand (as was once the custom) in the midst of the church.

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