The History and Forms of the Christian Altar: The Twentieth Century to Present

In our last and final instalment we shall consider the form of the altar as it would come to be expressed in the twentieth century onward. While previous periods were defined by their evolution of one form of the altar to another, the contemporary period is really much more a case of revivalisms and archeologisms. 

As was noted in our last instillment, the counter-reformation forms of the altar, tied either to grandiose altarpieces or to grandiose gradines and tabernacles were falling 'out of favour' with the liturgists of the twentieth century -- though not popularly with the people of course (an important point to recall). From the perspective of the liturgists however, the net result of these developments was to make the altar appear to be a secondary component of the entire arrangement. What's more, there was also concern with how these developments affected a more strict adherence to the rubrical requirements (for example, the ability to veil the tabernacle, or fulfilling the requirement of the main altar being covered by some sort of canopy and so on).  There are really two distinct periods we need to consider. Namely the first half of the twentieth century, driven by the Liturgical Movement, and the second half, driven by some of the ideas and circumstances that circulated around the post-conciliar era.

I. The Liturgical Movement and the First Half of the Twentieth Century 

In the first half of the twentieth century we saw nineteenth century gothic revival replaced by twentieth century paleochristian revival -- though at this point it was a revival that wasn't rooted in slavish archeologisms it must be noted, for while it would indeed see the authentic ciborium magnum restored (something that had never entirely disappeared), there was no real impetus to restore the ancient cube form of the altar and most of these altars still retained the tomb form that had become standard to the second millennium.  The altars were, however, made more substantial, generally of stone in construction rather than wood, deeper in their breadth (thus responding to the criticism that too many altars had become like glorified "shelves") and might either be freestanding or not; some would also adopt ornamental screens or textiles behind. The model here was clearly one based on a mixture of the paleochristian model, the medieval Roman basilica model, and sometimes also some later medieval and Renaissance influences. It was a hybrid model -- and a rather appealing one at that. 

However, this wasn't the only expression to be found in the period. In other instances we saw a models develop which took their inspiration from the so-called "English altar" (a misnomer), sometimes containing riddel posts and curtains, sometimes still presenting a large reredos superstructure, but generally they all tried to re-assert a suspended canopy over the altar, thereby seeking to better fulfill what was envisioned by the rubrics.

II. The Second Half of the Twentieth Century 

As we transition into the second half of the twentieth century however, a shift would begin to take place, mainly in response to the liturgical ideas of the mid-twentieth century and post-conciliar era liturgists who began to favour celebration of the Mass "ad populum" (i.e. facing the people), who sought to emphasize the meal aspect of the liturgy over the sacrificial -- arguably for ecumenical reasons -- and who favoured concelebration over other forms of clerical participation -- private Masses, Mass in choro and so on. 

The initial movement toward this can especially be seen around the middle of the twentieth century and was frequently represented by a freestanding altar, still tomb form in many instances, and still seeing its altar cross and candles placed upon the mensa of the altar. It was effectively a medieval Roman model often minus the ciborium.  These models frequently made ad populum at least a possibility, though they didn't necessarily exclude the potential for the continuance of ad orientem either. While the loss of the ciborium and/or altar screen was certainly felt, the continuance of the traditional six altar candlesticks and altar cross, still substantial in size and height, helped to least mitigate that loss, especially in smaller parish church settings. 

A transitional altar arrangement representative of the transition between the first and second half of the century
Another transitional arrangement from the mid-twentieth century. Clearly the model here is the Roman basilica (minus the ciborium), including even an approximation of the medieval schola cantorum

However, as we move past this and into the post-conciliar age, certain archeologisms crept in, such as restoring the long defunct paleochristian practice of putting nothing on the mensa of the altar but what was minimally required, combined with some distinctly modern notions about the 'need' for the faithful to have total visibility into the rites and ceremonies (one of the very things which drove the ad populum movement amongst them; that and the meal aspect). Wrapped around all of this was also a great deal of ceremonial instability. The rites and ceremonies were changing year by year and this too would have an impact as many sanctuary arrangements were no doubt merely intended as interim one's would frequently cement into more or less permanent one's. Some were merely waiting out the storm, others dealing with the fact that their parish might have only had such renovations done within living memory before as part of the Liturgical Movement -- with the very same people who had donated toward the project still around (and likely not particularly happy about the prospect of undoing the work they had only recently contributed toward). 

The net result of this period for the altar was multifold. In the first instance, the gains that had been made in the first half of the century with regard to the canopying of the altar (ciborium or otherwise) were lost as quickly as they had been gained.  Many of these were based around the norm of ad orientem celebration and as such, while they might have only been erected a decade or two prior, we see many instances were these once again torn down, or if not torn down, turned (ironically) back into a glorified tabernacle and exposition throne -- I say 'ironically' because it was one of the very things the Liturgical Movement was working against -- with a much smaller and generally less noble table altar placed before it. (And so it is we enter the period of the sanctuary with two altars; the so-called 'altar of reservation' -- i.e. the former high altar -- and the 'altar of sacrifice -- the post-conciliar freestanding altar.;)

In the second instance, this new emphasis on concelebration also had an impact on the form of the altar, for between it and the post-conciliar emphasis on ceremonial visibility, the ciborium no doubt came to be seen as an obstacle to both. For similar reasons the ancient predella (the platform upon which altars were traditionally set from very early on) was now frequently absent. The net result was a very novel situation where altars now sat without either canopy over it or even a predella beneath, orphaned in the midst of the sanctuary. Here too, ironically, the aspirations of the Liturgical Movement to re-emphasize the substantiality and centrality of the altar would come to be effectively trumped, for, stripped of its other parts and pieces, visually it no longer stood out from the rest of the building.

Contributing to this as well was the desire of liturgists to emphasize the "meal" aspect of the Eucharistic liturgy which would see a wider revival of the "table" form of altar, and also a general reduction in the size of the altars toward a smaller form. Sometimes these were designed quite well (generally these examples were made of stone and in the same proportions as a tomb altar) though frequently they were not, no doubt in part again because of the ceremonial instability of the period, resulting in many insubstantial altars of little nobility or beauty -- altars which were not even permanently fixed in the sanctuary -- but which nonetheless became permanent. 

The altar is smaller, in table form, decorated with paleochristian symbols. One will note that nothing is on the mensa other than the paten, chalice and missal. The candlesticks are now on the floor around the altar and the altar cross is no longer there.

What we might call an "interim arrangement" given the manner of the construction of the altar that has become a permanent one. The disparity between the traditional high altar and the new one is striking. This type of arrangement is quite common.

With the rise of ad populum, gradines would also disappear from altars as would tabernacles -- and here we can at least point to the medieval Roman basilicas as a living model. However, as noted, archeologisms had also crept in during this period and between those archeologisms and the novel desire for ceremonial visibility, the result of these influences was that altar candlesticks and crosses were now generally removed from the altar, being instead placed on the floor around it -- which also contributed toward the altar becoming visually and spatially lost in the rest of the church building. 

Another example of a table-style altar, made now from modern materials (the column base is clear plastic with a spola capital curiously contained within, the altar candlesticks and cross now on the floor to either side. This type of arrangement is quite commonly seen in contemporary Italy but is not uncommon elsewhere.

A contemporary, minimalist "cube" altar.

The end result of all these influences combined was what we might call a "minimalist" arrangement. After a few decades of this, beginning in the last decade of the twentieth century up until present, there began to be a counter-movement, in pockets at least, that recognized the artistic and liturgical deficiencies of these later twentieth century arrangements and so we have seen a trend develop which has sought to recapture some of the gains that had been made in the first half of the twentieth century. This has seen ciboria once again coming into play, or in other instances, ornamental reredos structures placed behind freestanding altars. The pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI would also see some measure of corrective begin to brought to this matter of "visibility" with candlesticks and cross being more frequently seen once again on the altar in the Roman basilica model  

Suffice it to say, however, we yet still find ourselves in the midst a liturgical tug of war between these two poles; between those who promote the more traditional approach taken in the first half of the twentieth century and those who prefer the minimalist, pseudo-paloechristian post-conciliar approach of the second half. 

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