Why the Predella or Altar Step(s) are Important

In an article of February 20, 2018, The Neglected Predella: Its Importance for Altar Arrangements, I had discussed the fact of how many modern altar/sanctuary arrangements tend to cut out this related component of the altar. Before we go further in our considerations today, let's review once again what a "predella" is.  The predella is the step and/or platform onto which the altar is traditionally placed. At its simplest one might simply refer to it as an altar step.   This component, as it relates to the Christian altar, was in evidence already by the time of Constantine in the fourth century. Over time, as the ceremonies of the Church matured and the size of churches increased in general, so too did the number of steps increase, with three frequently being one of the most common manifestations, while instances of five or even seven steps could also be found. 

The predella generally passed around the three sides of the altar (namely, the liturgically "western" side, where the priest would stand, as well as the liturgically northern and southern sides of the altar, where the altar might be approached from the sides. One might wonder why only three sides, rather than four, but one must bear in mind the general rule of the celebration of the Mass "ad orientem" in the vast majority of instances, as well as the historical development of the altar itself which frequently included gradines or a reredos and so on on its liturgically eastern side.  (The case of the ancient Roman basilicas is historically rather unique and also included the confessio before the altar, so while these principles stand true in these instances as well, we shall leave them aside so as to not needlessly complicate the matter.)  All that being said, in the case of a truly freestanding altar where there were no gradines, reredos or confessio, there is certainly no reason to not have the predella surround the altar on all four sides -- and indeed, that was something we did see manifest within the twentieth century Liturgical Movement. 

If that was the form of the predella, what of its function? 

Quite simply put, the predella, like the ciborium magnum, served to help provide greater prominence and visibility to the altar as well as the sacred ceremonies enacted upon it and also architecturally demarcated the altar from the rest of the church and sanctuary, symbolically showing its central importance. 

While this ancient feature was indeed to be found in the freestanding altars of the Liturgical Movement of the first half of the twentieth century, unfortunately in the post-conciliar era it has frequently been excluded. In terms of why that is so, there seem to me to be two likely explanations. 

The first is that, while it was neither necessary, nor called for by the Second Vatican Council or rubrics of the missal, to either stop the traditional practice of celebrating Mass ad orientem or to stop the use of the traditional high altar, regrettably this was common in practice, particularly as a spirit of rupture took over. With that came hastily introduced, poorly thought out, minimalist liturgical orderings -- orderings which to this day have a very ad hoc and impermanent feel about them (the only saving grace of which is that it has kept open the possibility of better reversing what was never required or envisioned in the first place). Hand in hand with that came the exclusion of the predella. 

In the second instance, also tied to this same period, was the advent of the crowding of sanctuaries with concelebrants, particularly in larger churches, and doubtless some felt it was better to exclude the predella so as to better facilitate such liturgical scenarios whereby the main celebrant and the concelebrants, could all stand around the altar on the same level. 

Whatever the case it is, I believe its exclusion is a mistake, for the net result (just as in the case of the exclusion of vertical altar candlesticks and candles, ciboria, etc.) is nothing less than the de-accentuation of the altar.   A good example of this once again came to light reently in a photo of a contemporary re-ordering of a church in Italy:

Behind can be seen the renaissance/baroque form of altar which includes its altar steps. Before it sits a contemporary altar, without the predella. Despite the fact the altar is in solid, "tomb" form, the altar has a very impermanent, transient feel about it -- and without trying to be polemical about it, it rather looks like a box that was simply placed within the sanctuary.  While the obvious comparison of it with the high altar that rises behind it is unavoidable, it is not that which creates this issue (in fact, if anything the traditional altar helps offset the problem slightly by way of inheritance).  No, the issue is simply that an altar without its "step" -- be it one step or three -- ends up looking orphaned within its sanctuary.  This is the case no matter the particular form of the altar (and I would invite readers to see our original article for examples).

Of course, architects are generally not to blame for any of this, for they generally include these features in their design proposals from what I have seen. Rather it is their clients (or their client's diocesan liturgy offices) who frequently impose such directions, but in so doing what they are effectively contributing to is the diminution and obfuscation of that which should be the most primary, central and permanent of all structures within the church building.  

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