More Noble Expressions of the Altar in Table Form

Altars in "table" form tend to get a bad rap these days and that is mainly because of the many poor approaches that were made in their regard in second half of the twentieth century -- approaches that tended to correspond with a concurrent "horizontalization" and "banalization" of parish liturgy. The net result has been that it has left a bad taste in many people's mouths, especially as they also frequently came at the expense of other beautiful altarpieces which were needlessly torn out in order to make way for these.  

One of the major issues with many table altars that appeared in the 1960's and 70's was that they were stylistically dated almost as soon as they were installed. They tended to lack noble materials (being frequently made of wood) or classical ornamentation of any sort, and many of them adopted the fetish of that particular time for a faux-primitivism that was concurrently combined with a kind of 1960's space-age futurism. In immediately succeeding decades of the 1980's and 90's, the approaches were sometime better, though still not particularly stellar.

However, if we take our cues from history we can certainly find some noble altars in table form, especially dated to the medieval period. Here are a few examples:

Altar of the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello

The Norman era chapel of the Tower of London

The mensa is medieval, the columns are 19th century.

11th-13th century, Italy

12th-13th century

Pisa, 11th century

12th century

Lombardy, 11th century


Now, while one might well (as I do) still prefer the sarcophagus-style altar to these, all of these are worthy and noble altars in their own right. So why do they succeed where others might fail?

We begin with the material: stone. The use of stone goes a long way it helping combat the sense of impermanence and insubstantiality that so often accompanies many contemporary table-styled altars. What's more, generally the most successful examples are well proportioned and take similar rectangular proportions to tomb/sarcophagus styled altars. Such generally require supports to support the weight of the mensa of the altar, and these frequently take on classical architectural expressions such as columns.  This not only lends further to the feeling of permanence and substance, they also provide an opportunity for ornamentation and avoidance of minimalism. 

While each of the examples above were antique, here is a contemporary example, in this case combining elements of a sarcophagul altar with that of a table one: 

Of course, while in recent times these have been all the fashion, there is certainly no requirement that altars take this form. However, if one is going to make this approach, one is best to learn from the successes (as well as the failures) of the past. 

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