Famous Daprato Altars: Church of St. Agnes (Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis)

The Daprato Statuary Company produced some of the finest marble altars in the United States. Their tag line was "first in quality of materials used, first in quality of execution, first in fidelity to design."  Daprato altars were seen everywhere in new churches in the 1920s, as evidenced in their book entitled Creations in Ecclesiastical Art: Daprato Altars.  While many Daprato altars survived the sixties iconoclastic purge, others were not so lucky and ended up in landfills.  

Thankfully the Daprato high altar of the church of St. Agnes in St. Paul survived the tempest of change and frenzy of modernization. It is a fine example of Daprato workmanship and artistic superiority.  Daprato altars were created at great expense for the sole purpose of giving honor and glory to God and sanctifying and inspiring the faithful. Someone once made a comment that if they were trying to describe sunlight to a blind person, they would have them visit St. Agnes to hear an orchestral Mass.  Similarly, I would add that for any person who is spiritually blind, take them to St. Agnes to see the high altar in resplendent array during a sung High Mass. 

The altar photographed in 1949

The St. Agnes altar was made of marbles and mosaics designed and crafted in Pietrasanta, Italy.  The cost was about $20,000.  The new altar was installed in 1930 by the Drake Marble Company of St. Paul, Minn.  The colorful iconography of the altar depicts mosaics crafted in the Vatican Mosaic Studios.  The images are of St. Agnes in the top register and the crucifixion of Christ in the lower register.  On the face of the altar can be seen the Alpha and Omega with the Lamb of God in the center, from the Book of Revelation.  The altar includes six marble statues of carved angels as well as a gradine for candles and another for flowers.    

Aerial view of St. Agnes church

Originally the altar included three marble steps that led up to the marble footpace, replaced with new marble flooring in celebration of the Holy Year 2000.  The new steps that were installed were meant to give a more gradual assent to the altar, inspired by a similar design seen at the Cathedral of St. Paul, envisioned by the Cathedral's French architect E.L. Masqueray.  

The History of the Church of Saint Agnes by Msgr. Schuler reads thus of the new Daprato altar at St. Agnes (p. 68):

"The detail of the inlaid marbles and the delicately carved angels, both those with their trumpets at the top and those kneeling in adoration on each side, make the altar a truly significant artistic treasure.  The carving of the Lamb of God over the Book of the seven Seals and the Alpha and Omega adorn the front, and the six columns of polished Siena marble carry the baldachin with its decorated marble tassels.  An interesting detail might be noticed by the astute observer.  If one compares the two marble vases at the top near the windows, it can be seen that they are not exactly centered, because the sanctuary itself is a little smaller on one side than on the other.  Originally the church was to have faced Thomas Street, but because the trolley cars were routed on that street, the church was turned to face Lafond Street.  The foundations for the tower had already been placed, and it had to remain.  In planning the sanctuary area, some of the space was occupied by the tower, and thus it was somewhat reduced on the west side.  Only when the altar was installed could this be noticed.  The artist was wise.  He erected the cross at dead center, but the vases do not each have the same relationship with the windows.  One protrudes slightly farther toward the window than the other."    

Pietrasanta is a town of Roman origins.  It is located in northern Tuscany, on the foothills of the Apuan Alps, about twenty miles north of Pisa and fifteen miles south of the marble capital of the world, Carrara.  Its famous quarries and schools teaching carving skills are well known.  The town, like much of Tuscany, has long enjoyed the patronage of artists.  Pietrasanta grew to importance during the fifteenth century due mainly to its connection with marble.  

Under the Medici government, marble quarries were opened in the nearby Alps.  Many Renaissance artists, including Michelangelo recognized the beauty of the local stone and visited Pietrasanta from Florence to glean skills from local artisans and to acquire the best quality marble for famous works of lasting art.  

During the 1920s, a brick and mortar era for Catholicism in American, Daprato was making a lot of altars for new churches across the United States.  They had offices in Chicago, New York, Montreal, and a studio in Pietrasanta.  To this day Pietrasanta attracts many artists and tourists, remaining an artistic crossroads of artists coming from all over the world.  The town is still home to over fifty marble workshops and bronze foundries.   

Below is a image of the altar dressed for the Solemnity of Easter Sunday with festive flowers.

Following are a few images from the Daprato catalogue from that time period, to give readers a sense of the philosophy behind their marble altars...



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