top of page

On "Proper Altars"

Peregrinus Goes Abroad

Part 1: See America First; Chapter 8


A brand new Buck, glistening paint, shining nickel plate, spotless tires and everything, careens off the boulevard and sweeping up the driveway comes to a sudden and unprovided stop before the door of the Rectory of St. Inveteratus’ Church, Centerville. A portly old gentleman, clad in a dingy black suit, much in need of the ministrations of a tailor, a biretta jauntily perched on his bald pate, descends with more haste than dignity, and in a clear voice intones, “Oh! Pere! Come out and see it!” Can it be?—it is! None other than our old friend the Liturgiologist. At last, at last, he has his new Buck and is no longer dependent upon the charity of the Antiquary for transportation in that worthy’s not-quite-so-new Swerve.


The inspection and trial of the new machine took up most of the morning and ended in an acrimonious discussion of the relative merits of Buicks and Swerves, only quieted by an excellent “full meal” at noon. Neither of the two old priests anticipated, which, after all, was something! In the spacious study afterwards, with the windows wide to admit the first balmy breezes of a somewhat belated Spring, the Antiquary produced a roll of blueprints with the proud remark: “I, too, have somewhat to show thee!”


“Plans for the new church,” exclaimed the Liturgiologist. “Let’s see the altar first.”


“What makes you think that the architect has anything to do with the altar?” queried the Antiquary.


“Because  I know you so well,” was the smiling reply of the Liturgiologist. “You’d never build a church, and then insert a Catalogus Altar[1] which might, or might not, harmonize with your building. You’re an antiquary, which is bad enough; but you’re an artist, which is worse! And you know the altar is the first consideration, around which the church grows as a tree from its roots. Your architect has designed his altar first; lemme see it!”


There is no need here to describe the architectural excellencies of the altar of the new St. Inveteratus. The fact that the church was to be a modified French Gothic did not change the liturgical principles of its construction nor does the style of any altar call for more than the modification of details in its proper and “rubrical” arrangements. If the reader is interested in this particular altar (which the author can scarcely hope) he may consult any handbook of church architecture,[2] and he will likely find a picture of the (alas!) desecrated shrine of the Saint Chapelle in Paris, which served the Antiquary and his architect as a model. The ciborium is Gothic, for that rubrical arrangement is not limited to the Romanesque style, as so many seem to think. The altar itself, now overthrown, was, we may suppose, very much of the sort which the Antiquary proposes to build.[3]


“Ah! I see you have a baldacchino,” cried the Liturgiologist.


“Pardon,” replied the Antiquary, “It’s a ciborium or canopy. Strictly speaking a baldacchino is suspended over the altar or bracketed from a wall. The sort of canopy which stands on four supports, as does this, the great canopy in St. Peter’s in Rome, and other Roman churches, is a canopy, strictly speaking. ‘Ciborium’ is as you well know, the architectural name for it, but for some time that word has been carried over to the pyx in which the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, so let’s not confuse the issue by being pedantic.”


“You have me,” admitted the Liturgiologist, “nodding again! Now ask me something I know!”


“Very well, then,” said the Antiquary. “Exactly where are the directions to be found which authoritatively prescribed such a canopy, and, by implication at least, decry the style of altars to which we have become accustomed, standing against a fence, dossal, reredos or the like? I prefer a canopied altar, for artistic and antiquarian reasons. But you have said that I must not find fault with those whose taste differs from mine, provided their uncanopied altars conform to the norm of the Church for altars as such. Now, where are these norms, directions, rubrical proprieties, to be found?”


“The Caeremoniale Episcoporum is, of course, the norm you seek,” replied the Liturgiologist. “Chapter XII gives directions for the arrangement of the altar at which the bishop officiates, and as he may officiate at any altar in any church anywhere, the implication is obvious. Moreover, repeatedly throughout the book it is plainly stated that the many of the directions apply to churches and clergy everywhere and of all ranks. There is hardly any formulary of the Roman Catholic Church less consulted and observed than this, yet it is the law of the Church after all.


Like all ceremonial prescriptions of Rome, its directions are wide enough to be practical in churches of any size of style of architecture. The altar with a canopy, or at least with a baldacchino, is undoubtedly the ideal of the Church, but directions are given for cases si altare parieti adhaereat.[4] The text books and decrees of St. Charles Borromeo,[5] the great restorer of ceremonial, have not, of course, the force of law. But they remain the best commentary on the liturgical law of the Church, and it is a great pity that they are not better known. Then there are ‘Approved Authors’ who are practically unanimous in their recommendations regarding the construction and adornment of altars.


Our modern ecclesiastical furnishers seem never to have heard of any of these texts, and continue to supply the Clergy with altars which fail to conform to the rules, and are, ofttimes, artistic abominations as well. The Clergy buy them because they are handy, save bother and money.


But a better day is dawning. Here and there one finds a priest, like yourself, dear Father, who wishes to conform to the mind of the Church, to do things and have things right. Their tribe is increasing, in spite of the jibes of the Catalogus, and sooner or later, they will create a demand which even Catalogus cannot afford to ignore. Why! Even some of the bishops are beginning to cite the Roman decrees on ceremonial! There’s hope, Pere, there’s hope!”


“But so many of these things are matters of taste, and so cannot be disputed,” observed the Antiquary mildly.


“Quite true,” admitted the Liturgiologist. “And the Church wisely does not legislate in matters of taste. Style, period, decoration, price, with these she does not concern herself. But, as has been said before, she does make certain regulation which underlie these non-essential aspects of ceremonial, and when her directions are followed, the result is startlingly beautiful and effective. You like Gothic, I prefer Romanesque, many are quite satisfied with the sort of thing which the exigencies of our history in this country have hitherto made more or less necessary. But all can, and should, observe the plain directions of the Church, however they may or may not overlay them with embellishments of taste.”


“It’s something like automobiles,” remarked the Antiquary. “Some like the BUCK, others wouldn’t be found dead in one! And there are more flivvers, even among the clergy, than any other kind of car. But they all insist on having an engine that will go and take them with it!”


“I always did say that you have ideals, Pere,” was the Liturgiologist’s parting shot.



1 That is, an altar from an ecclesiastical wares company, which often were mass-produced and improperly designed.


2 For example, as in The Liturgical Altar, A Guide for Altar and Sanctuary, and Candles in the Roman Rite.


3 [ff 1 in original text of Peregrinus Goes Abroad] The diagrams accompanying this article are taken from the admirable handbook of Directions for the use of Altar Societies and Architects (reprinted under the title of A Guide for Altar and Sanctuary), compiled under the direction of the late Cardinal Vaughan, revised by the Rev. George B. Tatum, M.A., and Osmund Bentley. They are given here as in the handbook, with a view of illustrating the principles of construction as set forth by the ecclesiastical authorities, as clearly and simply as possible, without pretense of style or design, which have no bearing on essential requirements as to construction and arrangement accessories.


4 Latin for “if the altar is attached to the wall”.

5 In reference to his book, Instructiones Fabricae Et Supellectilis Ecclesiasticae (Book of Instructions on Church Building) published in 1577 which embodied the reforms and decrees of the Council of Trent. The Institute for Sacred Architecture gives an excellent description of the saint’s enormous influence on the sacred liturgy, particularly in the field of buildings.

bottom of page