The Antiquary Builds an Altar
Part 1: See America First; Chapter 3
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For a more detailed understanding and visualization of the prescriptions for the construction of an altar, see The Liturgical Altar, A Guide for Altar and Sanctuary and Candles in the Roman Rite.
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“After all,” said the Antiquary, “a church is simply a shelter for the altar and the people gathered about it. As the center and focus of the Liturgy, the altar gathers to itself the best of architecture and art, and sets the pace, ut ita dicam, for everything else in the church. But according to the cart-before-horse system—which you, Pere, are so fond of castigating—it seems to be the custom to build a church, more or less elaborate, usually less artistic, and then, as a sort of sublime afterthought, put in any kind of an altar, even less than artistic, very likely the altar from the old church, which does service for years, till priest and congregation have recovered from the strain of putting up the church. Then, that which should have been the first consideration, is at long last attended to. Now when I build the new St. Inveteratus (which I must, on obedience, do this coming year) the altar will be an integral, nay the key, part of the architectural ensemble, and it will be a real altar—thoroughly liturgical—no steps for the candlesticks—freestanding tabernacle—ciborium (I mean, of course, baldachin)—and all the rest.”
“Bene, bene,” smiled the Liturgiologist. “But exactly what do you mean by ‘thoroughly liturgical?’ A consecrated slab, the altar stone, is all that is required by the Liturgy. Do you imply that an altar with gradines and built-in tabernacle and without a baldachin, is not liturgical? Because if you do, I who speak to you am about to puncture your nice little antiquarian balloon! For I have been ‘reading up’ on altars and tabernacles for churches in a Catholic manner) and several of my (and, dear friend, most of your) most cherished notions have been discovered, upon careful research, to be unfounded.”
“Well, well,” murmured the Antiquary. “Has the good Homer been nodding again!”
“As it happens,” was the Liturgiologist’s tart rejoinder, “he has not! All that I have had to say to you, on various previous occasions, on the topic of altars and tabernacles, has been in careful accord with the ‘Approved Authors.’ Only, somehow, I’ve failed to grasp the ethos of the many decrees which I’ve cited on particular points. But since you’ve honored me by an appointment as consulting liturgiologist for the new St. Inveteratus, and (killing two birds with one stone) since I’ve plowed my way through the Authentic Decrees of the Congregation of Sacred Rites (they’ve just sent me the new edition, beginning with the Year of Grace 1588 and following through to 1911), I’ve had the humility to see that a good deal of your antiquarianism is taken for liturgical law by an increasing number of priests, hence my unfeeling remark about your balloon.”
“So long as you don’t puncture my balloon tires, I don’t care!” murmured the Antiquary. “Proceed, if you must!”
“Well, to begin with,” said the Liturgiologist, settling himself in his chair, and tamping his pipe with a meditative and somewhat indurated thumb, “The ancient form of altar, consisting of a plain table of stone, or of a wooden structure supporting the altar stone, with no gradines behind it for the candlesticks, and with a tabernacle standing quite free in the midst, is, without doubt, the norm of the Catholic and Roman Church. St. Peter’s in Rome has it, without the tabernacle of course, and practically all of the Roman Basilicas. They have the ciborium, or baldachin too, even the few Gothic churches. All the ceremonial arrangements seem to contemplate such an altar. But to say that it is the only proper, liturgical, or rubrical altar is certainly going too far. The later styles (which are not wanting even in Rome, nay even in St. Peter’s itself) have never had one word said against them by the S.R.C. That notable Congregation, in fact, has decreed that the style of the altar (where the Blessed Sacrament is to be reserved), its construction, etc., shall be left to the prudent judgment of the bishop (S.R.C. 3449 ad 2), and the Commentary on the Clementine Instruction (on the Forty Hours’ Exposition) says that the matter of tabernacle or throne cannot be determined except in reference to the structure of the altar, or the church, ‘et alliis id genus circumstantiis.’ On this, and other decrees which I shall cite presently, I base a thesis that the style of the altar, and of the tabernacle if such be upon it, depends on the architecture of the church in which the altar stands, the Sacred Congregation having, for several centuries, carefully refrained from committing itself to any particular style of architecture.”
Of course the Liturgiologist’s pipe had gone out during this long speech, and in the pause, while he was refilling and lighting it, the Antiquary was able to put in a word. “But the ciborium, baldachin, is required, is it not, regardless of the architecture of the church?”
“The old decrees, and even one as late as 1880 (3525), explicitly require the baldachin for all altars upon which the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, and even for all altars whatever. But of numbers 1966 and 2912 the Index Generalis of the Authentic Decrees interestingly admits that ubique, Romae, in desuetudinum abierunt. 3525 deals with Reservation in convent chapels, not with the public Reservation in churches, and so is hardly ad rem.”
“But the altar must stand free from the wall or reredos?” asked the Antiquary.
“If it is a fixed altar, and so to be consecrated, it obviously must stand free, so that the consecrator may pass entirely around it. Schulte says that the back part of the side altars may be against the wall, but he gives no authority, and if they also are fixed and consecrated altars it would seem they fall under the same rule as the high altar. But about the gradines for the candlesticks. It really does seem better form to have them on the reredos rather than part of the altar itself, but certainly it is permissible to have at least one attached to the back of the altar. Fortunately we’re getting away from the late enthusiasm for multitudinous candlesticks and flower ledges, niches and what not. So one gradine ought to be enough for you.
“One gradine would be too much for me,” replied the Antiquary, somewhat querulously. “The high altar of the new St. Inveteratus church is going to be ‘a rubrical altar’ whether the rubrics prescribe anything about it or not! And, as a matter of fact, they don’t. But, as the church will be a modified French Gothic, and the high altar will stand under a ciborium or baldachin, the mensa will be wide enough to carry the tabernacle, six candlesticks and crucifix.”
“All quite happy and appropriate, dear Father,” smiled the Liturgiologist. “But if you choose to have a nice French Gothic reredos, with some gradines for candles and things, I, as a Liturgiologist, could make no objection. It’s a matter for you and your architect, not for you and your liturgical consultor! But don’t forget to have your foot pace of wood, even if your altar steps are of stone. St. Charles recommends that in his Instruction (Cap. 11, sec. 2) and S.R.C. 3576 ad 1 sanctions, and the bishop may require it. Now as to our tabernacle—”
1 Latin phrase for “so to say”.
2 A pun on the Latin word for “old”, probably a reference to the Antiquary himself (i.e., someone rooted in history).
3 That is, gradines.
4 A witty reference to the so-called “Homeric Nod” referring to a continuity error, which the Antiquary accuses the Liturgiologist of having committed in relation to previous lessons.
5 In cathedrals and major basilicas, the Blessed Sacrament is supposed to be reserved (as was the ancient practice) in a dedicated chapel (in a tabernacle on an altar) and not on the high altar. In fact, the Caeremoniale Episcoporum (1888) presumes that not only Pontifical Masses, but even Solemn ones, are offered at an altar where the Eucharist is not reserved.
6 Latin for “and other types of circumstances”.
7 That is, “everywhere, even in Rome, they have become disused”.
8 “To the point” of the discussion at hand.
9 Referring to Rev. A.J. (Augustine Joseph) Schulte, who co-wrote with Rev. J.B. O'Connell the handy book of blessings, Benedicenda (last edition published by Benziger in 1955). 1907 PDF edition available via Google Books.
10 This curious recommendation was due to the stone platform often becoming damp (and thus slippery) in humid climates, a situation often solved today by modern air conditioning. But even so, a wooden floor is also kinder on the feet and legs, than a stone one.
11 Referring to St. Charles Borromeo’s Instructiones Fabricae Et Supellectilis Ecclesiasticae, published in 1577. In 1934—a few years after publication of Peregrinus Goes Abroad—Fr. Chapman provided a translation and commentary in the Liturgical Arts Quarterly titled “The Liturgical Directions of Saint Charles Borromeo”.