THE ENGLISH ALTAR

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This subject is by no means original, as it was expounded upon at great length by the likes of Fr. Percy Dearmer, developed by the Wareham Guild and similar societies in Edwardian England, and more recently by Roman Catholics like the editor of the New Liturgical Movement. In this blog, there is an article on the contrast between the medieval altar (not only English but also in other countries) and the post-baroque and modern bareness of the sanctuary.

The purpose of this article is not to give a scholarly account of the history of the altar, but rather to give practical guidelines to the furnishing of chapels and churches belonging to Anglican and Roman Catholic communities with limited means.

The antependium is an essential piece of liturgical decoration, whose absence from the altar in many places of worship is highly significant. In the early church, curtains closing off the choir and the altar were universal. This signified the veiling of the Mysteries even in regard to the faithful, let alone the catechumens. Faith is "seeing" what is veiled under the sacramental form and liturgical symbols. This article is called The English Altar, because the altar, as restored in the 19th and 20th century Anglican church, reflects this rich tradition that was generally discontinued on account of Baroque aesthetic standards.

Here is an Italian side chapel altar from the 17th century.

With my exposure to Italian baroque liturgical culture , I allowed myself to be influenced by this style and built an altar in my old house in the Vendée (since sold).

The main error of this altar, especially the reredos, was its "squareness" and the lack of rich carvings to crown the cornice, thinking that the simple tester would do the trick. I tried to make the most of a 16-foot room (one room above another with the floor taken out), but I was never entirely satisfied with the result. I did not neglect to make an antependium! Of this altar, only the altar itself has been reused, and the serigraph of Bougereau's Song of the Angels is now on the wall at the back of the chapel. The rest is a pile of plywood and commercial mouldings in my workshop waiting to be reused for other things.

In the 19th century, the baroque style had influenced the gothic revival, and the result was a monument like the following photo taken at the Holy Name in Manchester.

We now have an enormous tabernacle and a monumental throne for exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, in keeping with the increasingly enhanced Eucharistic devotion of the 19th century. The stepped positions of the statues reflect the stepped gradines often seen in French buildings of the same period. The stone altar is richly carved with a depiction of the Last Supper, and the antependium is reduced to a narrow strip covering only the mensa.

The following illustration is of the altar of a traditional Roman Catholic chapel in the United States.

The chapel is located in a room with a low ceiling and is furnished with what a community of modest means could rescue from churches and convents discarding them. The sanctuary is severely limited by the communion rail seen in the foreground. The statues of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal and Saint Joseph standing on the floor either side of the altar are oversized. I have been informed that the altar, painted in gloss white with garish blue panels on the front surrounding the depiction of the Last Supper, is made of plaster. Due to the low ceiling, the reredos and large domed canopy that should go on the tabernacle could not be placed - thus, it all seems very much out of proportion. However, I cannot avoid saying that everything was certainly not determined by constraint and lack of means. Better taste might have done more with the space available, for example reusing the altar but without the gradines.

 

This chapel, also American (despite the Union Jack hanging in the corner), is an improvement. The unveiled altar is decorated very imaginatively with hand paintings and rich decoration work. The gradine is low and the tabernacle is of a reasonable size. The reredos is larger than the altar, inspired by baroque aesthetics. Everything is under a "tester" attached to the chapel's ceiling. The choir screen and rood are odd, but are an interesting attempt to recreate the medieval ethos. The cleric responsible for this design is an independent bishop of Roman Catholic tradition, of Anglican background.

The liturgical movement of the 20th century followed two main "strands" - one was "high-church" and the other was "pastoral". The first found its aesthetic and artistic inspiration in the late 19th century and Arts and Crafts movement. The second, avoiding caricatures and conspiracy theories, was one guided by the idea of bringing the liturgy to the people - removing the veils to allow participation.

The above is the nave altar of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It is used for Mass facing the people and dates from the 1970's or early 80's. The altar is bare apart from a single cloth that covers the surface area and no more. It is devoid of any decoration other than what seem to be vaguely human figures on the front and sides. I frankly see nothing beautiful in it, and its nakedness is depressing. It is the opposite extreme from the "baroque neo-gothic" seen above.

In historical and liturgical terms, the altar represents Christ. This is why it is venerated by incensing, bowing and kissing. I have the impression that the modern altar, like the 16th century Protestant communion table, was intended to represent Christ in his Passion, stripped in preparation for his ignominious death on the Cross. We should not forget that this was an act of violence against Jesus, committed not by the holy women or the Apostles, but by Roman soldiers at the instigation of the Temple clergy and the High Priest. In our present case, the altars were stripped by men of the Church. Unlike many traditionalists, I would not say that - in most cases - that it was done with wickedness or an intention to destroy or persecute religion, but simply out of ignorance of liturgical symbolism and sound aesthetics. Though Christ was stripped and humiliated, the Church's duty is that of the holy women and the Apostles - to do good where evil had been done, to venerate where others have committed sacrilege.

What Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869–1944) and Sir John Ninian Comper (1864-1960) were for architecture, Fr. Percy Dearmer (1867–1936) was for English church furnishings and the liturgy. I see in this movement the liturgical counterpart of the Arts and Crafts Movement - a Christian Socialist reaction against the tyranny of the sweat shop. Nothing was mass produced, but produced by craftsmen in fair conditions. Unfortunately, this movement, by and large, did not survive the Great War of 1914-18. Optimistic belief in human progress was destroyed in the trenches by the bombs, shells and bullets!

We need to approach Dearmer's liturgical work with a critical mind, but by and large, he was one who had "got it". He did not have the advantage of modern biblical and liturgical scholarship, but he was a Victorian who looked for something better. He emphasised art and beauty in worship. In the Parson's Handbook, his goal was to help in "remedying the lamentable confusion, lawlessness, and vulgarity which are conspicuous in the Church at this time". Perhaps he was aiming his invective against baroque altars that symbolised Anglo-Papalism.

This is a rather nice example by Martin Travers, very French - but I would concur with Dearmer that it is not Anglican or English. But, I would prefer it to the tawdry stuff being sold by "tat" shops since the 1960's! Perhaps he criticised the heavy over-decorated styles of the 1880's thereabouts, or perhaps the pre-tracterian preaching barn where the altar was no more than a wooden communion table with a bare cross and a collection plate.

What is more likely to have been in the sights of Dearmer's gun is this kind of thing from the early Ritualist era (1860"s).

Here is an introductory note on the English altar written by Dearmer followed by illustrations of altars produced by the Wareham Guild or others working to similar standards.

Despite all we suffer from human wickedness and war, we have to go on and cast on the threads of this great movement anew. This little chapel in France is furnished according to this inspiration. I have taken to heart the "noble simplicity" of the 20th century liturgical and Arts and Crafts movements. I also found inspiration in two great priests I have known, Fr. Quintin Montgomery-Wright (1914-1996) and Fr. Jacques Pecha (1920-2002), both country parish priests. The former was an Englishman of Scottish ancestry who converted to Roman Catholicism just after World War II and moved to France with the "Sarum" spirit in his mind and soul. The latter was a Frenchman of Bohemian ancestry who was ordained by Cardinal Grente of Le Mans during the war and found inspiration in the Solesmes monastic movement. Both of these priests celebrated the old Latin liturgy - the "Mass of my ordination" as they said. They were traditionalists without being fanatics or fundamentalists. They were far from the bourgeois and right-ring mould, rooted in the "old days". These were men who could understand my dreams and inspirations - certainly better than I.

What we would tend to call the English Altar is in fact simply the European altar of the medieval period. Flemish paintings of churches of the same period show the same type of altar, and they were also found in Italy and other countries. As everywhere else, it went out of fashion or suffered in the hands of iconoclasts. The veiled altar is the closest equivalent we have of the Byzantine tradition without actually copying it. English choir screens in the fifteenth century had curtains like the Russian iconostasis. I still remember as a boy seeing the verger closing the wrought iron gate and the heavy choir screen curtain at York Minster when the choir had processed in and Evensong was about to begin. The curtain kept the draughts out of the choir, and there was a kind of ritual quality about the verger's actions. At least that is how it struck me in those few seconds before the Precentor intoned O Lord, open thou our lips. England is the only country where the old veiled altar has been restored. The French Benedictines had similar ideas, but they unfortunately tended towards bareness and the "pastoral" liturgical movement.

The point of this article is to encourage higher artistic standards in churches of limited means. The "Dearmer" chapel you see above was financed by one man and his wife living on modest incomes. Apart from the credence on the right and the metalwork, I made everything myself including the sewing. If I can do it, anyone can, even more so with modern design techniques and tools.

It may be argued that this kind of work is plagiarism or pastiche. Perhaps it is. But, what has modernity produced other than the kind of thing represented by the Notre Dame nave altar shown above? I would like to encourage and promote neo-medievalism without the fuss and cost of nineteenth century gothic work. Few of us have the skills of Comper or the sculpters who worked to his designs - or the means to pay such architects and craftsmen. But, it is still possible to obtain good results with little cost and less technical skill. In all modesty, I think my work is of better taste than the chapel in the fourth picture on this page, and I think the American priest had a larger budget than I! I have less clutter to pay for, but my chapel is not the result of iconoclasm, far from it!