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
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
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
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
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
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
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"
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
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!