An Altar by any Other Name

Cappella Sansevero de’ Sangri, Naples, Italy. Altar by
Francesco Celebrano, 1744-1771.

While working on a commission recently in the United States, a bishop sought to inform me that altars are not ‘art pieces’, and inscriptions in liturgical spaces are verboten.  His assertion was familiar. It has been a hallmark of the liturgical reform to reassert the ur-character of the Christian altar as a table, lest its connection to the Supper of the Lord be obscured. Considering the historical context of altars before the liturgical renewal in general the observation is fair enough. It is quite clear that often times the gradine and reredos of an altar were more significant than the table itself.  Hence, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (1969) speaks of a free standing table-altar. Likewise the Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar (1979) speaks of the symbolism of table and altar.  But neither of these documents speaks of what an altar must ‘look like’ other than being a table/altar.

Mepkin Abbey Church.
Moncks Corner, SC, USA.
Frank Kacmarcik, liturgical designer and consultant, 1993.
Ted Butler, architect. AIA award for Religious Architecture, 1995.

Yet it should not be surprising that later documents and commentaries began to be more specific. Instructions regarding the decoration of an altar in the GIRM are limited to flower arrangements. RDCA says nothing of artistic design other than a reference to further biblical allusions to altars. By contrast, the American document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (1979) referred to the altar-table as a symbol of the one Christ who is the cornerstone. In a similar vein, outside the USA, Richard Giles’ Repitching the Tent (1984) speaks specifically of the design of the altar-table. The Anglican author insists that “a superhuman effort to restrain ourselves from decorating the altar table” should be made (184). The reader is instructed that “the material and the form” need to “speak for themselves…” (184). In tracing out the evolution of the liturgical reform, Giles seems to reflect a general shared attitude regarding the proper design of altars in the last decades. But as I have argued for in other posts on PrayTell, this fetishization of material and form, and the elimination of decoration is more the result of the interpolation of Bauhaus, post-modern design theory, along with the exaltation of worker poverty, more than some theological necessity. In North America, the ubiquitous granite slab altar is the admixture of Frank Kacmarcik’s training in graphic design and the 20th century Eladian preference for the primitive. The ubiquitous stalky wooden communion table, the design residue of Edward Sövik.

Altar. Pine wood. Church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, Old Cairo. 5th century. Coptic Museum, Cairo

In truth, Christian altars have always been art-pieces (for that matter, so have fonts, ambos, and chairs). Even the rare remnants of wooden tables from the first centuries that served the Eucharist are embellished. Romanesque and Gothic altars wow the eye with their polychromatic brilliance and eschatological images. Baroque altars and their scenographic palle often move in sinuous rhythm. What’s more, from ancient Rome, until today, inscriptions have played a significant role in the design and embellishment of altars, both in Eastern and Western Christianity. Altar inscriptions record the acts of dedication, offer prayers, or have a liturgical resonance.

Carved and polychrome altar face, 1310. Galleria Sabauda. Turin, Italy.

The artistic history of Western altars is simply far too broad to assert that altars are not art-pieces. And liturgical history is simply too precise to assert that altars cannot, or should not be, art-pieces.  When Irenaeus of Lyon speaks of the glory of the altar it is unlikely that he was speaking only of the Eucharistic act, but the physical nature of the altar as well. In related fashion, some centuries later, when Eusebius of Cesarea describes the greatness of altars in his Histories it is not a novel post-Constantinian development, nor theological allusion, but a physical referent to the impressive visual impact of the table. Not long after, John Chrysostom asserts that an altar should be an object of awe (Homily 20).

Altar panel commemorating Blessed Chiara Ubaldini. With inscription, reading: “A brilliant life is reflected in the name Chiara. A bright mirror without motion, resplendent in the rule of those who are enclosed. Here lies one celebrated among Christ’s family.” Florence, Italy. Ca. 1325. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

While American denominations cling to the delusion that design can and must “speak for itself”, the artists and theological consultants responsible for European liturgical environments seem to grasp the broader possibilities. Especially notable in this regard is the work of the Italian Episcopal Conference and its national office for the building of churches. Causing somewhat of a national stir, the Jesuits responsible for the Basilica S. Maria Assunta in Gallarate, Italy recently renovated the sanctuary of the church.

Altar. S. Maria Assunta , Gallarate, Italy. Claudio Parmeggiani, 2016-2018.

Included in the redesign is a new altar commissioned from the famed contemporary Italian artist Claudio Parmeggiani. Consecrated on 11 November 2018 by the Archbishop of Milan, Mario Delpini, the altar is a composition of 120 severed heads reproduced from statues sculpted by the great masters of art history (from Fidia to Michelangelo, from Bernini to Canova). The intention, Parmiggiani stated, is to create “a table deriving from the juxtaposition of two luminous superimposed marble slabs that hold and protect, almost like the maternal pelican, a multitude of ancient heads; relics and emblems of sacredness, of humanity, of totality”.

Detail. Altar. S. Maria Assunta , Gallarate, Italy.

While some critics suggested the altar is “macabre” and “unsettling”, the altar’s theological implications concerning the redemption of history is nothing but orthodox and stunning.

Altar. Santa Maria ad Martyres, Rome, Italy.
Federico Severino, 2008.

Another recently dedicated art-piece altar was commissioned from the Italian sculptor Federico Severino, and consecrated on 13 May 2018 by Archbishop Angelo De Donatis, papal vicar of the Diocese of Rome, in the basilica of Santa Maria ad Martyres (the Pantheon). According to Father Giuseppe Midili, secretary of the Diocesan Commission for Sacred Art and Cultural Heritage, at the center, in high relief, is the Immolated Lamb and the inscription “Qui vicerit faciam illum columnam in templo Dei mei (The victor will place it as a column in the temple of my God)” taken from chapter 3 of the Apocalypse of St. John. Next to the Lamb is the Virgin Mary who has a broken dagger near her heart that represents Christ’s victory over death. Gathered around the Christ-Lamb, an infinite group of martyrs holding palm branches. On the back of the altar is a peacock, symbol of immortality.    

Detail. Lateral side.
Altar. Santa Maria ad Martyres, Rome, Italy.
Federico Severino, 2008.

How does one account for such divergent artistic conclusions, drawn from the same liturgical documents? – American bishops sure in their ‘form follows function’ diagnosis, and European artists given wide berth in interpreting what represents an altar-table. I would suggest that formal core documents in most denominations are in fact rather prosaic about the nature of appropriate liturgical art and architecture, and as such are in no way prescriptive regarding any particular style or design. Should one insist that liturgical reform means a liturgical environment for worship must ‘look’ a certain way in regard to style, such persons are simply projecting other understandings onto the documents that are not internal to the documents themselves. More likely, such views are interpretive evolutions, and as related to art and architecture, are often the impositions and assumptions of modernist design theory mingled with church reform.

The Ratchis Altar. 737-744. Cividale museo cristiano, Friuli, Italy. 

Aside from legalistic interpretive issues regarding liturgical directives, what is as stake, I believe, is a far more fundamental question – that of the multivalence of the liturgy. Ironically, at the same time that contemporary liturgical theology has extolled the multiple ‘layers’ in which liturgical texts may speak (especially represented within the American milieu by such works as Kevin Irwin, Text and Context), modernist and contemporary architectural theory, as well as liturgical building consultation, has been loath to give such a ‘complicating’ voice to art and architecture for worship. In favor rather, is the belief that in a church building, a table is a table, even if all of art history has shown this not to be the case in Christian worship.

Altar. Santuario Madonna delle Grazie, Termoli, Italy. Michele Carafa, 2008.

The assertion of multivalence as a fundamental dynamic of liturgy implies that within worship there is no one meaning of text, nor art, nor architecture. There may be hoped for and planned resonances, but even source images and texts are mixed, poetic, in what they intend to represent. In his study of medieval altars Søren Kaspersen concludes that altars often shifted between Christological images when viewed up close, and a dematerialized golden glow when viewed from afar. Hence, altars presented a “blurring power of material in the mind” that played on the juxtaposition of artistic and theological themes and paradoxes of material presentation (Decorating the Lord’s Table: On the Dynamics Between Image and Altar in the Medieval Period, 63-64). In a related fashion, the contemporary Roman Catholic RDCA speaks of multiple images of the church: a holy vineyard, assembly, the Body of Christ, the Heavenly Jerusalem; So too the altar: table of the Lord, place of sacrifice, anointed one, cornerstone, oil of gladness, glory of martyrs, heavenly banquet. Insisting that an altar has simply one likeness, one resonance, contrary to the possible horizon of meaning evoked by the liturgy itself, fails to respect the rich symbolic nature of worship.

Altar. Cathedral of Parma, Italy. Modified (2004) medieval altar (ca. 1100).

If an altar must ‘look like’ some fixed architype, if one asserts that the altar has but one visual resolution, one impact, such agendas are stylistic assertions, and not based in sound liturgical theology. Moreover, the belief that any individual aspect of the liturgy or environment for worship “speaks for itself” is a rather imprecise and unhelpful premise; Words interpret objects, and objects, words, and inscriptions, altars, and altars, bread and wine, and fire, darkness, and music, silence. 

Altar. Sanctuary S. Rita di Cascia. Cascia, Italy. Giacomo Manzù, 1981.

In short, multivalent liturgy requires multivalent art and architecture. And only trained artists, architects, and consultants, who have a breadth of theological and artistic training are capable of creating multi-voiced spaces that our churches need to be. Otherwise we are left with what the art critic Angelo Crespi has called an “omage to the minimal”, spaces and altars that “seem to emerge from IKEA catalogues” (Costruito da Dio. Perché le chiese contemporanee sono brutte e i musei sono diventati le nuove cattedrali, 2017). Mine is once again a plea to set the artist free and enable our places of worship to speak in 1000 tongues.         

Altar. Jacques Jacques Dieudonné, 2013. Church of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Paris.


    1. Perhaps in the Italian context the Parmiggiani altar is less jarring. Countless Italian museums display “severed heads” and headless torsos. Including major collections in the Vatican Museums. Do we find such displays “creepy”? And if not, why not in a museum, but in a church, yes? I think to multiple Capuchin church-crypts in Europe and find the liturgical environment built of bones and filled with mummies, not macabre, but paschal, and communitarian.

      1. Somehow I find the Capuchin Crypt cool but the pile’o’heads creepy. Maybe it’s the way they are jumbled together. In museums the torso-less heads are typically displayed in a non-piled manner, no? In Sint Pieterskerk in Leuven, Belgium there is the head from a 10th century crucifix that I find very moving, but it’s not part of a pile-o’heads.

  1. There is much that is very fine in this article. I am in total agreement about the artistic shallowness and simplism of too much Bauhaus-influenced furniture and decoration (or lack thereof).

    My main concern would be the lack of acknowledgment of the massive aesthetic disunity (not just multivalence) that has been introduced into so many sanctuaries whose plans should have been duly respected, as indeed repeated Vatican instructions in the 1960s indicated (if there is already a high altar of great artistic value, it should not be removed, nor should an altar-table be installed in addition).

    This excellent article by Shawn Tribe at Liturgical Arts Journal argues about the visual dissonance that has been introduced into so many older churches by an ideological insistence on installing the “supper table.”

    1. I am not against installing contemporary liturgical ‘furniture’, for a lack of better terms, in traditional spaces, or vice versa. Overall, I think it is a question of design and artistic skill. It can be that ‘integrated’ approaches that would alter physical fabric in older churches are prohibited by ministries of culture. At the same time, almost all churches that have a sense of history, or are provocative, are an accumulation of periods and styles. In my practice I find the notion of the need for liturgical ‘matchy matchiness’ to be an anglophone phenomenon, and rather quite a-historical. Again, such assertions often become a matter of styles and like/dislike. Many are fine with the accumulation of age and style in historic buildings until that accumulation includes the ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’, thus betraying their other issues. I do not hold to this point of view. But I do agree that many times, a historic altar, and place for worship, may be better, at least artistically, without interventions that are not artistically competent.

  2. The correct name of the Anglican author cited is Richard Giles rather than than Giles Frazier. (Giles Fraser (sic) is an entirely different clergyman.) An excellent article otherwise, though I too find the altar built on heads very weird indeed.

    1. Thanks for the correction. The post has been updated. Obviously when writing I had too much of the Church Times on the brain.

  3. A couple of things. First, I am a bit taken aback by the demeaning language here: e.g. “fetishize” and “cling to.” Maybe they just think differently from the view presented here. It doesn’t mean it’s a “festish” or some irrational “clinging” behavior. That’s quite unfair.

    Second, I am surprised that there is no mention of bread and wine. I thought the preference for simplicity in the design of altars arose out of a concern that the more ornate ones minimized the value of these simple gifts themselves — requiring ever more ornate vessels to hold them, and ever more drama to surround them. etc.

    1. Thanks for the observations. I’m not sure I think ‘fetishize’ is a demeaning term. In contemporary art criticism it is often used to speak of dynamics in which there is singular or undue attention to a certain style or artistic period to the exclusion of all others. Yet, I have certainly encountered certain ‘clinging’ agendas both in accademia and practice regarding the manner that liturgical environments ‘must’ look like – both Modernist or Baroque. Here are I attempting to be descriptive and critical, not judgmental. In sum, I am not arguing for a must, but a broad view of art and architecture in worship.

      Regarding Eucharistic vessels: Are you thinking of any particular sources regarding the relationship of the visual complexity of altar and by extension Eucharistic vessels, to the diminishment of ‘simple gifts’ of bread and wine? As a related aside, now that you bring up the issue of bread and wine, it brings to my mind the fact that Roman Catholic documents speak of the altar as the ‘primary’ symbol of Christ in the church building. But in the end, what I am questioning is not necessarily a duality between the visually simple and visually complex. Much the way we wouldn’t suppose a legitimate musical composition can involve only one violin, versus an orchestra. There are different types of music that can beautiful in their own right. As a thought experiment I wonder, by way of parallel, if a Japanese Way of Tea (抹茶) is therefore the only legitimate mode of respecting tea and the act of drinking. Or is an elaborate English high tea also acceptable?

      1. Thanks for the response, James. It helps. I agree that “a duality between the visually simple and visually complex” does no justice to what we are discussing. I thought you were dismissing a more austere or simple aesthetic as a fetish for ugliness, but apparently that was a misreading.

        It seems to me that aesthetic, theological, and liturgical discernment is a delicate business and leaves room for a number of different syntheses. My point is that a good synthesis includes concern for the liturgical action and respect for the central role of the sacramental symbols. Thus a very beautifully decorated font which can contain only a very small amount of water fails us liturgically, though it may be quite an art object. Some altars succeed as shrines better than they do as the place of liturgical action, and this too represents a failure. They work against us not because they are not beautiful art objects but because we need them to do something else.

        I don’t believe the liturgical documents would support the idea that bread and wine are secondary symbols, though among church furnishings the altar is the primary symbol of Christ.

        Regarding eucharistic vessels, I was primarily thinking of the contrast between the baroque and the modern, and in the back of my mind was Louis Bouyer’s description of the evolution of liturgy in the 18th and 19th centuries into “the etiquette of the Great King” demanding, of course, sumptuous display.

  4. Rita – agree; but then artistic tastes run the gamut – and since so much is connected to local custom, culture, peoples – not sure an American viewpoint adds (or detracts) much.

    Initially your suggestion about bread and wine makes sense but would suggest that it probably supports a table/altar that is as simple as possible so that when the gifts of bread and wine are brought to the table, the focus is on those gifts.

    OTOH – despite some reservations stated here, find all the examples cited and posted to be beautiful, each makes a statement, and wish we had the artist’s and local community’s explanation/description of the meaning behind their creation – that seems more to the point and most significant.

  5. I love a giant, carved, wooden reredos. There, the mountain that is the privileged place of encounter with God in the scriptures.

    I love the simplicity and dignity of an English altar, with a simple frontal, riddle curtains, and just the two candles, evoking the sacredness possible in sober and simple things.

    I love a baldachin that echoes the tabernacle in the Hebrew camp, even within the context of a building redolent of the glory of Solomon’s temple.

    Every variety of altar, development of the altar, explores different perspectives on the ultimately inexpressible nature of what the altar is and means.

    No single, perfect form of the symbol will express this meaning as well as the aggregated richness and variety found in the Church’s tradition. Because the symbol can only point, it cannot contain.

    I wish that, while perhaps encouraging or mandating new builds to be freestanding, the Church in the wake of the Council had been more forgiving of the continued use of historic altars. It’s not like they suddenly stopped having anything to teach us, or any resonance with those who see them.

    I would weep if my parish’s three-story, hand-carved Hackner altar were ever removed. And I would, frankly, not care a bit whether the consensus of liturgists believed that its replacement were more correct, or a more apt symbol in itself. It is, in fact, not an independent feature, but completes the architectural symbol of the domus ecclesiae in which it lives. This historicity should not merely be tolerated with an eye-roll and forced to conform itself to St. FanShape of the Suburbs’ notion of liturgical space. It should be respected in its integrity.

    In fact, so many of these altars featured annoy me because they contrast, rather than harmonize with, the design of the space that contains them. Our altar harmonizes with and empowers the architecture of the space to participate in its symbolism.

    Like the Dude’s rug, a good altar can really tie the room together. So many modern installations just don’t seem to do that, to my eye. And if the altar must be spare, then thus goes the space, too. And so we jettison centuries of rich, colorful, vibrant sacred art for some deeply feng-chua minimalist interior design. Because the altar is it — If it must be plain and monochrome, how dare anything else in the church draw attention to itself.

    1. Thanks for your observations and sharing your experience. I agree that “No single, perfect form of the symbol will express this meaning as well as the aggregated richness and variety found in the Church’s tradition. Because the symbol can only point, it cannot contain.” At the same time, as I stated above more fully, often times aggregated richness is accepted until it involves the contemporary. With my design hat on, I am not sure that only church buildings which evidence pure period-style are acceptable.

      1. I think what Sean Connolly was getting at (and what struck me when originally reading your comment about how people only take issue with modern additions) is that often contemporary post Vatican II additions are purposely made to sit in stark contrast to the rest of the building and to work against the underlying aesthetics of the space (I don’t mean things like mere style, but rather things like the proportions and “sight lines” of the space). I think this is because many people interpreted the liturgical reform as being completely incompatible with virtually the entire architectural and artistic tradition of the Church prior to it. Modern additions often come off as a reaction to or repudiation of virtually all that went before, so the overall aesthetic of older churches is often not respected. One can see a real contrast between churches remodeled in a modern way before the 60s and those remodeled afterwards. Those before can be considered “updates” to conform to the trends of the era while those done afterwards are often specifically done to react against the old space – as if to say “this old space is worthless, but we couldn’t afford to tear down and rebuild.”

        It’s one thing to rip out an old Gothic altar to replace it with a Baroque one that will sit in the same location and respect the proportions of the space – it’s quite another to shoe-horn a semi-circle church into a tall rectangular space where all the lines of the building are leading the eye to an empty wall or pipe organ.

      2. Jack

        Then there were the new buildings, built to suit, as it were. The most memorable buildling of this sort I experienced over a period of years was the 1967 St Thomas Aquinas Church for the university parish in Charlottesville, staffed by the Dominicans. The church space was a rounded triangle, with a large narthex embracing, as it were, one of the points of the triangle, and the presider’s chair and lectern along the unglazed wall opposite that entry point (with a small organ hidden behind that). The altar was in the center of the triangle – made of dark sedimentary rock (slate?), it had concave sides (to contrast with the convex sides of the church).

        Over that altar was a triangular oculus of light that punctuated a vault, which was lower towards the edges of the altar (changing to dramatic elevation upwards into the oculus directly over the altar) than at the edges of the space. The combination of that altar and the vault effects was definitely *bold* in its emphasis. The two other walls of the church were glazed with rectangular windows of muted tints/tones/shades of grey, gold, blue, green – but etched with verses (don’t recall the specific program of verses).

        So, that’s the visual. As I like to remind folks here, then there’s the other design half of the equation: the aural. For my first two years there, we only had a folk group, and had no idea there was an organ lurking in that space. Midway through my college years, a wonderful SSJ sister invited people to form a schola, which offered a less “contemporary” and more “eclectic” program of music at the first Mass of Sunday morning: we discovered how rich the acoustic was for that program (chant, polyphony, and American shape note and spiritual music sounded wonderful, in addition to metrical organ-supported hymnody, and the congregation grew much more quickly than we had reason to expect- it wasn’t our goal, the experience just attracted people). And the triangular altar placement worked for Evening Prayer before weekday evening Masses, as the small congregation and group of Dominicans faced on two sides of the altar and offered psalms antiphonally – that was a wonderful formative experience for me and some of my friends at the time.

        That church was torn down in the mid-1990s. There are, so far as I can tell, no images of it available online, which is sad for me. It’s not a church design I would offer as ideal, but the Dominicans got out of the way of preventing an evolution of liturgical engagement with that design.

        The church that replaced “old” St T’s was razed last year; it is being replaced by a church designed by Cram & Ferguson.

  6. What I tire of is priests (and bishops) coming in and redecorating per their personal tastes. It truly is scandalous.

    1. Perhaps if the redesign or redecorating is informed, it can be a good thing. I think part of the cure of souls should be a cure of ‘quality’ worship. I want to support priests and bishops in their leadership roles in regards to the liturgy. When the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy says that priests should study liturgical history, and art history, in the seminary, there is a reason. Many denominations, including Roman Catholic institutions, fall short of this goal. Here belongs a huge discussion about the virtue of humility, and the history of artistic ‘taste’ a là Michael Braxandall.

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