Sunday, 28 December 2014

An English Altar : Cantley UK

Chancel of the Anglican church of Saint Wilfrid in Cantley (UK).
This sumptuous setting features an altar clothed with a rich frontal,
a carved reredos, with adjacent riddel curtains and a
tester suspended above, being an English form of the altar canopy.
Note that the low reredos finishes where the reveals of the East
window commence, so that the window itself appears as a
continuation of the reredos, whilst not being obscured by it.
In this post, we look at a further example at what is described as The English Altar which, as the name suggests, has its origins in England when that fair isle was still Catholic. These are a mediaeval variety of High altar, but also found in small chapels within churches or domestic oratories etc.

Meeting examples of English altars, we find that the altar was typically clothed in a rich frontal but, lacking a gradine or step upon the altar table, the candlesticks (often only two) rested directly upon the altar.

Sometimes a rather low reredos abutted the altar, whilst at each corner there was a post or small column. Usually angels surmounted the four posts. Curtains, known as riddels were suspended on either side of the altar, between the posts.

These posts are held to be the survival or remnant of that early period when altars in England were covered with a civory or ciborium.

The beautifully carved, polychromed and gilded reredos, the work of Sir Ninian Comper.
The Crucifixion is the central motif, being flanked by angels.
On either side may be observed small statues of saints.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the English altar underwent a revival, mainly in Anglo-Catholic churches. But they also came to be employed in Catholic churches (we have previously seen an example from Downside Abbey).  In Anglican circles, a foremost exponent of this style of altar was the renowned architect Sir Ninian Comper, who was the designer of the furnishing and decorations depicted in this post.

In 1894 he was able at St. Wilfrid's to erect a pure Gothic altar for the first time in a parish church. The altar was of stone and stood free from the east wall. Modelled on the evidence of medieval illuminations, it had four riddel posts, hung with curtains suspended by silk cords looped in split rings running on black iron rods. The posts supported gilded figures of kneeling angels holding tapers, taken from precedents discovered by Bodley in Nuremberg. There were no gradines, or shelves, for a crucifix and six candlesticks, only a low reredos, carved coloured and gilded. Two candlesticks lay on the mensa and the altar was covered by an embroidered, panelled frontal and narrow frontlet. There was an overhanging canopy, or tester.  (From the monograph Sir Ninian Comper by Fr. Anthony Symondson S.J.)

We may qualify the above by observing that the Gothic period in England covered several centuries, during which time no one style of altar could claim to be "Gothic".

A magnificently embroidered altar frontal of dark red velvet.
Its appearance is cheapened by the ubiquitous strip of lace obscuring the superfrontal.

Although this form of altar is not common in Catholic churches, there is no reason why it could not be, even in a more simplified form. There are examples of such altars where a tabernacle is placed centrally. We shall continue to present examples of such arrangements in further posts.

The above photographs were taken from the following flickr site, where many more marvellous photographs of this church may be seen.