Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The Altar Frontal : 1

The Altar of the Confession in Saint Peter's Basilica
Pope Benedict is seen here offering Mass on Pentecost 2008.
This marvellously embroidered frontal in crimson red and gold
frequently clothes this altar for Papal Masses.
Excepting perhaps for the altar canopy or civory, the most worthy, liturgical, notable and appropriate adornment of any altar is its altar frontal (antependium). More than any other adornment does the use of the antependium highlight the primacy of the altar. And yet, the antependium is the adornment most frequently lacking from our altars. The Rev'd JB O’Connell speaks of the symbolism of the antependium:

As the early linen clothing of the altar recalled our Lord’s burial shroud, so the precious fabric of the later frontal is to recall his royalty....The clothed altar with its beauty and changing colours is a symbol of the Mystical Body - the whole Christ, Christ united with all his saints - it translates this doctrine into the language of colour and form. In addition to its symbolical value, the frontal - with its sequence of colours and its changing form and decoration - lends variety and new beauty to the altar, and helps to mark the degrees of festivity in the Church’s liturgy. Because of its function as an adornment of the altar - although not its primary purpose, which is its symbolism - some liturgical writers maintain that its use is not obligatory, by custom, if the altar is itself made of precious material and highly decorative. But if the frontal is not used, not only is its symbolism disregarded, but the altar is without change of permanent adornment, degrees of festivity cannot be adequately expressed, nor can the liturgical changes of season or feast be fully indicated. 
J.B. O’Connell, Church Building and Furnishing: the Church’s Way, pp.188-89.

The use of the antependium has been a continual practice in the basilicas of Rome.
To this day, the Altar of the Confession in S’ Peter’s Basilica
is clothed with an antependium during the Papal Masses.
Shewn in this image is one of the elaborately-worked antependia used in Saint Peter's.
It may also be observed that many altars of no particular artistic merit, and especially altars which are simply supported on two or four pillars and lack a solid panel underneath the altar table, can be particularly enhanced by the use of an antependium. 

Until 1960, the Rubrics of the Roman Missal and the directives of the Ceremonial of Bishops required that altars, but specifically high altars be clothed with an antependium: it was not a matter of choice or dependent upon the beauty or otherwise of any given altar. Unhappily, however, the directives were largely ignored. Recognising this failure, the revised rubrics of the 1960 Missal omitted the sentence which required the use of an antependium, although maintaining that rubric which required the antependium to be changed according to the season or festival. Even after the requirement for an antependium had been relaxed by the revised rubrics of 1960, the American scholar of canon and liturgical law Father Frederick McManus (who was to become prominent amongst the liturgical reformers), advocated the use of antependia: 

The altar in Saint Peter's without an antependium.
The altar is of surprising plainness, indicating that it was
intended that the central altar of Christendom
would always be clothed for Mass.
The use of the frontal as the vestment of the altar remains proper and entirely is still very desirable as a worthy vestment for the altar...and as an effective indication of the liturgical celebration.
F.R. McManus, Handbook For the New Rubrics, Baltimore, 1961, pp. 202-03.

Sufficient has been quoted to demonstrate that even if the antependium is not required, its use is eminently suitable and desirable liturgically, important symbolically, and could not be recommended strongly enough. Very few altars are incapable of having antependia attached to them, even if some ingenuity in keeping them in place is required.

A wider view of the Altar of the Confession, decorated for Christmas.
The altar is manifestly enhanced by the magnificent antependium.