Friday, 29 May 2015

English Altars 2 : Walsingham

Splendid reredos of the High Altar in the
Church of Our Lady of Walsingham, Houston USA

In a previous post, we described a style of altar commonly known as The English Altar. As the name would suggest such altars developed into a particular style in England, although since the nineteenth century they have come to spread to other parts of the English-speaking world. 

The form of reredos complementing the English Altar falls into two principal varieties : (a) a dossal or curtain of rich fabric, suspended from a railing and carried around three sides of the altar; (b) a low wall which is either of painted timber or carved from stone (or an admixture of the two). In this post, we are pleased to discuss an English altar of the second variety and, indeed, one built in very recent years.

The splendid reredos of Our Lady of Walsingham Church
whilst faithfully reproducing the original altar in England,
succeeds in improving its proportions.
For reasons that are not clear,
the freestanding altar does not follow the literate design of the reredos
but happily is usually covered with an antependium.

This is the High Altar found in the Church of Our Lady of Walsingham in Houston (Texas, USA), a building conceived and built in a very simply Gothic idiom as recently as 2003. The church was designed by the architectural firm of Cram and Ferguson. The High Altar of this church is a near-replica of the altar in the Slipper Chapel, being the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in the United Kingdom. The work of reproducing this reredos in Texas was given to the Spanish firm of Granda Liturgical Arts, and is of the highest quality. It is a welcome relief from their usual Spanish oeuvre.

The English shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham was founded in the eleventh century. Walsingham became a renowned place of pilgrimage in England - second only to Canterbury Cathedral. Although several kings and queens of England, Scotland and France had made the pilgrimage, this did not prevent the Shrine being despoiled and brought to ruin by the vile King Henry VIII.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, a building used as a barn was discovered to be the original Walsingham Shrine. It was rebuilt and restored to religious use through the efforts of a devout woman, Charlotte Boyd. In 1934, the first Mass was celebrated in the Chapel in more than four centuries. The altar in the chapel was designed and built in the early twentieth century by a local artisan named Lilian Dagless. It is an interpretation of the form of reredos commonly found in England until the time of the Reformation. A carved bas-relief of the Crucifixion with Our Lady and S' John is the central scene of the reredos; on either side there are reliefs of the martyrs S' Catherine of Alexandria and S' Lawrence carrying the instruments of their martyrdom. All of these bas-reliefs are crowned by slightly-projecting canopies of Gothic tracery. Blue and red polychrome, highlighted with gold gilding, completes the ornament of this wonderful work.

Reredos of the Altar of the Slipper Chapel
in the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, England.
This reredos is smaller than the Houston replica
but has an additional arcade of tracery at its base.
The cresting along the top of this reredos is also more robust than in Houston.
We also note riddel curtains on either side of this altar
and that the not-very-large tabernacle is fittingly veiled.

General view of the wonderfully-liturgical chancel of
the Church of Our Lady of Walsingham, Houston.
The freestanding altar is usually covered with an antependium
so that it becomes visually central and not over-powered by the gilded reredos.
Little shelves added to either end of the reredos (on which flowers are placed)
are infelicitous later accretions and detract visually from its aesthetics.
Despite Mass usually being offered ad orientem in the Church of Our Lady of Walsingham, the altar is detached from the reredos and therefore is free-standing. It is possible for Mass to be offered versus populum at this altar. Here is another example of how a flexible approach to the General Instructions on the Roman Missal can result in a suitable setting for the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy which respects both aesthetics and liturgical principles.

The Cardinal-Archbishop of Galveston-Houston offering Mass at the High Altar.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

The Altar Frontal : 2

In a previous post, we introduced why altar frontals or antependia are desirable to cloth altars, based on liturgical law, sacred symbolism and aesthetics. These are compelling reasons for the use of the frontal, but so frequently two objections are offered why the altar frontal is not used :

The altar is so beautiful, why would we cover it up?

It is too difficult to be changing frontals frequently.

The answers to the first objection may be found by re-reading our first post.  But in this article we wish to begin to discuss the second objection.

A splendidly designed and embroidered altar frontal
clothing the High Altar of Westminster Cathedral (UK).
The use of the original High altar for the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy
was reintroduced by the present Archbishop of Westminster,
shewn in the photograph offering Mass.

Firstly, some terminology. The words frontal and antependium presuppose that the covering is applied only to one face of the altar namely, the front of it. This is perfectly proper when considering an altar which is attached to a reredos, or very close to a wall and therefore not freestanding. An altar, however, is a three-dimensional structure and - if it is freestanding - it ought to be fully clothed, not just clothed on those sides which are generally visible. Consequently, we also find the term altar pall which describes a parament which covers all sides of the altar or, at the least, two of them, the front face and the back face.

A free-standing altar placed in a central position which can be viewed from all sides, requires coverings at the front and the back (we leave aside the question of the linen altar cloths) in order for the covering to fulfil its purpose. It is unseemly to cover the front and not the back of an altar, unless of course, one takes the view that the altar frontal is purely used for aesthetic effect.

Where possible, and for reasons of adequately expressing sacred symbolism, the altar pall or frontal ought to be changed in accordance with the colour of the Liturgical Day or Season. It is quite acceptable, however, to have a worthy form of altar pall which is changed hardly ever. It is when several frontals or palls are used and have to be changed that the second objection becomes more prominent.

At present, as in the past, very few altars are designed with any thought given to their being covered with a pall or frontal. This is a serious deficiency in the vision of designers, but it is hardly a new one. It is very important when designing altars that serious consideration is given as to how they will be clothed. If no arrangement, or a clumsy arrangement is made for clothing an altar with a pall, quite quickly this will be cited as the reason NOT to use an altar pall or frontal. "It's too much trouble".

We will pass over without comment those execrable and unbefitting creations which, being multi-sided instead of four-sided, arrogantly defy sacred Tradition and any form of altar covering.

To be continued ...

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Abbey-Churches :
Sainte-Trinité, Lessay (Normandy)

Romanesque architecture
Abbey-Church of the Holy Trinity, Lessay (Normandy).
A magnificent expression of Romanesque.
Source :

Dotted across Europe are so many churches which are, or have been, attached to religious houses. This post concerns one such church which is almost a thousand years old attached to a former Benedictine Abbey in Normandy, France. The following description of the Abbey-Church of Sainte-Trinité (Holy Trinity) in Lessay, Normandy (France) is adapted from a brief essay found at this link.

This Benedictine Abbey was founded around 1056. By 1098 the choir of the abbey church had already been built and the nave was built in the first years of the twelfth century. The church was consecrated in 1178, but it was not fully completed at that date. It continued as a monastery until the French Revolution but became a Parish Church at that time, the monastery buildings passing into private hands.

The Benedictine plan in the form of a Latin cross is used in most of the large abbey churches of Normandy: apse with chapels to scale, abutting the aisles and the arms of the transept, and a long nave with aisles. The interior elevation is that of the Norman Romanesque churches : large arcades, an intermediate level of tribunes and high windows. The Lessay Abbey-Church features ceilings of tracery vaults : one of the earliest examples of such vaults and well before the development of rib vaults in Gothic architecture.

The church was almost totally destroyed on two occasions by war. In 1356 during the Hundred Years' War, Charles II of Navarre directed his army to destroy the Abbey and Church. The church was reconstructed between 1385 and 1420. In July, 1944, the German army, retreating after the D-Day Landing, blew-up the church, reducing large parts of it to piles of rubble. It was reconstructed with the greatest care and fidelity in the period 1945-1958 and continues to serve as a Parish church.

A more detailed history of the Abbey can be found here .

Romanesque Architecture
The austere nobility of Romanesque ecclesiastical architecture :
Nave and south transept, with the Crossing tower.

Romanesque Architecture
The rugged Crossing Tower
pierced by arcading and crowned with a pyramidal roof.
Source :

Romanesque Architecture
The splendid ribbed vault of the nave
reconstructed faithfully after World War Two.

Source :

Romanesque Churches
The nave and crossing of Sainte-Trinité :
a perfect expression of the monumental and noble art of the Romanesque period.
A new timber sanctuary, constructed in the eastern end of the Crossing,
is indifferently furnished, but at least is all
easily removable without injury to the building.

The ruins of Sainte-Trinité in 1944 :
another sad victim of war.