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.