Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Use of the Altar Frontal

I have mentioned St. Louis Bertrand before, which is the parish church in Louisville entrusted to the Order of Preachers. It is built in a neo-Gothic style, and the original altar is placed under a baldachin that matches the choir stalls, the secondary sanctuary rail, and the paneling across the apse. For better or worse (I leave that to your own conclusions), the church has a contemporary altar placed in front of the high altar to facilitate worship versus populum. It's made of stone or concrete, and I believe it is a mensa placed on four columns, so when there is no covering, one sees the floor going back to the high altar when looking under the table

Several years ago, Shawn Tribe wrote an excellent post at New Liturgical Movement on altar frontals, or antependia, which I borrow from liberally from here on out. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety. (He's posted several more, which you can find via Googling "New Liturgical Movement antependia" or something similar.)

The altar at SLB is usually is covered to the floor, in what we call a "Laudian style," commonly found in Anglican parishes and nowadays in Catholic parishes to cover their "table altars" (all altars are technically tables...but these are the ones that do not vary much from something made by IKEA...). If you hear me in conversation, I'll let it be known that I'm consciously avoiding terms that are overly sarcastic...anyways, I find that the cuts of these are usually done poorly. Shawn agrees. They generally are not very neat and elegant, and bizarrely, I have seen oval-shaped altar frontals made for rectangular altars. They were made with cloths with very nice and dignified patterns, so it is rather absurd that someone cut it in the incorrect shape.

Here is an example from the post. You'll notice that there is a large volume of material hanging around the edge of the altar. In Catholic practice, they are definitely conceived for usage at altars where Mass is said facing the people, and I don't think we'll ever see them used in restored or even better unmodified cathedral churches with free-standing altars such as Westminster Cathedral  in London or St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. Let's not concentrate on the odd image of the cross and details like that. They happen to be ideologically connected to the usage of this style, but one could make them in other materials and with other embroidery that was not so objectionable.

I was pleased to see a Roman style frontal in use on several occasions. I apologize for the poor lighting in the church; the lights are dimmed right after Mass and the flash on my phone is poor.

whtrmfIn my opinion, it's very well done as an individual piece. This style actually would look very splendid on the altar at Guardian Angels, since Father Leger often wears silk damask Roman cut vestments from House of Hansen which have the IHS monogram in the middle and golden embroidery along the edges. The lines on this style of frontal visually blends very well with the Roman cut chasubles and their edge embroidery (not to toot my own horn, but I would definitely tell you if it didn't, since I tend to pick out the one or two details in something that clash aesthetically). Here is the picture from behind of none other than Father Zuhlsdorf modelling the vestments Father Leger has in the all the liturgical colors.

It's obvious that this altar is much narrower than the original altar in the background and so the frontal does appear compressed. While I spoke of it working also at Guardian Angels, I don't know about it matching any vestments held by the Dominicans. If it doesn't, oh well. It is a step in the right direction. The church also possesses a frontal in black with green trim, also in the Roman style, with cloths that cover the table with the offerings. I'm not so sure about the use of black with the green trim, firstly because it's black and secondly because I never have personally liked the use of green trim on black liturgical vestments and cloths, preferring gold and silver instead. But it's nice to see the use of cloths besides the chalice veil. Should one veil this and the credence table? I don't know, but it's a start. Ideally, one should cover the altar as a sign of the presence of Christ, the tabernacle for the same reason, the Missal stand and anywhere where the Word is proclaimed (ambo or lectern, even in the usus antiquior, but only where the book is placed), and the crucifix during Passiontide. One would also use them to cover the faldstool and the prie-dieu in Pontifical liturgies (I believe the throne as well). Everything ought to match, so some work and serious money would have to be raised, but it is completely do-able. For the liturgy, with careful budgeting, fundraising, and planning, money should be no obstacle. If something is needed, the Lord will guide you to the solution.

I love the Roman frontal, with its characteristic five short lines, for lack of a better word, with the two longer vertical lines and the horizontal line. With Gothic vestments, one might go for the frontals so commonly found in churches designed by men like Sir Ninian Comper, a leading architect of the last century in England. This is from St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue, an "Anglo-Catholic" parish in NYC. Ignore the fact that nothing works. It's about the style of the frontal! So please, make sure the pattern matches the vestments without clashing with the apse, and nothing excludes a Roman style frontal if it would work better, or a Gothic if using the floral vestments common to southern Germany and Austria. One sees those used at Wigratzbad by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter quite often.

An example which bridges the styles and works splendidly in its space is the frontal from Keble College at the University of Oxford (coincidentally the alma mater of a former professor of mine, where he received a master's degree in ancient philosophy). This photograph was taken by my friend Father James Bradley and shared on NLM. It's rather a shame that this is an Anglican chapel...the same ought to be said about Pusey House, and oh for heaven's sake, the entire University of Oxford! Excluding St. Benet's Hall and Campion Hall, which are very much Roman Catholic, of course.

In time, I hope that these can be adopted for use in Christ the King chapel at Franciscan University as an alternative to the Laudian frontal and other methods of dressing the altar, especially when the Mass in the usus antiquior is celebrated. That requires a great deal of money, I know, especially since our chasubles are usually Low Mass sets that do not match each other, only the pieces in individual sets. It requires a great deal of perseverance as well, since people will need to be convinced.

But on that front, I leave you with a final piece by Dom Daniel Oppenheimer, the prior of the Canons Regular of the New Jerusalem that was on NLM. I completely agree with him here. We veil liturgical furnishings, for "in both the eastern and western Churches the altar has been the object of artistic embellishment for the sake of increasing faith regarding its holiness." I also agree that people who attend Mass according to the 1962 Missal need more formation, even more so sometimes than those who exclusively attend the Novus Ordo Missae, to avoid polemics that are poorly sourced and to get the Church as a whole moving on the right track again. It's a wonderful piece, and I'd like to follow this post with one on a local church that I visited in June that is on a similar note to the ones Monsignor Gamber describes in the selection quoted at the end of Dom Daniel's piece.


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