Monday, August 06, 2007

Altar Orientation 101

this is an amended version of an article that I did on the website some time ago. I have updated it to reflect my personal observations travcellling through italy where I had the priveledge of visiting many mediaeval churches to get some ideas on positioning of Altars.

From what I have read, the practice of the priest facing east with the congregation started as early as soon after apostolic times. Like many liturgical practices, it began as a preferred orientation in the Eastern church. In the Western church it has been very much "either-or". However, it has always been generally believed that in the Roman catacombs, the priest would have celebrated over a tomb of a martyr which ws always in the niche in a wall, so that the priest would have celebrated in the same direction as the congregation. Whether in the East or in the West, the practice seems to have been known as far back as the 2nd century AD.

Both the orientation “ad orientem” (to the East) and “Versus populum” (facing the people) have existed in parallel throughout the centuries. My observation in Europe is that the orientation “ad orientem” seems to have been most popular in the Middle Ages across Northern Europe, but it is interesting that up to the 13th century in Italy, many churches were still being built for celebration “versus populum” (eg. St Clemente). This was not because of some idea to make the liturgy more inclusive, but because of the tradition of the particular church (often built on an earlier church) and the fact that the Altar had to be built over a particular Saint’s tomb. I have seen the original of this fresco which is in the lower church of San Clemente and is believed to date from the 11th century. I imagine that in painting it, the artist probably reflected contemporary practice. Note the separation of the clergy from the laity.

A later fresco can be seen here in the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi. This painting by Giotto was completed in in about 1295-1300, and in depicting St Francis creating the first nativity crib, shows the layout that Francis and Giotto would have been familiar with in the the church at Greccio.

Although it shows a versus Populum Altar to the right, it it worthy to note the presence of a ciborium over the Altar and the Rood Screen. This shows that versus populum Altars were definately to assist the participation of the laity, and depending upon their configuration, actually made the distance between clergy and laity greater. Note the high ambo above the rood screen. We saw many of these types, and we saw that some churches carried two; one for the Epistle and the other higher one for the Gospel.

The Church of San Miniato which is attached to the Benedictine Monastery above Florence has the same orientation. I did not take any pics inside as it was too dark, but the monastic part of the church did resemble the above picture (but no ciborium) The part for the laity has an "ad orientem" Altar (with ciborium) which I was very happy to see is used for the ordinary form Masses for the local residents.

My theory is that although southern European people in the Middle Ages appeared to have considered the orientation of Altars irrelevant (more important was the tradition), the change came with the return of the papacy from Avignon. At this point in time the return from the "Babylonian captivity" did bring with it French practice back to Rome (eg. the title of Monsignor). All the new churches that we saw built after this period strictly kept to an Ad orientem position for the Altar (eg. Santa Maria sopra Minerva). I would like to test this hypothesis with anyone who reads this blog.

With the Renaissance, some architects such as Alberti, oriented the altar for the celebration “versus populum”, to reflect a humanist philosophy. Later, some churches built in Italy, reflecting the enlightenment philosophies of their architects (and their patrons) also oriented their altars “versus populum”. The liturgies on these Altars was the Mass of Pius V or its immediate ancestors.

With liturgical reforms in the 19th century the "versus populum" practice died out totally. However as we well know, in the late 20th century the practice of “versus populum” became "preferred" with the issuance of the instruction Inter Oecumenici by the sacred Congregation of Rites in September 1964 (adopted in March 1965) The same policy was then repeated in the GIRM in 1970. During this period (1965-1970) all churches in Australia were reoriented. This is the first time in history (including the Tridentine period) that the church mandated one practice over another.

It is only in recent years that the idea of celebrating “versus populum” “because this is how the early Christians did it” was questioned seriously. It is based on faulty archaeology from the 1960s, and the realization that the practice of “versus Deum” does make theological sense. The best recent criticism of the mad rush to re-orient churches and a considered appraisal of the practice of “versus Deum” is in Benedict's excellent book, “The Spirit of the Liturgy”. In Chapter 3, titled, “The Altar and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer”, he gives a very convincing theological case.

The Congregation for Divine Worship came out in September 2000 saying that there is no rigid position on the altar orientation. CDW has also stated that if the priest is celebrating “versus populum” his spiritual attitude should be “versus Deum” as his first priority. This points to the fact that, although he is facing the people, his attitude in praying should be as if he is not facing them. The lineamenta for the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist addressed the orientation of prayer. The synod quotes “It is not a question, as is often claimed, of presiding at the celebration with the back to the people, but rather guiding the people in pilgrimage towards the Kingdom invoked in prayer until the return of the Lord”. I dont think that this language got to Sacramentum Caritas.

So I think that the tide is turning. In the next week I will discuss what this means for the ordinary form Mass.

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