Thursday, September 28


Cusack, Side Altars, and More

A hearty thanks to friend in tweed and fellow New Yorker Andrew Cusack for the kind words about my hypothetical redesign of St. Agnes, and for his posting of some recent sketches I did for a reimagined Los Angeles Cathedral. This last project was my response to a challenge from Mark of Rome of the West to come up with a project for the site that was traditional, but in no recognizable historic style. I hope to write up in greater detail sometime next week on this website when I have a moment.

A reader chez Cusack also asks, in regard to my design, whether side altars are permitted, as I've shown them, in the transepts under current liturgy regs. While I admit I was being deliberately provocative by pushing the altar against the wall (and even then, I'd be curious to see how imperative the tone is in the original text given how many church regulations are hedged round with "possibly" and "somewhat" and the like, and, yes, yes, I know freestanding altars were also the ideal in Tridentine times, even if more honored in the breech than the observance), I actually have church law on my side. Much of what I've written below is cribbed from a paper Drew of the Holy Whapping posted last May on the subject, but here's what I said:
Sayeth the old GIRM (1970 version, which is actually stricter in this regard than the current text), "267. Minor altars should be fewer in number. In new churches they should be placed in chapels separated in some way from the body of the church." It doesn't specify what "some way" they should be separated, but that they shouldn't be out in the open. This has often been interpreted in a very extreme way since 1970, but since there is a long and legitimate history of the practice, it seems sensible that one should be fairly loose in interpreting this passage.

An excessive number of altars crowding out the main altar is a bad thing (Seville Cathedral, are you listening?), but transept altars are "separated in some way" from the nave in some sense. Another document, the preface to the Rite of Dedication of an Altar, throws in the modifiers, emphasis mine, "somewhat separated if possible from the body of the church." The 2003 GIRM simply specifies one altar to be "preferable" in a church, without reference to side chapels, and I think in all likelyhood refers to preferring new churches not have two "high altars" as an unintentional imitation of the old high altar and island altar of sacrifice seen in some redesigned older churches. Indeed, there are extant regulations about how saints might be depicted above new side altars, which presupposes the erection of new side altars in some context anyway.

Considering we live in an age where the Pope has freely taken upon himself to ignore the spoilsport abolition of cassock oversleeves and Cardinal Arinze says regarding the use of the maniple, essentially, "why not?" I think we can get away with a fairly loose interpretation of this law. Of course, we must perservere in holy obedience and if I have been too fast and loose with the GIRM, one can always quiet one's conscience by calling them "side shrines" and waiting to dedicate them on some happier day when we needn't worry about such unfortunate issues.
Ici voila, and keep out an eye for more on my LA Cathedral next week.

In the mean time, why not check out Andrew's fine photos of the old Police Station? It was some time ago spared the wrecking ball and lavishly refurbished as an apartment building for movie stars, supermodels and anyone skinny enough to afford Little Italy's exorbitant rents. I hear Cindy Crawford owns a penthouse in the dome. This is an amazing little gem of a building, one of the finest in Manhattan, and I have the pleasure of seeing it every day on my walk to le métro from work. It's a curiously and astonishingly advanced Baroque for the U.S., despite its Beaux Arts vintage, with a few references to Wren and Hawksmoor thrown in for good measure. Every architect has a building he (or she, I love Julia Morgan and her spiritual daughters, too) wished he'd designed--and this one's mine.

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