Wednesday, January 17


Some Hypothetical Additions to St. Thomas More Chapel, Yale Catholic Student Center

I'm in the workforce now, racking up hours towards completing the requirements for an architectural license, and it's a different world from the theoretical projects of academia. It helps to revisit the realm of the hypothetical, though, to keep those design skills carefully honed. As a consequence, sometimes someone will send me a compositional problem to take a crack at, often in the form of a counter-proposal of my own to some ecclesiastical project in the offing.

A view of the chapel. It's the one with the small New England spire in the middle distance.

The Yale Catholic Student Center is currently undergoing a major overhaul in the form of a new addition by contemporary architect Cesar Pelli, and a redesign of the chapel by another firm, whose name escapes me at the present juncture. I am glad to see Yale did not merely give the job to the lowest bidder and instead had the foresight to hire a nationally-known architect--Pelli--even if his stylistic approach differs from my own. This decision to take on well-known men in the field is sadly rare in most universities, and the result elsewhere is often institutionalized mediocrity no matter whether the work is modernist, classical or Gothic. Unfortunately the chapel overhaul itself is rather less ambitious, despite having a fairly good canvas to work with.

The chapel, as it stands, is not without its finer points. Its bare but handsome white-walled chapel will be getting a new altar, a new immersion font, a nicely decorated ceiling, and other adjustments. It's not much to begin with--essentially a big, stark, quasi-Colonial box, but it has good bones, a surprising little Italian Baroque side-chapel (!), and a handful of turn-of-the century moldings and brackets scattered here and there. However, the place lacks a true visual focus, save an exceedingly ugly squashed cross above the altar, and all the plans I've been able to dig up don't show any intention to remedy the strange blank at the center of the composition.

An elevation of the hypothetical sanctuary fittings proposed by the author (altar rail omitted from rendering).

Originally, the old ad orientem altar was crowned with a rather strange cloth tester and dossal crammed into the curve of the apse. It is now long gone. The effect was not unpleasant but not particularly exciting, either, and had a strangely ad-hoc air. While the project is hypothetical, it struck me as necessary to come to grips to the liturgical situation of the chapel--an oriented wall-altar would have been unrealistic given the environment. Instead, I used the liturgical restrictions placed on the design to serve as a means to explore ways to dignify the freestanding altar so common in our parishes today. Baldachini or ciboria remain the historic ideal for such altars, but many existing sanctuaries are not spacious enough to accomodate such large structures.

A Model Chancel Designed on Liturgical Lines, Intended for Mainstream Parishes

I decided to take another approach. Freestanding altars were not unknown before 1965, and were nominally considered the liturgical ideal even in Tridentine times. However, such altars differ from our own in two ways. They were typically raised on a series of steps (typically an odd number such as one, three, or five) culminating in a broad footpace that surrounded the altar. This broad upper step is particularly important at present as it permits a freestanding altar to be used from either direction. The second difference lies in the use of a canopy of some sort, a requirement sometimes ignored, but not unknown. This usually took the form of a baldachino, but I realized that the hanging tester associated with medieval wall-altars could easily be adapted for a freestanding arrangement. It was also important to avoid creating a conflict between the tabernacle and the altar itself--common in many contemporary pseudo-traditional designs--so I sought to integrate the two as closely as possible in terms of style and space, keeping them at the same height in the sanctuary.

Plan of the author's conception of a reordered sanctuary and baptistery.

Reconsidering the Placement of the Presider's Chair

Another significant defect in most modern chancels, in addition to low, uncanopied island altars, is the arrangement of clergy and server seating. The celebrant's chair is often tilted at an angle to the wall so the priest sits nearly face-on with the congregation. The result is that the personality of the priest unintentionally dominates the mass and creates an atmosphere conducive to chatty, unliturgical asides. This problem is remedied quite simply by turning the chair with its back flat to the wall, which is what I have opted to propose here. A more elaborate adaptation might be to revive the handsome medieval triple sedilia inset into the wall, but such an arrangement was not practical in this instance. A simple bench in the Tridentine manner might be used, but divided seats seem more in keeping with current rubrics, and also are closer to the handsome medieval precedent.

Pulpits and Ambos

The adapted sanctuary features a lofty pulpit and a smaller reading-desk to one side. It is generally thought that current rubrics presuppose all three readings and the homily should be given from the same place; the architect Schloeder suggests this is an open question and proposes that sanctuaries might include a small lectern for non-liturgical announcements and two ambos--one for the Gospel and one for the other readings. The existing chapel once featured a high pulpit and a lower desk, similar in placement to what I have included in my proposal. The high pulpit is balanced by a large relief plaque in polychrome of the Virgin as Sedes Sapientiae with her Child.

A view of the existing pulpit, with a temporary font in the foreground.

True ambos are quite large, larger than most pulpits and should have room for at least two taperers with candles, a server with incense, and the priest or deacon. Such large constructions would overwhealm the small sanctuary, so it seemed sensible to adapt the existing setup. The uses these two items could be put two liturgically remains an open question: the pulpit could be used as an ambo for the Gospel, as it has room for the priest and at least one acolyte with a censer, while the two taperers for high mass could stand below on either side; the smaller reading-desk could either be used as an ambo for the other liturgical lessons, or as a cantor's lectern. Or, the pulpit could be used solely for preaching--the original medieval and Tridentine custom--and all other readings could be read from the smaller ambo, which has sufficient room for taperers to stand on either side.

Aesthetically, this seems the most desirable, and may be supportable from a rubrical point-of-view. The General Instruction permits the homily to be delivered from not only the ambo--in this case, a floating term for whatever bit of furniture is associated with the Gospel and other readings--but from the priest's chair or "another suitable place," in this case, an adaptation of the chapel's historic and very suitable high pulpit.

The Style of the Sanctuary

The language of the design is an adaptation of the hybrid Continental Baroque popularized by the English church furnisher Martin Travers during the nineteen-twenties. This choice is not as arbitrary as it might seem. A few of the church's remaining original furnishings have a vaguely Spanish air, and the bare white walls suggest the sort of contrast that a highly polychroned Spanish altar might provide. More significantly, the very beautiful Riggs Chapel that occupies the liturgical south transept is a surprising small-scale exercise in authentic Italian Baroque (though it appears faintly Mexican at first glance) strongly reminiscent of Travers re-interpretations of it.

A view of the Baroque Riggs transept chapel.

Above the tabernacle, standing at the center of a colorful gilded retablo is a crucifix in high relief with SS. Thomas More and John Fisher below, and the coats of arms of More and Yale on either hand. The tester--centered over the freestanding altar--is inspired by Travers' designs. The sanctuary lamp hangs directly from its center, a position derived in part from the placement of medieval hanging pyxes. The freestanding altar is ornamented with four tall candlesticks and a crucifix, creating a sort of miniature rood-screen and an internal "east" for the priest to focus his mind upon during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

The Baptistery

One of the more objectionable elements in the official proposal was a strange immersion font in the rear of the church that could be covered over with inscribed metal plates when not at use. A smaller portable font was included for other forms of baptism. The craze for immersion baptisms in parish environments should be dismissed largely due to practical reasons and a lack of demand; however, given the high level of adult catechesis typical on college campuses, an immersion font seems more appropriate in this context. However, the proposed location is completely unsuitable for two reasons. First, it does not allow for the more intimate, enclosed setting presupposed by the Ritual, and secondly, there is something mildly absurd about the sign value of a font that disappears when not in use and in fact can be walked over as it stands in the middle of the center aisle.

It makes more sense, now that the tabernacle in my proposal is relocated to the sanctuary, to use the transept opposite the Riggs Chapel as a baptistery; there may be a number of questions of wheelchair access, but it seems possible that the ramp that leads into that particular space could be located further down the corridor, and the font and ornamental grilles to be spaced to allow a clear route. I don't have all the specifics of the building at hand, so such a reordering may not meet code requirements. We may simply consider this a slightly more hypothetical portion of this extremely hypothetical project.

Standing font with lid as proposed by the author.

The immersion font is a simple quadrifoil-shaped pool, with a smaller, more conventional font placed at one end. The smaller font is ornamented with symbolic shells and Doric guttae, architectural elements associated with trigylphs and thus, by extension, sacrifice. Here, they are made to resemble water dripping off the shell. The upper portion of the font is ornamented with symbols of the five wounds of Christ, representing Christ's sacrifice in blood, and at the very top, the fire of the Holy Spirit.

The Ambry

A similar mix of Passion and Pneumatological imagery occurs at the baptistery altar, intended as a shrine for the ambry containing the holy oils. The dew and flames of the Holy Spirit are enclosed by escucheons in either corner of the retablo arch, with the dove of the Holy Spirit crowning the chest that serves as an ambry.

Ambry shrine and altar as proposed by the author.


While this project is intended to explore, at a theoretical level, many of the liturgical issues of a Catholic college chapel--such as the placement and design of immersion fonts--it is to be hoped that the design of the altar, placed on a broad footpace, dignified by a canopy and integrated into a tabernacle shrine with reredos, will serve as a liturgically-correct and flexible model for newly-built mainstream parishes where either the use of a full baldachin or a reredos and wall altar combination are, for pastoral reasons, untenable. Such an altar may be used in either direction, and for both the old and new rites. It is to be hoped a greater awareness of the liturgical concerns that have shaped this proposal will become itself mainstream in the years to come.

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