Thursday, September 27


St. Gelasius Redux Redux

The Institute of Christ the King recently uploaded a splendid drawing of the proposed high altar intended for their Shrine of Christ the King in Chicago, which we discussed recently below. While I'm unclear whether this is the work of William Heyer or the Institute's in-house art director, I'm really impressed, in terms of the quality of design and the extremely ambitious nature of its detailing, as well as the confident quality of the rendering itself. If this gets built I may have to make a special trip to the Windy City to see it in person. As with their work at Wausau, they have not simplified or watered-down down their proposal for the sake of modern sensibilities or budget cuts; the magnificence of material and ornament shines forth with unabashed joy.

The design is a convincing adaptation of several existing precedents, joining the distinctive altarpiece of Santa Maria in Campitelli in Rome with an altar that draws on several other Roman examples. However, it is not by any means a copy. Even if we work very closely to a precedent, as may be required in some cases, architects very seldom copy outright. In some respects it is actually an improvement from the original from a rubrical point of view. The ensemble has been liturgically corrected by the addition of a wonderfully exuberant hanging tester, or altar-canopy, in line with a more exact reading of the Tridentine rubrics. This is very much to be applauded.

Furthermore, the altarpiece's adaptation--in terms of scale and also detail--to the interior of the church has been achieved with great care and sensibility. The combination of these various elements with the polychrome walls of the Shrine, very different from the plain stonework of Santa Maria in Campitelli, will prove to be a wonderful and unique combination as well.

I know some purists may balk at the large superstructure of gradines that rise above the altar, though it seems to me this in the end a matter of taste. There's an infinite number of ways you could rearrange them, from the perspective of the armchair designer, but that would be mere nitpicking. I am not going to loose sleep over them. There's a logic in their placement, after all: the large candlesticks lifted high on the upper gradine are required by the large scale of the church and serve to visually amplify the mass of the altar below. It might be good if, in the built version, the aedicular tabernacle was replaced by a domed, veiled tabernacle, but once again, this is a very small critique of an otherwise stupendous design.

For that matter, the gradines are integrated with the altar table in such a way that they form a discrete unit independent of the hovering sunburst rather than merely serving as a base for a large classical aedicule as in many other examples. In a sense we may conceive of these gradines as 'bulking up' the silhouette of the altar, rather than dominating it, so it might stand out in the vast sanctuary of a large church. One might do it differently in the case of a baldachino, but here the choice makes visual sense. Covered by the canopy of the tester, the altar is no less dominated by the reredos than a dozen hallowed medieval examples. It will be a welcome addition to Chicago's splendid liturgical patrimony.

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