Below the photos Father Alan Griffiths, a liturgist of the Portsmouth Diocese in England gives a good apologetic for Mass ad orientem. The photos below are meant to illustrate his points.
This photo of the reordering of the altar at St. Joseph Church shows the view from the congregation that maintains the original concept of the unified reredos and altar. It is an optical illusion that is disturbed once the priest inserts himself between the new altar and older altar/reredos:
Praytell post concerning the design of the altar and the position of the priest. Here is part of one of his comments with my comments at the end:
I think that the medieval combination of altar and iconographic reredos was a single piece, possibly developed on the idea of the Mass surrounded by the representational presence of Christ, the BVM and Saints, even relics or shrines, etc. This sort of arrangement was not decorative but iconographic.
Then in the baroque the emphasis shifted to the Tabernacle, but still in express connection with the altar. In other words, clearly in the medieval reredos and differently in the later focus on the Sacrament you have a sort of locally realised eschatology, represented by a single object, namely, altar and surround.
Simply to separate these elements as so many churches did in the 1970′s does not take the original unity into account. I think that to my eye (and I stress this might just be me) inserting a priest between these two hitherto conjoined elements disturbs the ‘iconography.’
Some reorderings (and, worse, re-reorderings) retain (or replace) elaborate gradines (steps or shelves), thrones, candlesticks and other ‘bondieuserie’(Any devotional ornament or church object, especially one having little artistic value; a religious knick-knack) and then place an altar freestanding in front of all this. My eye goes straight to the elaborations behind and the focus on the altar is lessened.
I want the altar to stand out as the primary visual symbol of Christ in the Church. (Many)...reorderings (of churches) try to keep things looking as much like they used to be as possible, but when Mass begins you immediately see that this is a false vision, when the priest goes behind the altar.
Part of my thinking rests upon the fact that while (I am) very (pleased) with Mass in English, I have never been really comfortable with ‘versus populum’ celebrant’s position. I have been a priest for 40 years and in the last few years my acquaintance with the EF only makes me feel that discomfort all the more.
My Comments: Father Griffiths captures my sentiments completely. In many renovated (re-ordered) churches after Vatican II a free standing altar of some type, sometimes matching the older altar in style, other times completely of a different style, beautiful or cheap looking, disturbs the original unity and iconography of the original design. Worse yet is when a beautiful, ornate attached altar and reredos is completely removed and only a cheap looking altar replaces it, one senses something has been disturbed and is missing and the free standing altar looks "cheap and rinky-dink" compared to what had been there.
Both at the Church of the Most Holy Trinity in Augusta and St. Joseph in Macon, the reordering of these churches tried to maintain the unity of what had been there even with the altar becoming freestanding.
At Most Holy Trinity, the original altar table was literally detached from the reredos to allow for the priest to insert himself between the altar and reredos to celebrate Mass facing the people. From the congregation's vantage point, it appears that the altar and reredos is still a unity until the priest arrives and inserts himself between the two.
At St. Joseph, the reordering of the sanctuary in 2005 placed a new freestanding altar in front of the older reredoes/altar. The new altar is not as long as the older attached altar and strives to match the style of the older altar except by the use of a brownish/red Polish marble as accents. This helps the freestanding altar to stand out more. From the congregation's viewpoint, it appears that the new freestanding altar and older altar/reredos are a single unit until the priest goes to the other side of the altar to face the congregation during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. But make no mistake, architecturally, the old altar/reredos remains the focal point of the sanctuary and it is clear that the new is a later addition and placed where it is simply so the priest can face the congregation during the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
At both Most Holy Trinity and St. Joseph, Mass has been celebrated ad orientem with the reordering of the altars. In these cases, the unity is preserved even with the freestanding altars, with the priest clearly a part of the congregation's position and not half hidden by the altar when facing the congregation.
Why oh why was it felt that the priest needed to face the congregation during the Liturgy of the Eucharist? It was of course based upon a false archeologism and a Biblical literalism as it concerns the Last Supper. It is based upon a literal/fundamentalism concerning the liturgy and the "meal" aspect of the Mass. It is based upon a faulty theology that the Liturgy of the Eucharist facing the congregation is more like Jesus at the Last Supper and the congregation like the apostles at the historic event.
Can you imagine the money saved, the heartache reduced and the elimination of the misplaced focus of parish life and the nonexistence of decisions that were decisive in terms of church re-orderings after Vatican II that could have been if the theology of priest facing the congregation during the Liturgy of the Eucharist had not developed and been shoved down the throats of almost every parish in the world? We would not have become that enclosed circle focused on liturgical reordering and self-absorbed with liturgy and engaged in the liturgy wars to the detriment of parish life, spirituality and popular devotions as well as Catholic identity reduced to superficiality devoid of faith and the Church becoming a non-governmental social organization or worse yet a country club. We would rather be a Church that goes out to the periphery of our homes, workplaces, recreational venues and the poor after the eschatological, iconographic experience of ad orientem liturgy even in the Ordinary Form and the vernacular.