Monday, November 20, 2023


Praytell has an article on the restoration of use of the high altar of the "new" Baltimore Cathedral. The article can be accessed HERE.

The author is Deacon Fritz Bauerschmitt who  is assigned to the Cathedral and writes for Praytell. It is a good article, but I have a disagreement with him on one thing he writes, which I will post below the photos below.

 This Cathedral is around the corner from St. Mary's Seminary that I attended from 1976-79. I went to this magnificent Neo-gothic Cathedral  many times for Masses and visits. 

 A funny side note, back then we use to joke that Anglicans/Episcopalians would refer to the new Cathedral as The Cathedral of Mary Their Queen!

This is what the altar looked like prior to Vatican II:

 After Vatican II, this is what was done (but thanks be to God nothing else) and this is how I remember the Cathedral:

But now, that temporary altar has been removed, similar to what Cardinal Dolan did for St. Patrick's Cathedral, and the high altar is being used again, but facing the people. I like that the six candlesticks are placed on a platform behind the altar to maintain the majestic and traditional look of the altar. This is better than having those huge candlesticks on the altar or placed on the floor.

I think this is a marvelous solution to restoring one central altar, not two, to the Cathedral and to all churches that have two altars, one in front of the other:


Platform constructed behind the high altar.

This is the part of the article which I disagree but mostly agree very much. What is highlighted in red is what I disagree:

Such decisions always involve tradeoffs. On the one hand, the altar is now further from the people, and raised several steps, making an already distant altar more distant. On the other hand, the original design of the building is better displayed, not simply in the sense of architectural proportions (the empty space in front of the altar is actually quite impressive), but in terms of theological conception. Unlike many churches built before Vatican II, in which the high altar often competed for attention with a panoply of side altars, the Baltimore cathedral was designed to focus on the single high altar as the symbol of Christ. The many other altars in the building are all in recessed chapels along the side walls or in transepts, so that one’s attention is inexorably drawn to the high altar. This effect was undermined by interposing another altar in front of the high altar, and the visual focus of the building was relegated to serving as a very impressing stand for candles and flowers.

 My comments: Apart from what I highlight in red, this paragraph is a must read for liturgical design and recovering the one altar for liturgical use.

What I highlight in red, though, is a myth. Certainly, one would think that an altar that is pushed back is further away from the nave because it is phsyically more distant. But when it is higher and completely seen by those in the nave when the cathedral is full, it is much closer looking. This is perception and or illusion. The perception is that the altar is closer. Most of our sight is based on perception and illusion, not facts. 

In a full cathedral, the old "faux" altar was not the focal point of this cathedral. The eye was and is drawn to the high altar and it was seen more clearly from the perception/illusion point of view, and thus from a psychological point a view, as being closer than the one that was lower and in fact closer.

So many churches today have the altar very low and close to the first pews, but for people behind the first pew all the way to the last pew, in a full church, they can't even see the altar! It might as well be behind an iconostasis!

That's the case with our Cathedral in Savannah. The old high altar looks closer to me when I sit in the nave and the Cathedral is full because I can see it completely. I can hardly see the lower altar because it is just too low and all those in front of me block it entirely from my sight!



Frederick (Fritz) Bauerschmidt said...

I was indeed the author. The names of posters are now located at the bottom of posts, in a somewhat obscure location.

As to the issue of perceived distance, I'm just reporting my own subjective perception (from behind the altar) and what some folks from the pews have said to me. But you are right that the building is designed to draw the eye to the high altar and that having the second altar was visually confusing. The new arrangement is a much better expression of "noble simplicity."

Unknown said...

I find it interesting that there was (is?) such a hammering about "bringing the altar closer to the people" or some such thing. First of all, Father, you raise a good point. I have also noticed that in churches that originally had altars in the apse/against the apse wall but have since pulled the altar forward (practically into the first pew, usually), my gaze still naturally runs to the apsidal area, even though the altar is no longer there. I'm not sure why... maybe because the rest of the building/architecture is unconducive to directing one's gaze toward a random spot in the middle of the floor, and rather encourages one to look to the former-focal point of the sanctuary.