Blogosphere controversy over cathedral alteration

Catholic bloggers have criticised a new altar to be built in Sydney's St Mary's Cathedral for World Youth Day as "unfortunate" and "misguided" in its symbolism.

Insisting that the criticisms of the new altar design are not criticism of Sydney Cardinal George Pell, the New Liturgical Movement blog says that the "rich and coherent fabric" of "one of the few truly spectacular bits of the Gothic Revival on the Australian continent" is under threat.

Fr Neil Brown, Dean of St Mary's Cathedral, had earlier urged Catholics to dig deep to help raise $300,000 for the building of the new altar to be made of solid white Carrara marble, which will have a relief image carved on it recalling the stone Jesus was laid on.

"The Carrara marble altar will be specially designed to fit in with the sanctuary and the whole cathedral," Dean Brown told the Catholic Weekly.

"Since the Second Vatican Council we have only had a temporary altar in our beloved sanctuary.

"It is our dream and our determined goal that the current temporary altar will be replaced by one worthy of its place as the spiritual heart of all Australian Catholics; an altar that will both symbolise the table of the Last Supper and the sacrifice of Christ in the Eucharist."

However, the New Liturgical Movement blog says there have been a "misapprehension of the architect's original intention" and a failure "to grasp the essence of Gothic revival" on the part of the designers of the new alter.

In a detailed architectural criticism, the blog says that the new chancel, parclose screens, an altar with a proper footpace, and a new bronze ambo to be designed by a well-known artist, Nigel Boonham "are sadly insensitive to the context they've been placed in here".

It says the excessively narrow connection between the old high altar and the new main altar effectively makes any future ad orientem masses virtually impossible.

"In addition to the layout of the new chancel, the iconography of the altar and ambo and their relationship to the sanctuary's other furnishings is muddled," it said.

"One might well question the need for a freestanding altar at all; at the very least, the existing main altar has the virtue of being properly vested in a frontal, with an accompanying crucifix and candlesticks of appropriate substance atop the mensa."

The blog also criticises a new Pelican ambo for the reading of the Gospel as "essentially a glorified reading-desk".

English sculptor Nigel Boonham based his design for the altar on medieval carvings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York of tomb figures laid out but tilted on their side so they could be seen almost face on.

The second influence was the carved image of St Cecilia by Stefano Maderno in the sanctuary of the Church of St Cecilia in Trastavere, Rome.

These both led to the idea of the entombed Christ relief on the face of the altar, tipped up so that the congregation could see Christ full on.

Liturgical Thunder from Down Under (The New Liturgical Movement Blog, 28/11/06)
Dean seeks funds for new altar at St Mary's (Catholic Weekly, 5/11/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney
World Youth Day 2008

29 Nov 2006