Thursday, November 19, 2009


If your church dates back to pre-Vatican II and you still have the old high altar many times there was what was called a reredos directly behind it. It is usually a carving but sometimes a painting or tapestry that either sits on the back of the altar or rises behind it attached to the apse wall. It may contain images of the patron saint of the parish or other significant saints or scenes from the life of Christ. A crucifix is there or a place for one and often there are relics. If you look at the sanctuary in your older church and think, “Something just seems wrong. Like there should be something there.” Chances are there was a reredos and the architecture was designed to draw your eye to it and thus down to the mensa of the altar and now it is missing.

This is particularly apparent in our Cathedral of Saint John. There is a gorgeous rerdos attached to the rear wall. The altar however has been moved considerably closer to where the people sit. There was always something that made me feel uneasy in that space and one day it became clear what that was. I was singing in the choir loft and because the organ sits in front of the choir I watched Mass from mirror. The mirror cut everything off from about the height of a person on up. The whole space then made sense. All our attention was drawn to the new altar. Later I went down stair and held a hymnal in front of me so that it blocked my view of the sanctuary from about the height of a person on down. The whole building was designed to draw one’s attention to the rear wall and to where there was once an altar. (This is why those who do renovations must be so very careful.) The building is fighting against itself. But it shows how effective it was in its job of pulling your attention to what was once there. In any event there is an excellent example of a reredos as well as at St. Bernard for locals.

When the priest led the people in facing liturgical east (Christ and His kingdom) they would all be facing toward the reredos which was a bit like facing a slice of heaven. Indeed the depiction of the saints and the sacrifice of Christ were seen there.

It is now preferred that altars be free standing but that does not mean that a reredos is not useful. It would take a certain amount more ingenuity to design something that would not attract attention to itself away from the altar but it could still be done.


Joe of St. Thérèse said...

I agree, though my parish for the most part went untouched from Vatican II destruction. I notice it in several parishes that have been wreckovated that something is missing.

frival said...

My own parish had a reredos before it was covered over when they installed the pipes for the pipe organ and the altar was moved about 50' from the wall. It's so far from the wall you almost don't notice that something is wrong.

That said, I believe this is why some at NLM recommend some form of baldachino to draw your eye to the altar. It's something that works with a freestanding altar, although perhaps not so well with many modern low-ceiling churches.

Cracked Pot said...

Regarding our St. John's Cathedral, I remember the first time I visited for Mass. The interior is very beautiful, but as I got to the front, I felt a sense of let-down. Something was missing. Some grand beauty that should have graced the altar area was clearly not there. The area is "functional" for its purposes, but something beautiful that should be central to that space is not there.

Matt W said...

"It is now preferred that altars be free standing..."

Preferred by whom?

BEAR PAW said...

In the Cleveland area, there is a particularly splendid example of a reredos in St. Stanislaus Church. How sad that any churches had to have their architecture needlessly altered, not to mention the banal architecture of churches built since Vatican II.