6 November 2023

Fifteen Altars, Fifteen Pictures?

Saint John Henry, with the English Martyrs presumably in mind, refers to those "whose pictures are above our altars or soon shall be, the surest proof that the Lord's arm has not waxen short, nor his mercy failed--they ... are looking down from their thrones on high ... ". 

In our days, we have a genre facing near-extinction: the Sacred Picture above, behind, an altar.

I did a post not long ago, being snide about the way 'Art' tends to end up being ripped out of its sacral context, at the mercy of the grim and generally bog-ignorant 'art history' industry. Today, I am complaining rather more about the way the supply of such art has pretty well dried up anyway. Not entirely: there is the splendid new canvas behind one of the altars in the Ordinariate basilica of S Agatha's, in the Portsmouth area of Venice not far from the Bacino. And those most admirable people, the Brompton Oratorians, have created a stylish chapel of S John Henry, with a fine copy of the Arundel/Millais Newman. (Plenty of space in that chapel, incidentally, for the faithful to fill up with crutches and silver ex voto expressions of gratitude for answers to prayer, as we all  bother Providence for dottore subito.)

And, indeed, in a recent number of the Brompton Parish Magazine, the Provost writes that when the Roman Oratory Church was being rebuilt, S Philip Neri insisted "that every chapel should contain an image of Our Lady over the altar. His personal favourite was Federico Barocci's rendering of the embrace between the Blessed Virgin and Elizabeth, for the altar of the Visitation, before which he was to be seen in ecstasy. And so, when the Roman Oratory fathers constructed a shrine after his death to contain his mortal remains, they made sure that the beautiful painting of our saint by Guido Reni over the altar depicted him on his knees, in Mass vestments, in front of a vision of the Madonna and Child."

Pictures over altars were still quite normal in the good old days of good old Papa Pecci, aka Leo XIII, who wrote a Rosary Encyclical each year. He seems to have been genuinely thrilled that the Diocese of Lourdes-Tarbes had built a Rosary Basilica, with fifteen altars honouring the Fifteen Mysteries. He commissioned a buddy, the Cardinal Archbishop of Rheims, to go and and consecrate it, giving him faculties to wear his pallium extra provinciam. [REDHERRINGWARNING: the Apostolic Letter describing this reads "praesenti autem anno a quo suum saeculum vicesimum ducit exordium" ... readers will rember how, in our time, millions of the innumerate all round the world were convinced that the New Millennium began with the year 2000. Pope Leo, apparently, could count, because he was writing in 1901.]

1 comment:

J N said...

You may be pleased to learn that there is a rather fine, large painting behind the altar in St Joseph's Catholic church in the town of St Neot's, completed in recent years by James Gillick. It is well worth seeing.