Wooden Altars + Weighing the theological and ecclesial issues concerning the materiality of Roman Catholic altars.

    I’m working on an article reflecting on the lovely new St Bartholomew Chapel by Kevin deFreitas Architects, but it is taking far longer than expected. This is due in part to the many important issues raised by the building, but also to the birth of our Cecila Margaret, our second little girl!

    So by way of a teaser, and as a means of reducing the number of items to discuss in the main article, here are a few photos of the chapel’s fine wooden altar.

    St Bartholomew, Valley Center - Altar !!© Harrison Photographic
    St Bartholomew, Valley Center - Altar
    © Harrison Photographic

    To make the altar in a Roman Catholic church out of anything but stone can be controversial. Traditionalists and purist may object that altars have always been stone, though archeologists studying the early church might counter that there is little evidence of stone altars in the earliest house churches even where there are purpose-built baptismal fonts. Ritual functionalists will object to the fact that wooden altars make no sense anthropologically, though others would argue that the practice of the Lord’s Supper arose from dining tables not sacrificial altars.

    The dual nature of altar and table complicates matters further, and wood (whose tectonic properties lead more to table-forms) is often the choice of those wishing to downplay the altar-nature of the altar or emphasize its image as a communal table. Perhaps then the wooden altar which is clearly not “simply” a table is one of the elusive means for establishing the altar as both table and altar. Few wooden altars meet this vague criteria and tend to read just as fancy tables.

    Wooden altars are allowed, however, at least in the United States. (If anyone knows the historical source or cause of this special concession, I would be very grateful to know it). The General Instructions on the Roman Missal #301 reads thus:

    “In keeping with the Church’s traditional practice and the altar’s symbolism, the table of a fixed altar is to be of stone and indeed of natural stone. In the dioceses of the United States of America, however, wood which is worthy, solid, and well-crafted may be used, provided that the altar is structurally immobile. The supports or base for upholding the table, however, may be made of any sort of material, provided it is worthy and solid. A movable altar may be constructed of any noble and solid materials suited to liturgical use, according to the traditions and usages of the different regions.”

    Clearly, stone is the strong preference. But there are also clear guidelines for the use of wood: that it be worthy, solid, well-crafted. There is also the idea of local traditions as mitigating circumstances, used here in reference to movable altars. This has significant bearing on St Bartholomew; as will be discussed in the full article, this chapel addresses clearly the concern for liturgical inculturation seen throughout the Second Vatican Council documents and elsewhere.

    St Bartholomew is a satellite chapel of the parish of the San Antonio de Pala Astencia, an early mission established in 1816, on the land of the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians. As such it is tied to and integrates the rich cultural traditions of Roman Catholic Missions in California and the native Luiseño. The altar is one of many elements where this synthesis is legible, if not immediately evident.

    St Bartholomew, Valley Center - Altar Detail !!© Harrison Photographic
    St Bartholomew, Valley Center - Altar Detail
    © Harrison Photographic

    First, the use of an altar stone on more temporary tables was common to traveling missionaries and remote areas. The wood in the sanctuary, together with the curved wall enclosing it, reference the sacred buildings (Wamkish) of the Luiseño, semi-circular enclosures constructed of woven thicket. This gives the material an association of traditional usage which stone would not have in this context. The particular wood is significant as well. The material for the altar came as a gift from a neighboring tribe, salvaged from a century-old local Coastal Live Oak.

    This altar illustrates a few material-specific arguments in favor of wooden altars. Chief among these is the inherent expression of organic life, purposeful death and shared resurrection. Architect Kevin deFreitas also describes the image of nourishment in relation to his use of wood in this chapel: ”The Oak provided acorns, physical nourishment; the Altar, spiritual sustenance.” Wood is also not without sacrificial material associations as the sacrifice remembered on this altar occurred initially on “the wood of the cross.”

    These arguments would not necessarily apply to all wooden altars universally and depend greatly on the material expression. Here we see how retention of evidence of its organic source in the form of the finished piece (in the grain, the rough thickness of the members and in utilizing the natural edge of the log as the edge of the mensa) remind the viewer that it was once clearly alive, has died and is risen in a new (but still physical) form. Of course, such an unrefined edge would not work in many churches, but is extremely harmonious and appropriate in this building.

    St Bartholomew, Valley Center - Interior !!© Harrison Photographic
    St Bartholomew, Valley Center - Interior
    © Harrison Photographic

    So the question is then, does it meet the criteria for a wooden altar? Is it worthy, solid, and well-crafted? I believe it does. It is certainly well-crafted even without intricate carving; what is more, it reveals its craft in the expression of the joinery. Its scale makes it clearly solid, and its geometry makes it more appear more substantial than could a solid table of comparable size. Worthy (dignae), that favorite word of the council fathers when discussing art for the liturgy, is more tricky and more subjective. It is of course functionally fit for its role, but that is probably not what is meant by worthy. What is meant is a subject for much greater hermeneutical activity. But here I think that the fact that the altar is quite evidently purpose-built and harmonized with (or even guiding) the design of the church as a whole is excellent evidence of its worthiness as a primary liturgical artifact.