Wednesday, 4 March 2009

The Altarpiece- some thoughts 2

During my visit to the "Byzantium" exhibition at the Royal Academy recently I was interested to learn that the iconostasis of the eastern rite churches was a comparatively late development appearing (I think) in the fourteenth century. Prior to this the sanctuary in eastern churches had been demarcated by means of a low wall or balustrade rather than screened from view. During the same period in the west we find rood screens however a momentous change was already under way which would lead eventually to their removal following the Council of Trent.

The key liturgical reform in the west was, if I am not mistaken, the introduction of the eucharistic elevations. Initially this had been done to counter certain eucharistic heresies but there were several far-reaching consequences among which were the new feast of Corpus Christi and the requirement that the curtains which had hitherto screened the altar during the Consecration be removed altogether. The rails from which such curtains were once hung may still be seen in some of the Roman basilicas where the original baldachino is still to be found.

A major part of the role of the baldachino was undoubtedly to honour or dignify the altar since it was in essence an architectural canopy however the supporting pillars also provided a means of supporting curtain rails and so it may well be that the removal of the requirement of veiling the
altar led to a rethinking of the need for such an elaborate structure. Equally the need to display the sacred host clearly may well have suggested the advisability of providing an appropriate back-drop.

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