Versus populum altars of Roman basilicas
  • It has often been pointed out that the reason for which the pope always has faced the congregation when celebrating mass in St Peter’s basilica in Rome is that the apse of basilica for topographical reason is not facing east, but west. This the case as well for the Lateran basilica (as well as some other churches like Santa Maria in Trastevere and San Clemente). Therefore, in order to celebrate facing east, the celebrant had to face the people even if this was not intended.

    But there are other Roman basilicas as well where mass celebrated on the principal altar has always been celebrated facing the congregation, even if the apse is not facing west. St Paul and St Lawrence outside the walls are actually both oriented, St Mary Major has its apse facing south-east and Santa Sabina’s is facing north-east.

    All these basilicas have a confessio before the altar where the faithful can venerate the relics under the altar. Therefore, it seems to me that the reason for which Mass has always been celebrated facing the people in St Peter’s and a couple of other Roman basilicas has less to do with the orientation of the apse, and more to do with the fact that there is a confessio in front of the altar which renders celebration towards the apse impossible.

    If this is true, can celebration versus populum be justified as just as traditional as celebration ad orientem? In any case, it seems to me that it has often been more important when constructing basilicas to make sure that the faithful can venerate the relics under the altar (and as a side effect [??] be able to see more clearly what the priest is doing at the altar), than to make sure that the celebrant faces east or the same direction as the faithful.

    Do you know about any other churches in Rome or elsewhere where Mass has always been celebrated facing the people on an altar in the central crossing? I could add Sant’Ambroggio in Milan.

    For more information on the subject:
  • The interesting thing that you don't mention is that curtains used to be drawn to obscure the altar from view during the consecration, serving the function almost of a portable iconostasis (in the sense that it blocks the holy of holies from the view of the people).
  • I didn’t know about that. It would be interesting to have the source.
  • At St. Peter's, which way did the "populum" face when the celebrant faced them?

    I'm not persuaded that opposition to "versus populum" is so much about an orientation of the furniture, but about the orientation of the heart which the rearrangement of the furniture indicates.
  • This article mentions "riddel posts" but doesn't go into much detail:

    This liturgical arts journal mentions them:
    "These ciboria, at some point and in some instances at least (such as the great basilicas of Rome), also had the presence of veils of curtains which would be suspended around it and closed or opened at particular points within the liturgy. Cyril Pocknee notes in his work, The Christian Altar, the accounts of various veils donated by popes for this purpose. Further, the rods and other mechanisms which were used for suspending these veils are still in evidence in a number of cases."
    These early ciboria had rods built into the columns which held curtains and the curtains would be closed during the most sacred part of the liturgy. This cloth represents the veil on the tabernacle of the Holy of Holies, the earthly dwelling place of Yahweh, built by the ancient Israelites.
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  • ...but about the orientation of the heart which the rearrangement of the furniture indicates.
    That's certainly my issue with it. I really loathe the high priest standing with his back to God the Father (and typically Christ in the Blessed Sacrament) while offering sacrifice...
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,674
    Read "The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background, by Monsignor Klaus Gamber. He illustrates the altar layout of the original St. Peter's and notes that it was considered a Holy of Holies and was walled and separated from the congregation. That format is till used in many eastern churches.

    I have also read somewhere that when the "new" St. Peter's was built, the altar area over the tomb of the apostle was considered so sacred that no excavation was allowed there. Consequently, since the new building is much larger than the old, the altar appears in a bit of an awkward position since it is oriented to the tomb not the building layout or the congregation placement.

  • This, at least in part, is why I would love to see a restoration of the practice of Rood Screens... They, along with Ciboria and communion rails, help to delineate the Holy of Holies and make it architecturally evident that "this area" is extra special and normal people don't enter there.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,674
    I will also note that until sometime after Trent, tabernacles were not allowed over the altars and the church considered it an abuse. Tabernacles were shrines, or sacrament houses, in another place. Some still exist in old churches or Cathedrals. The church eventually threw in the towel since it wasn't able to stop the popular trend of putting tabernacles over the altars. Don't know if my memory on this is correct, but didn't the new Christ the Light cathedral install a reproduction of an ancient sacrament house in that new building?

    Added note. It is amazing how some today think certain practices go back to the time of the early church when they are more recent aberrations that were condemned at the time.
  • Indeed, Charles -
    Like cassock and surplice in place of albs for altar servers,
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  • These early ciboria had rods built into the columns which held curtains and the curtains would be closed during the most sacred part of the liturgy.

    Up until approximatively when were these curtains in use in for example S. Peter’s basilica?
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,674
    The use of curtains (vela), which had always been a part of the altar, and the choir screen were finally discontinued during the Baroque period when the architectural design of churches emphasized light and sweeping views. Gamber, p. 126.

    I don't want to quote all this but mention is made of a rubric for the consecration of a church found in the Sacramentary of Angouleme (c.800), we read:

    After this, the altars are draped (with cloth) and the curtains of the temple (vela templi) are hung.

    Again, read the Gamber book if you haven't already done so.

    Keep in mind St. Peter's was demolished and rebuilt with the current building looking nothing like the original church.
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  • a_f_hawkins
    Posts: 3,062
    standing with his back to God the Father
    I can appreciate the three millennia old picture of God seated on the cherubim throne, it has power and majesty. But it is taken too far if we start confining God in time or space.
    I share the feeling that because we, priest and people, are all focussing on the same thing we should all face the same way. But I think that is partly because we are confined in pews in rows, a group can gather in the round to focus on the same thing.
    In byzantine practice, Catholic or Orthodox, which way does the principal celebrant face during the anaphora? [My very limited observation suggests that he faces the holy doors, and thus the people.]
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,605
    FWIW, God the Father was not, in Christian iconic/art tradition, fully visualized, but more typically represented by light, a hand or an eye. The advent of an enthroned Ancient of Days is more a development in the last few hundred years of Western art tradition.
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  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,674
    Our Byzantine priest would face the people when we were using a Latin Rite building. To face east, he had to face the people. In our new place, his back is to the people since the building set up is different. Truthfully, I hadn't really paid that much attention to which way he faced but I imagine one might find differences from place to place.
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 8,921
    In byzantine practice, Catholic or Orthodox, which way does the principal celebrant face during the anaphora?

    At the Byzantine-rite churches I've attended (Melkite, Ukrainian, or Ruthenian), the priest occasionally passes behind the Holy Table while incensing around it, but doesn't stand behind it facing the people. For the anaphora, he stands between the doors and the Holy Table, facing it and facing the wall of the sanctuary, bearing a large image of the Platytera (the Theotokos, More Spacious Than The Heavens).
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,674
    Chonak, I think you are correct. As I noted, when I have seen priests face the people it is because they were using the altars in Latin churches with a portable icon screen. They had to orient to the furniture placement in the building. We won't discuss pews. ;-)
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  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,943
    Chonak, this is exactly my experience with the Ukrainian Catholic Church and other Byzantine-rite churches.
    Thanked by 2tomjaw CharlesW
  • ServiamScores
    Posts: 1,767
    This is also why I’ve observed on a few prominent televised Russian orthodox services. (Facing away from the people)
    Thanked by 2tomjaw CharlesW