Living Stone: The Beauty of the Liturgical Altar

by Randy L. Stice, appearing in Volume 21

You are beauty…You are beauty! exclaimed St. Francis of Assisi of God.1 God who is beauty is also Being, the source and sustainer of all that is (cf. Col 1:16-17). Beauty, then, is a category of being, and all beauty participates to some degree in the beauty of God, as the Second Vatican Council taught: “Of their nature the arts are directed toward expressing in some way the infinite beauty of God in works made by human hands.”2 Since beauty is a category of being, in determining the beauty of something one must first know its essential nature. Jacques Maritain called this its “ontological secret,” which he defined as its “innermost being” and “spiritual essence.”3 The ontological secret of things is “the invisible spiritual reality of their being as objects of understanding.”4

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy offers the key to the ontological secret of things used in the sacred liturgy: “all things set apart for use in divine worship should be worthy, becoming, and beautiful, signs and symbols of things supernatural.”5 This is their ontological secret—they are “signs and symbols of things supernatural.” For this reason, the ultimate goal is “noble beauty rather than sumptuous display.”6 Thus, in order to judge the beauty of the liturgical altar, we must determine how it is a sign and symbol of supernatural realities, which in turn requires that we first determine this for the church building.

Before we consider the question of ontology, however, we first need to outline our aesthetic methodology. For this we will turn to Saint Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas taught that beautiful things possess three qualities: integritas, consonantia, and claritas. Integritas refers to completeness and perfection—nothing essential is lacking, nothing extraneous is present. Consonantia is the quality of proportionality in relation to an end, “the goal that God had in mind for it.”7 Claritas, the third element, is the power of an object to reveal its ontological reality. Umberto Eco describes it as “the fundamental communicability of form, which is made actual in relation to someone’s looking at or seeing of the object. The rationality that belongs to every form is the ‘light’ which manifests itself to aesthetic seeing.”8 Something that is truly beautiful has all of its constituent elements (integrates), is proportional to its ultimate purpose (consonantia), and manifests its essential reality (clarets).

In his discussion of consonant, Eco also describes the important relationship of different but interconnected things, forming what he calls “a dense network of relations….In fact we are free to consider the relation of three, four, or an infinity of things, proportionate among themselves and proportioned also in respect of some unifying whole.”9 “In brief, what is involved is a twofold relation of parts to one another and to the whole of which they are parts.”10 Applied to a church building and its furnishings, this describes a multitude of relations: sanctuary to nave, altar to sanctuary, altar to tabernacle, ambo to presider’s chair, and so on.

Having established our methodology, we can now turn to the question of the ontological secret of the church building and the altar. The ontology of the church building is derived from the ontology of the Church. Lumen Gentium described the Church in the following words:

This edifice has many names to describe it: the house of God in which dwells His family; household of God in the Spirit; the dwelling place of God among men; and, especially, the holy temple. This Temple, symbolized in places of worship built out of stone, is praised by the Holy Fathers and, not without reason, is compared in the liturgy to the Holy City, the New Jerusalem.11


Notice how this passage moves from the nature of the Church to the nature of the church building, from biblical images descriptive of God’s dwelling with his people to “places of worship built out of stone” that are“compared in the liturgy to the Holy City, the New Jerusalem.12 Ontologically, then, the church building is an image of the Temple, and the Holy City, an image of the New Jerusalem described in the Book of Revelation.

The central figure in the New Jerusalem is the Lamb (cf. Rev 21:22-23; 22:1, 3), which provides the context for the ontology of the liturgical altar. It is a symbol of Christ, the center of the thanksgiving made present through the Eucharist, the altar of sacrifice, and “the table of the Lord.”13 First and foremost, the altar is a symbol of Christ, as St. Ambrose asserted in the fourth century: “The altar represents the body [of Christ] and the Body of Christ is the altar.”14 The Catechism summarizes this important symbolism: “the Christian altar is the symbol of Christ himself, present in the midst of the assembly of his faithful, both as the victim offered for our reconciliation and as food from heaven who is giving himself to us.”15

Church as Heavenly City mosaic, Santa Prassede, Rome. Photo: Father Lawrence OP

If the altar is the symbol of Christ, then it must perforce also be “the center of the assembly, to which the greatest reverence is due.”16 The General Instruction reaffirms this teaching of Eucharisticum Mysterium, describing it as “the center of the thanksgiving that is accomplished through the Eucharist.”17 Third, the altar is “the place at which the saving mysteries are carried out,” the altar of sacrifice.18 It is the place, says the GIRM: “on which is effected the Sacrifice of the Cross made present under sacramental signs.”19 Fourth, it is the table of the sacrificial meal, “the table of the Lord to which the People of God is convoked to participate in the Mass.”20 Drawing together the last two aspects, the Catechism says, “The altar, around which the Church is gathered in the celebration of the Eucharist, represents the two aspects of the same mystery: the altar of the sacrifice and the table of the Lord.”21 An altar that “worthily and beautifully serve[s] the dignity of worship”22 will reveal this fourfold ontology.

Main altar at the Basilica of Saint Louis, Saint Louis, Missouri. Photo: Jeff Geerling

Although Church documents do not use Aquinas’ terminology, they do show an implicit awareness of his three elements. In discussing the specifications of the altar, the Church documents address several elements of its integrates, its wholeness or completeness. The GIRM refers to the centrality of the altar: “the altar should occupy a place where it is truly the center toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns.”23 Built of Living Stones makes reference to two other elements, the altar of sacrifice and the table of the sacrificial meal: “The shape and size should reflect the nature of the altar as the place of sacrifice and the table around which Christ gathers the community to nourish them.”24 Each of these passages is addressing what Aquinas termed integrates.

St. Michael’s Church, Creeslough, Ireland. Photo: Steve Cadman

The concept of consonantia, proportionality to an end, is also referred to in ecclesial documents. The Introduction to the Order of the Mass states that the altar’s “size and proportions should be appropriate to the normal Sunday Eucharistic celebration, and it should be able to accommodate the patens, ciboria, and chalices for the Communion of the faithful.”25 Consonantia as “a dense network of relations”26 is also implied. Take for example the exhortation in Eucharisticum Mysterium: “Pastors must realize that the way the church is arranged greatly contributes to a worthy celebration and to the active participation of the people.”27 This is echoed by Built of Living Stones:

In considering the dimensions of the altar, parishes will also want to insure that the other major furnishings in the sanctuary are in harmony and proportion to the altar….Impact and focal quality are not only related to placement, size, or shape, but also especially to the quality of the altar’s design and worthiness of its construction. The altar should be centrally located in the sanctuary and the center of attention in the church.28

An altar possessing consonantia will be appropriate to its liturgical function and harmonious with the other sacred furnishings.

Aquinas’ third element, claritas, refers to the power of an object to reveal its ontological reality. Something may possess consonantia and integrates, but if these are not perceivable then it will not be beautiful. This is what the GIRM is saying when it specifies that “the nature and beauty of the place and all its furnishings should foster devotion and express visually the holiness of the mysteries celebrated there.”29 According to Eucharisticum Mysterium, the altar should be “so placed and constructed that it is always seen to be the sign of Christ himself.”30 A key aspect of the altar as a symbol of Christ is a fixed stone altar. The GIRM urges “a fixed altar in every church, since it more clearly and permanently signifies Christ Jesus, the living stone (1 Pt. 2:4; cf. Eph 2:20).”31 Although in the United States altars made from wood are permitted32, an altar “with a table or mensa made of natural stone” will strengthen the claritas of the altar, “since it represents Christ Jesus, the Living Stone (1 Pt 2:4).”33 As these references make clear, the altar must clearly show forth its ontological reality.

Beautiful things reveal most easily and completely their ontological reality and convey the attractive power of the Truth. The beauty of a church building will reflect its ontology as the Temple and New Jerusalem and a beautiful altar will manifest its reality as the image of Christ himself, the altar of sacrifice, the table of the heavenly banquet, and the table of thanksgiving. Saint Thomas Aquinas’ three constituent elements of beauty—integritas, consonantia, and claritas—provide a useful methodology for ensuring that all things destined for the sacred liturgy are worthy, beautiful and able to turn men’s minds devoutly toward God. Fidelity to ontological realities will produce a church building that is “a vehicle for carrying the presence of the Transcendent One”34 in which “every altar…from the greatest to the least, is lit from that golden altar in heaven [Rev 8:3], and becomes its replica on earth, the representation of Our Lord Himself.”35