Tuesday, 27 July 2010


During my wanderings in Northern Italy during the last couple of weeks, I discovered two examples of old cathedrals being organized originally so that the celebrant faces down the church, across the altar in the style we have come to know and……well….

We know St Peter's (and other churches) in Rome was of this type, but here are two others outside Rome.

In Verona, the Cathedral is oriented NE/SW. The old high altar faces SW, towards the nave and congregation, and is clearly originally intended to do just that, even though a screen (you can see the pillars) intervenes. The bishop's throne is at the centre of the apse behind.

Verona Cathedral, looking SW, down the church towards the nave.

At some later stage, wooden steps have been added on the congregational side, so that Mass may be celebrated NE, into the apse. You may note, by way of interest, the 'confession' hole at the front of the altar in imitation of the high altar at St Peter's in Rome.

Verona Cathedral, looking into the apse from the rood screen.

Here is another example in the (former) Cathedral at Chioggia, just outside Venice. In this case there has been no attempt to add steps in front, but this altar is clearly old and intended to be used just as it is used today, though in this case the celebrant does indeed face East.

Chioggia Cathedral. looking west into the apse.


Rubricarius said...


Is there any topographical reason for the orientation, or rather lack of it, at Verona?

Anonymous said...

And your point is...

Pastor in Valle said...

Merely interest.
Ad populum celebration is more common anciently than some might imagine.

Anonymous said...

Although, of course, Father, both of these altars would have been arrayed with a gigantic big six and crucifix. When I was last in Verona, the old high altar still had these in position, altho' not the crucifix.

Out of interest, what did you make of the rather invasive new sanctuary sitting in front of the screen at Verona?

I thought it unfortunate aesthetically, but better than many others liturgically, in so far as the altar has it's own gradine and the bishop descends from his throne and back up to the altar.

As an aside, the arrangement you describe was also employed at the New Sacristy at San Lorenzo's in Florence and for the original high altar of the same church, replaced in the 17C with a pietre dura piece correctly oriented. I believe the original arrangement was in order to accomodate the patron's tomb.

The effect must have been of the celebrant saying mass over and beyond the people (a) because of steps on one side and not the other and (b) because of a shelf on the altar for the big 6 and crucifix.

Perhaps tombs/shrines are the reason at Chiogia & Verona? But surely in both of these we can merely talk of the celebrant happening to face the people rather than deliberately so doing?

Patricius said...

The Basilica of St Francis at Asissi is also unusual in this respect. The (medieval)altar is at the western end of the church but is freestanding. As at St Peter's in Rome the celebrant could both face east and towards the people. I was under the impression that this was done so as to enable the Pope to celebrate as at Rome but there may be another explanation.

Anonymous said...

Not "ad populum", but ad orientem, looking to some people accidentally. It is not the same as purposefully facing the people for no other reason that they are the people (the audience, as it were).

Little Black Sambo said...

When the priest was facing the people ad orientem across the altar, were the people at the same time facing him (i.e. west), or were they facing east as well?

Pastor in Valle said...

In modern times, I'm sure they would have been facing the altar. In ancient times…… who knows? The theory is that they all turned east.