The Design of the Altar and Ambo: The Role of the Community
March 18, 2008
The General Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass (GILM) clearly articulates that there must be a close and harmonious relationship between the altar and the ambo. It is both appropriate and helpful, however, to begin the design of key sanctuary furnishings with the altar, allowing the design of the ambo to flow from it.
First, as the United States Bishops articulate in Built of Living Stones (“BOLS,” § 7), the altar is the natural focal point of the sanctuary. Other key furnishings will naturally, therefore, take their design cues from it. More importantly, there is a primacy to the relationship between the altar and the worship community that needs to be established before the design of the remaining pieces can proceed. As Gordon Truitt pointed out in an earlier article on this website, “The Altar is Christ; The Altar is Church,” Catholic instruction clearly articulates that the altar symbolizes both Christ and the Body of Christ. The members of the Church “are the living stones out of which the Lord Jesus builds the Church’s altar” (Dedication of a Church and an Altar, no. 2). The design of the altar, therefore, needs to be an expression of the uniqueness of the community that will gather around it. It is this uniqueness that makes a particular worshiping community the Body of Christ. It is this collective, unique gift that worship communities raise up to God and offer to the world. The altar, of course, needs to be liturgically and architecturally appropriate; what is sometimes forgotten, however, is that its design should in some way symbolically resonate with the essence of the community that gathers around it.
The design of the ambo, then, should spring from the design of the altar. The ambo “should reflect the dignity of God’s word and be a clear reminder to the people that in the Mass the table of God’s word and of Christ’s body is placed before them . . . .Great pains must therefore be taken, in keeping with the design of each church, over the harmonious and close relationship of the ambo with the altar” (GILM, no. 32). It is important, in saying this, that there is no intent to diminish or make secondary the role of the ambo or, by inference, the Liturgy of the Word. It is at the ambo that “the Christian community encounters the living Lord in the word of God and prepares itself for the ‘breaking of the bread’ and the mission to live the word that will be proclaimed” (BOLS, §61).
For an altar to symbolize Christ and the Body of Christ, the designer needs to come to an understanding of the essence of the community which gathers around it. The designer can usually come to such an understanding only if the community, within the context of its self-study (BOLS, §§ 187-195), has clearly explored and articulated its own identity.
Some examples of this process may prove illustrative. One of the most interesting and rewarding design processes with which I have been associated involved an inner city Catholic parish that had been created by joining the congregations of three churches. Two of the three churches were closed, and the third took on a new identity and the renovation of its church structure. In the process of this consolidation, the combined congregation spent a great deal of time discussing their vision, identity, history, mission, hopes, dreams, and gifts. It was evident. As I sat with the pastor and building committee, they explained how their consolidated congregation was about one-third white, one-third black, and one-third Hispanic. Their mission involved a dynamic balance between retaining and celebrating the individual identities of these three groups while at the same time uniting as one triune. The pastor of this parish skillfully drew out the insights and emotions of the group as I met with them, and he himself explained how they spoke at liturgy—almost weekly—of “coming to the round table—a table with no sides—in peace.” In this simple act, they became Christ to their world.
Because this group was able to express beautifully who they are, the concept for the altar came quickly and easily. The base of the altar became three intertwined circles—one a blond wood, one a brown wood, and one an ebonized wood—which were joined top and bottom in a triangle (see photo on right). The mensa became a large, inviting circle, symbolizing both unity and eternity.
This altar, symbolic of both the community’s self-identity and Christ’s expression in their lives, serves as a powerful focal point in the magnificently renovated church structure and in the life of this consolidated inner city parish. The triune symbolism was carried into the design of the ambo (see photo on left) and formed the design link between the two pieces. The congregation, at the ambo, receives the living Word and prepares itself for the breaking of the bread.
Many of these principles can easily translate to other denominations. Another project that I worked on involved a dynamic, relatively large, suburban Methodist Church. This congregation offered many programs for all age groups, and, as I met with the building committee and pastor, it became evident that they viewed their self-identity to be “a safe harbor in a stormy world.” The eventual design for the altar evoked the image of an ark—a place of safety in the storm (see photo below on right).
The altar was embellished with additional symbolism that the group and the pastor felt important. The base of the altar looked like a cross section of twelve ribs of a ship. These ribs symbolized the congregation and their role as disciples. One of the ribs was ebonized, acknowledging their imperfection, evoking Judas and the capacity for betrayal. The ribs were joined by seven carved cords, representing the perfection of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit binding them each to the other. The ribs were balanced on rolls inscribed with the Alpha and Omega, acknowledging the God on whom they depended.
As in many Protestant churches, the congregation placed a heavy emphasis on preaching. The prominent, walk-in ambo, in the form of a ship’s crow’s nest, picked up on the altar’s ark or ship theme (see photo immediately above on right). The reception of the Word and sermon prepares the congregation for the sharing of communion that occurs at the altar; and the sharing of communion provides the context for the reception of the Word and sermon.
As in the earlier example, this altar and pulpit hold a symbolic resonance with the essence of the community that gathers around it. These pieces express this particular community’s self-identity and the expression of Christ in their lives and, therefore, have become important symbols in the life of this community. These pieces serve as immediate reminders of this congregation’s image of Christ, an image which they carry into their surrounding world.
Because an appreciation of the uniqueness of the community is essential to the design of the altar and ambo, thoughtful input from members of the community is crucial. In my experience, the design process that works best combines a well-balanced, representative, and empowered committee that works in dialogue with a pastor who is both engaged and open—but not domineering. It also demands a designer who understands that the altar and ambo are more than attractive pieces of furniture that need to complement the architecture; they are powerful symbols of Christ’s indwelling in the community. The members of the Church “are the living stones out of which the Lord Jesus builds the Church’s altar” (Dedication of a Church and an Altar, no. 2).
Dean C. Ludwig, Ph.D. is a professional furnituremaker who owns and operates a studio near Toledo, Ohio, U.S.A.
Photos provided by Dean Ludwig. Photo credit for last image appearing in the article: Anne Spenney, Toledo, Ohio.
See Featured Work of Dean Ludwig.