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What is a baldacchino?

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Every part of a well-designed church is deliberately planned to bring glory to God — the shape, the artwork, the liturgical furnishings and everything in between. This series aims to explain the art and architecture of diocesan churches, so the faithful can better appreciate the beauty around them.

The main altar at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome lies beneath an enormous canopy, held aloft by swirled or Solomonic columns. The structure — called a baldacchino — is meant to bring visual significance to the altar in a church that greatly dwarfs the altar in size.

Baldacchini were standard in early Christian churches in Rome and were later mandated in the principal Counter-Reformation statement of liturgical practice, according to Steven Semes of the “Journal of the Institute of Sacred Architecture.” Many churches today still feature some form of the baldacchino. There is a wooden tester or ciborium at St. James Church in Falls Church. (The word “ciborium” is used also as the name for the container that holds the Eucharist.)

In contrast to the enclosure of a baldacchino, testers have no columns and were popular especially in France and England. “(The ciborium) serves to accentuate the altar while allowing free movement and clear views,” explains Denis R. McNamara in his book, How to Read Churches. The St. James tester was added after the church’s original construction in the early 1900s.

Similarly, a wooden, tent-like structure houses the tabernacle at St. Veronica Church in Chantilly. Founding Pastor Father Marcus A. Pollard commissioned the small baldacchino to be built by Catholic carpenter Fred Scango, who was also his seventh-grade woodshop teacher.

“The basic idea is that God is found in the small,” said Father Pollard. “Churches are supposed to be set up like a bullseye, so that your eye naturally moves toward the holiest place.” At St. Veronica, the large crucifix and baldacchino draw attention to the tabernacle, and hopefully, to Christ.

How does your church show architectural reverence to the tabernacle and altar? Let us know at feedback@catholicherald.com or send a tweet to @acatholicherald with the hashtag #catholicart.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016