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Furniture and fittings

The rupture of the Reformation led to different conceptions of the religious function not only of the church, but of its furniture and fittings as well. Some places of worship now excluded all sacramental functions, electing to serve as meeting-places for Scripture readings, commentaries, or prayer. Others reaffirmed their status as privileged areas of the divine presence, or sacred places for the mystery of the Eucharist and the other sacraments. As it emerged from the Reformation, the Protestant Church found the greater part of its surface area and walls taken up by pews, stalls, and galleries for the reception of the community. The table, pulpit, and occasionally the organ were situated in front. The Catholic Church, by contrast, attempted to partition a given space between the sanctuary and the priests, on the one hand, and the congregation, on the other. Significant room had necessarily to be accorded to liturgical furniture. In France, pews were not widespread in churches until after the return of religious service following the Concordat of 1801.

Central elements in the furnishings were the altar and the altarpiece. With much modification the altarpiece, a medieval inheritance, was transformed into the Catholic Reformation's principal piece of furniture. Thereafter, its main purpose was to act as adjunct to the tabernacle where the Eucharist was held - until then kept in the suspensions, wardrobes, or eucharistic towers. Iconographic practice ensuing from the Tridentine decrees saw the gradual disappearance of most historical scenes and the subjects of altar-paintings restricted to duly codified themes. Whether or not in conjunction with this type of altar-painting, a new and more abstract iconography now emerged, consisting of symbols devoted to commentary on the Trinity. Cherubs were placed here and there on the tabernacle, and above them the glorious symbol of the celestial host, the dove of the Holy Spirit, and the tetragram. As an expression of sovereignty, a canopy was positioned over the entire structure. Within the parameters ofthis basic schema, the majority of altarpieces attained very considerable dimensions, until a counter-movement gradually led to their suppression. By the end of the eighteenth century and especially by the beginning of the nineteenth, elements accompanying the altar were limited to the tabernacle, candelabra supports, and cherubs.

In France, the altar itself almost always backed onto the end of the choir (e.g., in the Versailles Chapel and Notre Dame in Paris). Rome innovated in this area by transporting the altar, consisting of a large table, towards the nave.

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