March 28, 2015
To honor the 100th anniversary of the Cathedral of Incarnation, under the direction of Bishop David Choby, a two-phase renovation of the sanctuary is making great progress.
The wooden altar, the cathedra and the presider's chair installed in the 1987 renovation were all splintering at their base, and the need for an altar to be non-moveable and fixed, as called for in church documents, had not been accomplished. While moveable altars are permitted, the preference for a fixed altar is clear and the Cathedral should lead by example in the area of liturgy. Choosing the altar of the Mother Church of the Diocese of Nashville is a practical and honorable way to honor the 100 year anniversary of our Cathedral.
Bishop Choby commissioned Rambusch of New York to design and install an altar, ambo and cathedra befitting a Cathedral. They were also commissioned to restore the front of the old altar, now referred to as the reredos, to its former dignity and prayerful reference to Eucharist by returning the marble front and the image of the recumbent lamb. The recumbent lamb had been taken off of the old altar and placed on the wooden altar in the 1987 renovation. Now this symbol of Eucharist so familiar to all at the Cathedral has returned to its original place of honor in the church. For the new altar, Bishop Choby chose the Eucharistic symbol of the pelican feeding its young. This ancient symbol of the church is rarely seen in our part of the country.
After the installation of the new marble altar, ambo, cathedra, and the refurbishing of the reredos, attention was given to the furniture for the rest of the sanctuary. The white Carrara marble in the altar, ambo and cathedra is a perfect match to the white Carrara marble used in the crucifixion scene and the old altar. The new marble came from the same quarry as the older marble in the church, only from deeper in the mountain. The quality of this marble was recognized by Michelangelo as the quality needed to create pieces of art worthy of the praise and glory of God.
The light oak color of the veneer of the sanctuary furniture used in the 1987 renovation did not create the prayerful atmosphere that was imagined to complement the marble Bishop Thomas Byrne dreamed of when he built the Cathedral 100 years ago.
Bishop Choby and his liturgical consultants, being cognizant of the needs of the liturgy today, while honoring the 100-year history of the Cathedral, turned to Bishop Byrne’s taste and style for guidance. When Bishop Byrne was furnishing the rectory in 1909 and the Cathedral church in 1914, he was not particularly fond of the gothic style furniture so popular in church furnishings and architecture of the time. To go with the Romanesque lines in the architecture of the cathedral Bishop Byrne preferred the more simple lines of the Eastlake style of furniture, and the more gracious lines of the empire style of furniture, both of the Victorian period.
Eastlake furniture was designed as a move away from the more ornate baroque and rococo furniture. The Empire style of furniture with its gracious curves was designed as a move away from the more severe gothic furniture of the time. The Gothic style of 100 years ago is sometimes very difficult to use in the updating of churches today. However, the Eastlake and Empire style furnishings chosen by Bishop Byrne have proven to be as beautiful and to work as well today as they did 100 years ago. Not only did Bishop Byrne’s style prevail, but some of the actual furnishings Bishop Byrne used miraculously survived as well.
Two Empire style chairs that were used by Bishop Byrne as deacon and subdeacon chairs in his 1914 Cathedral were later discovered stored in the Cathedral rectory attic for more than 50 years without heat in the winter or air conditioning in the summer. These chairs have been professionally restored and are now the deacon chairs used on either side of the cathedra. The chairs are thought to have been made in 1830, and it is a miracle they have survived the years in the rectory attic to grace the sanctuary of the Cathedral once again. The graceful lines of these Empire chairs complement the lines of the new cathedra beautifully.
Also in the sacristy of the bishop's chapel on the third floor of the rectory was Bishop Byrne’s cathedra. Bishop Byrne had taken his favorite Eastlake style chair made of a rich walnut and had his furniture maker add a cap to the back of the chair made of mahogany to make the chair so beautiful in its mixed design it could be used as his cathedra. The cap worked to make a beautiful cathedra, which was upholstered in a rich burgundy red. However, it was noticeable that the cap had been added on as the style and wood were different. When the chair was recently brought into the Cathedral to assess its suitability to be used as a presider’s chair for the priest, the added gothic cap of the chair made it compete with the new cathedra too much for it to be used as a presider’s chair.
As luck would have it, the furniture builder Bishop Choby commissioned for this sanctuary renovation pointed out that since the cap was obviously added on to the chair, and 100 years ago glue would not have been used, the cap could be removed and the chair returned to its original Eastlake style. The cap was removed as only two wooden pegs attached it to the back of the chair, resulting in an appropriate presider’s chair. It is appropriate this chair could be returned to the sanctuary of the Cathedral 100 years later.
Bishop Byrne’s Eastlake style chair and his Empire style chairs became the guide for the servers’ chairs and the design of the kneelers to be used in the sanctuary.
Bishop Choby bought and donated to the Cathedral the two dolphin chairs that would be used as deacons’ chairs for Masses when the bishop is not present. Dolphin chairs are French empire style. They have the graceful curved lines of the American empire chairs of Bishop Byrne, but carved into the wood of these chairs are two dolphins. The image of the dolphin on these chairs remind us of the gifts of creation given to us by God the Father. The color of the silk-satin upholstery of these chairs match the color of the robes of God the Father in the apse of the Cathedral. Take time to view these chairs up close to find the dolphins carved in these unique chairs.
The beautiful Empire chairs discovered in the Cathedral attic were made in 1830. That particular style of chair was not made again until 1951 when a couple of furniture manufacturers re-introduced this style and made that particular style of chair for only a short period of time. The diocese was fortunate to find enough of these empire chairs made in 1951 to serve as servers’ chairs. Bishop Choby had them re-finished and re-upholstered to match the 1830 chairs original to the Cathedral.
The simple lines of the Eastlake style of the 1880s seen in the presider’s chair, and the gracious lines of the Empire style chairs of 1830, set the tone for the kneelers to be made for the sanctuary in time for Holy Week 2015. The master furniture maker commissioned by Bishop Choby came up with a design for the kneelers that will be one of a kind seen only in our Cathedral.
The furniture maker has taken the gracious curves of the back of the Empire chair and married it with the simple lines of the Eastlake style presider’s chair. The furniture maker also took the lines of the Eastlake presider's chair to use on the rest of the kneeler. The result is beautiful kneelers, unique to the Cathedral, that honor the lines of the first furniture of the Cathedral sanctuary of 100 years ago.
The dark rich red color of the upholstery of the servers' chairs and kneeler pads was chosen to match the 100-year-old upholstery of Bishop Byrne’s cathedra now used as the presider’s chair. The light gray carpet of the sanctuary that was stained beyond being cleaned has been replaced with a darker richer color gray that complements the colors in the marble of the altar, and the tile seen throughout the Cathedral. The project was topped off with small details such as changing the 12-inch candles used at the altar to a more graceful 17-inch candle, more representative of the prayers offered up from this altar. The cantor stand was faux marbled to match the altar, ambo and cathedra. Because the cantor stand must be moved for different liturgies throughout the year, marble was not a reasonable material to use. The artist commissioned for the faux marbling has done an excellent job. This technique was used in the columns of the Cathedral 100 years ago.
Phase II of the sanctuary renovation will include repair of the top of the apse, and a new design for the bottom of the apse more true to the design of the top portion, drawn from the church of St. Martin and St. Sylvester in Rome, a favorite of Bishop Byrne. The generosity of the people of the Diocese of Nashville, and Bishop David Choby, have given the people of the Cathedral parish and the entire diocese a worship space that honors our 100-year past while updating our sanctuary to the noble simplicity that guide us for our Liturgies today.
Deacon James W. McKenzie is Episcopal Master of Ceremonies at the Cathedral of the Incarnation.