Thursday, August 27, 2009

Altar Flowers

According to an article on altar vases in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, the rules regarding altar flowers are as follows:
The Caeremoniale Episcoporum (I, xii, n. 12) says that between the candlesticks on the altar may be placed natural or artificial flowers, which are certainly appropriate ornaments of the altar. The flowers referred to are cut flowers, leaves, and ferns, rather than plants imbedded in soil in large flowerpots, although the latter may fitly be used for the decoration of the sanctuary around the altar. If artificial flowers are used they ought to be made of superior material, as the word serico (ibid.) evidently implies, and represent with some accuracy the natural variations. Flowers of paper, cheap muslin, or calico, and other inferior materials, and such as are old and soiled, should never be allowed on the altar."
While there is something to be said for honoring God with elaborate floral designs, the best arrangements are usually the simplest. Perhaps this is because the emphasis is not on the skill and imagination of the flower arranger but on the beauty placed in nature by its Creator. Moreover, an elaborate arrangement may draw the attention of the faithful away from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

A simple arrangement is in any event the most suitable for a traditional Latin Mass where the altar vases must fit between the candlesticks on the altar shelf, which is usually rather narrow.

Perhaps the most important consideration is that the altar flowers should be harmonious with the color of the vestments and altar frontals for the day according to the liturgical norms. There is nothing wrong with simply using several blooms of a single color, varying the height of the stems a little, and adding a little green foliage if necessary.

If a flower arranger wants to work more with color, however, an old book on church flowers gives some sound advice regarding color combinations:
“Color in church flower arrangements is . . . a different problem from color as used in more intimate arrangements. Factors determining the color to be used are the architectural decorations of the church and the color of the vestments or frontal of the day. . . . There are three types of color combinations most suitable for church arrangements: the monochromatic or one-color scheme, the analogous or related scheme, and the complementary or contrasting color scheme. Perhaps the monochromatic is the most effective, being the simplest and easiest to make successfully.

“To make a monochromatic flower arrangement use flowers of different values or tones of one hue. A monochromatic scheme in blue could consist of large and dark blue delphinium and dark cornflowers or deep blue agapanthus. Red carnations, because they are available in many tones from dark to light, will make an effective monochromatic bouquet. The red can range from deep red to a pink, almost white tone.

"The analogous color scheme is the next easiest to create. It is made by using flowers of different colors in sequence as they appear on a color wheel, thus -- red, red-orange, orange, orange-yellow, yellow. Such a combination of warm colors may be made of chrysanthemums in an autumn arrangement. However, it is important to remember to group the different colors together, for, if they are scattered and mixed together in the vase, the effect will not be the same. Analogous color schemes may be warm or cold, depending on which side of the color wheel you use. The warm colors are red and orange and their intermediates, while the cold colors are blue and green and any colors that contain any blue or green.

“A complementary or contrasting color scheme uses colors from opposite sides of the color wheel; that is, two hues which complement each other. Simple complementaries are blue and orange, red and green, violet and yellow. To be successful, the two colors should be of equal intensity but of varying amounts. Cool and warm colors can be combined. It is necessary, also, to consider the lightness and darkness of the flowers used and, if a strong and brilliant arrangement is desired, use flowers of the same values, except perhaps at the center of interest where a stronger or deeper value may be effectively used.

“. . . If soft effects are desired various shades of pink, blue, and lavender may be combined or ‘interlaced’ so that from a distance they seem united in one delicate blend of color. However a triad color scheme, that is, one based on three primary colors, red, blue and yellow, which usually results in what is called a mixed bouquet, is not so satisfactory for the church. The triad color scheme, being more complex, does not have the directness and simplicity of the other types of color scheme.”
McClinton, Katherine Morrison; Flower Arrangement in the Church (Morehouse-Gorham Co., New York, 1944, 1958 edition); pp. 52-55.

Fantin-Latour’s “White Roses”, from Wikimedia Commons. In the public domain.


Regina said...

Oh, how very interesting. I do so love the flowers on the altars, and their simple beauty is all that is needed.

Marie-Jacqueline said...


Thank you for your visit and comment. Best wishes for your new blog!

Meredith said...

I cannot tell you how delighted I am to have stumbled across your blog and this book title! I am new to a traditional, Gothic-style church and have been asked by a friend to do wedding flowers for the high altar.

I will enjoy reading you from here on out!

Marie-Jacqueline said...

Thank you, Meredith. Yes, these old church flower books are real treasures, though difficult to find.