Images above Altars

I’ve been on my annual retreat this week, which I am making in a beloved city in Mexico. During this time I have been sharing some photos on social media. One, in particular, generated some comment:

The Shrine of the Congregation of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Santiago de Querétaro, Mexico

Some have wondered not only how there could be such a big Mexican flag above the altar, but also why there should be an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe directly above, with the large crucifix only on the side.

With regard to the Mexican flag, it is important to note that the national identity of many historically-Catholic nations is closely tied with a certain image of Our Lady. In Mexico, it’s Our Lady of Guadalupe, whom Mexicans consider their “Queen and Empress”. The inscription around the arch above the altar says “Our Lady of Guadalupe, Queen of Mexico, Pray for Your Nation”. Then, the tympanum immediately above the image has the quotation from Psalm 147: “Non fecit taliter omni nationi“, reminding us that it was because of Our Lady of Guadalupe — a singular grace from God not given to any other nation — that the Catholic faith took root in Mexico (and thus, in a real way, united the country).

The national identity of Poland, for example, is very closely connected with the image of Our Lady of Czestochowa. There are other examples. In any case, this concept may be a bit challenging for those of us who are from a religiously and culturally diverse nation like the United States of America. In the case at hand, the flag in the sanctuary should not be viewed as a political statement, but as a prayer request to Our Lady to watch over the nation and keep it in the faith.

But what about this issue of having an image of Mary with no crucifix above the altar?

First of all, historically, there would have been a crucifix there as well. Notice that the tabernacle has a flat surface on top. When this was a proper high altar (the altar now has been disconnected from it), there would have been a crucifix on the tabernacle, which the priest would have gazed upon according to the rubrics at various points during the Mass. The people, of course, would have seen it also and thus been reminded of the sacrifice of Christ being celebrated on the altar.

In this case, the church was “re-ordered” at some point according to the “Spirit of Vatican II”, and so the altar was detached, Mass began to be celebrated facing the people, and thus there wasn’t as much need to keep a crucifix on top of the tabernacle (though it would still be a lovely thing to have there). Instead, they set up the large one which is on the left there. In the current legislation for the Mass we read:

308. Likewise, either on the altar or near it, there is to be a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, a cross clearly visible to the assembled people. It is desirable that such a cross should remain near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations, so as to call to mind for the faithful the saving Passion of the Lord.

So everything here is above board, even if, often, we are accustomed to seeing the crucifix in the center of the sanctuary and above the altar.

For cross-reference, take note of these other historic churches which had an image of something other than the crucifix prominently displayed above the altar – but with a smaller crucifix for priest and people to look upon still there as well.

First there is the Sistine Chapel, which we know has the incredible Last Judgment scene by Michelangelo frescoed on the entire wall behind the altar. But here is a shot of the atlar, with crucifix set up in front of this scene:

Photo taken by yours truly.

Then there is the famous high altar in Notre Dame de Paris, with the stunning pietà sculpture on it. But note in this photo that there is also a crucifix there:

By Abelmontf – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

And finally, the chapel of Our Lady of Humility in the Casa Santa Maria residence in Rome (where most American priests who are in Rome for further studies live), with its image of Our Lady of Humility and other paintings prominently displayed above the altar — but if you look closely, there is a crucifix that surmounts the beautiful tabernacle:

Photo by yours truly.

There are countless other examples. The bottom line is: it’s perfectly fine, and quite customary actually, to have an image of a saint, of the Blessed Mother, or of Our Lord that is other than the crucifixion above the altar. But traditionally, there is a crucifix there as well. And if there is not a crucifix front-and-center, then it should still be displayed near the altar in a way that the faithful in attendance can see it.

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