Rorate Caeli

An iconographic project worthy of the Middle Ages — the traditionalist Fraternity of St Vincent Ferrer’s monumental altar in progress

The 1/10 scale model of the future high altar of Our Lady of the Rosary (with wings closed)

The Fraternity of Saint Vincent Ferrer, which has just finished building its conventual church, Our Lady of the Rosary, in Chéméré-le-Roi (Mayenne, France), has decided to construct a monumental historiated high altar. How did this project develop? What will it look like? Richard de Seze interviewed the Father Jordan-Mary, responsible for the project.

Was the project for this high altar planned when your church was first built?

Not at all. We knew that one day we would have to build an altar, but no further plans were made. I must admit that we sounded out many options. We approached several artists, who had interesting and high quality projects to offer. But, after submitting them to our community’s discernment, no consensus was reached. Nothing really won everyone over.

The church had to be fully completed, and we needed to celebrate the liturgy there for several months, before we could begin to have a feel for the venue, and the way in which we wanted to organize it. Remember, for over thirty years, the community celebrated the liturgy in the old commons, which had been ingeniously transformed into a chapel. Then we moved from this small, rather dark volume without acoustics, to a large, very bright volume, with a long echo duration. The necessary adaptation time explains the first stages of trial and error we had to go through.

Mr Insam drawing the low-reliefs of the wings

Who decided on the iconography of the altarpiece?

The iconography was determined by the very title of our conventual church: Our Lady of the Rosary. It all stems from there. We knew we wanted to honor that title. The “how” remained to be found: a representation of Saint Dominic and Saint Catherine of Sienna receiving the Rosary, in the spirit of the Rosary confraternities which blossomed throughout Europe from the end of the 15th century onward? A reference to one of the great apostles of the Rosary (Saint Dominic, Blessed Alain de la Roche, Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort)? The victory of Lepanto? The Marian apparitions of Lourdes or Fatima? The possibilities were endless. But was it not best to return to the Gospel itself, and to consider this panelled altarpiece as a book of the Gospels from which we can read of God's love for us? These images of the life of Christ are an incomparable support for the meditation and the apostolate of a friar preacher.

How does the altarpiece accompany the liturgy in its great annual cycle?

The liturgy is a feast. This feast, the true human feast, is a most profound mystery, which seeks to harmonize all the circumstances of time and place with the quickness of Spirit. What does the liturgy celebrate? It celebrates the mysteries of Christ, from His incarnation up unto the effusion of the Holy Spirit, with the “blessed Passion” (Roman canon) and the Resurrection in between.

Throughout the year, the altarpiece in its closed position presents a diptych, two panels representing the passion of the Saviour: the agony on the Mount of Olives on the left, and the carrying of the Cross on the right. Placed above the altar, the tabernacle and the cross, these two mysteries remind us that Our Lord did not just pretend to love us, and that the mystery of the Mass is nothing else than the bloodless renewal of the sacrifice offered “by Him and in Him” on Calvary.

But, at times during which we celebrate the victory of the Resurrection, the panels open and present the viewer with a compendium of the Gospel. Four panels retrace the entire saga of Christ’s life: at the top left, the Incarnation; then, below, the Baptism of the Lord; bottom right, the Crucifixion; then, above, the Resurrection.

During Eastertide, therefore, and on the great feasts of the year, the sanctuary dons its festive gear,  unfurling the folds of its mantle, just as the Virgin and Childs’, whose folds cover a multitude of people in prayer.

Mr Insam and the tabernacle of the future high altar

How did you think of calling upon Remy Insam?

It's actually quite a story. Bishop Athanasius Schneider, who conferred Sacred Orders on several fathers of the community, told us what happened with the cathedral of Karaganda, in Kazakhstan. In the middle of this Muslim country, in the beating heart of the city, he had a beautiful and vast sanctuary built in honor of Mary.

This “mosque of the Christians”, as the Muslims of the region call it, is Gothic in style. For the interior fittings (the high altar, side altars, statuary, low-reliefs, etc.), Bishop Schneider called on craftsmen from the village of Sankt-Ulrich in Tyrol. Remy Insam was the one who supervised this impressive project. Seeing the images of what was done in Karaganda, especially the high altar, the idea slowly dawned on us: why not an altar of this type for our church? And why not by the same craftsman?

Remy Insam’s father was a sculptor; how far back does this tradition go in the village?

Right enough, Mr Insam learned his craft from his father. Each generation of families of this village has transmitted its know-how to the next (until now; will they tomorrow?). The decorative ornaments of the altarpiece draw inspiration from altar plans made by the great-grandfather of Remy Insam (Joseph Runggaldier, 1848 - 1917). He is the first of this family line of sacred art craftsmen. His grandfather and his father perpetuated it. In Sankt-Ulrich, the village of R. Insam, the tradition of sacred art began in 1770: peasants from this poor and harsh country (1,200 m above sea level) were looking for an additional source of income to survive. From 1820 onward, there was a school of sacred art in the village and a large number of workshops, covering all the trades of sacred art. They exported altars, sculptures, etc., all over the world, throughout the 19th century.

The village of Sankt Ulrich

Was the monumental size of the altarpiece foreseen from the start, or is it the result of a discussion with the craftsman?

From the moment that the idea of an altarpiece— an historiated altarpiece—emerged, this solution had to be explored to its logical conclusion. Gradually, with the advice of an architect and specialists in sacred art, we decided to proportion the size of the altarpiece to the huge windows that open the flat apse of our church.

These large windows allow the upper register of the altarpiece to be bathed in light, where two saints call upon us to emulate them (they tell us: we have opened the way to heaven for you, follow us), Saint Dominic on the right and Saint Catherine of Sienna on the left, and, above all, the Christus Salvator, image of the first-born Son from among the dead, who holds the world in his hand and blesses us with his right hand.

The end result is the encounter of a craftsman with his own style and a program which was determined by us. But, currently, nothing exists of this project, except the plans (drawn by hand on the board; no computer assisted design whatsoever!) and a great desire that these drawings which now fill our imaginations may finally become reality.

Did Remy Insam come to Chéméré?

Mr. Insam did come on site, of course, along with his wife, who follows him and manages their small business. The purpose of his first stay at the convent was to discover the community, our church, the liturgy celebrated there, and to present the project that had taken form in his mind. Not envisaging some kind of “artistic prophetism”, there was certainly a real inner momentum at play with the conception of this altarpiece. His first job was to develop a model (scale 1/10) which he presented to us and which he discussed with the community. His second stay made it possible to take precise measurements of the sanctuary and to figure out the future location of the altar, in particular its elevation.

And what, precisely, did he bring to the project development?

The sum of his artistic and technical skill, a great knowledge of iconographic themes and the tradition of historiated altars which can still be found in the Tyrol (these regions that were once very remote and poor did not experience the artistic developments of the Baroque, then of the Classical styles), a real practical sense, and an ability to adapt to requests. For example: the Dominican rite,  for the offertory rite, assumes a fairly large width for the altar table. Having attended solemn Mass, he immediately grasped this requirement, took up his pencils again to redesign an altar that would allow all the ceremonies to be carried out, while retaining the proportions that give the whole its strength and elegance.

The “predella” (element between the altar table and altarpiece)

The altar cross

Is he going to sculpt and paint everything himself? Is there no preexisting base?

This ambitious project, which will require almost two years of work, is a team effort. An altarpiece of this type requires the intervention of several trades: a carpenter, for the whole structure, sculptors, for the statues and ornaments, a cabinetmaker, a painter, a gilder... And the whole team is recruited in the village, where each family has its specialty. Remy Insam, who designed the altar, will oversee the work; his specialty is painting and gilding. All the pieces of the altar will therefore pass through his hands: from the statue of Our Lady of the Rosary to the last festoon. It is very fortunate, after all, isn't it, that to this day we can still create great and beautiful things for the glory of God!

Can you tell us more about the Gothic style of the altar?

The Altarpiece is Gothic in style. This is a type of European art which originated in the 12th century, flourished in the 13th, and gave its last fruits at the beginning of the 16th century. “The Middle Ages is a period to which the mind might go to restore its strength, with much enjoyment and benefit; the 13th century was the century of great projects: the cathedrals, the Crusades, the Summa Theologiæ.” The altarpiece is inspired by the school of Ulm, a name which refers to the artists who worked in this free city of the Holy Empire during the late Gothic period (15th and 16th centuries); and more precisely, by the famous altar by Jörg Lederer at the Spitalskirche in Latsch (South Tyrol – now Italian). The sculptures are inspired by another member of the Ulm school, Tilman Riemenschneider, and also by Veit Stoss, who sculpted the famous altar of the Marienkirche in Krakow. The double panel presented by the closed altar is a copy of the one featured on an altar by Hans Multscher in Sterzig (South Tyrol); the altar no longer exists, but the paintings are kept in a museum.

Inside the future tabernacle

What are the techniques used by Mr. Insam and his team?

The colours are made according to 15th century methods by the chemist Kremer in Aichstätten (Allgäu). The gold leaves are delivered by Giusto Manetti, a gold beater in Florence for several centuries. The technique of gilding, R. Insam’s main speciality, is “Branntweinvergoldung”, or tempera gilding, which allows the best quality. It requires first applying a coat of chalk, then three successive coats of Bologna red loam, mixed with rotten egg white, then sprinkled with brandy, which must be allowed to dry for a few minutes before applying the gold leaf. The brandy reacts with the loam and the egg white and the surface of the primer becomes sticky, the difficulty being that the layer must be neither too wet nor too dry at the time when the gold is applied. Another specialty of R. Insam, which he will use for the altarpiece, is the engravings on the gilding. These are ornamentations which appear as a watermark in the gilding. They are obtained by applying a rather thick layer of Bologna chalk on the wood, in which the ornaments are engraved with a pointed stone. It is a very long job that requires a lot of strength.

How can traditional Catholics from the US help the Fraternity?

Our main concern at the moment is to find the necessary funds to continue the construction of the altar. Those who wish to make a donation, may find more information at All the brothers of the community extend their warm thank you for your support!

The Fraternity of Saint Vincent Ferrer (FSVF), whose priory is located in Chémeré-le-Roi (France), is a traditional religious community inspired by the Dominican spirit. Disciples of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Brothers are apostles whose preaching is oriented to the salvation of souls. The priests of the Fraternity celebrate Holy Mass exclusively according to the traditional Dominican rite (1962 missal). The Fraternity’s founder, Fr. Louis-Marie de Blignières, is known to traditional Catholics in the US for his powerful statement on the Motu Proprio «Traditionis Custodes.»