From the Basilica’s web site, "The Choir
During the 1870s the Montreal architect Victor Bourgeau designed the high altar, choir stalls and reredos (altarpiece), with statues sculpted in pine by the French artist Henri Bouriché. All the decorative woodwork motifs were executed in black walnut. The statues were delivered in 1875.
Curé Rousselot himself devised the decorative theme for the sanctuary to illustrate the true meaning and significance of the sacrament of the Mass and the Eucharist.
The Eucharistic Theme
As one of the seven sacraments, also known as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Eucharist continually renews the sacrifice of Christ. In the Old Testament, a sacrifice could be a supplication to God, a petition for pardon, an expression of praise or an act of thanksgiving. The sculpted figure groups here at the altar contribute to this central and many-sided sacrificial theme.
The Crucifixion is at the centre of the altarpiece. Christ is represented as dying on the cross. The Blessed Virgin and Saint John stand on either side of the cross, while Mary Magdalene kneels at the foot. This “Calvary” stands on a small altar as a witness of the unity that exists between the sacrifice of the Cross and that of the Mass.
The Old Testament
Around the Crucifixion scene we see four scenes from the Old Testament that prefigure the sacrifice of the Cross and the Mass.
At lower right is the sacrifice of Isaac by his father, Abraham. This major episode of the Old Testament explains why the Judeo-Christian tradition holds human life sacred. The human sacrifices of ancient times will henceforth be replaced by animal sacrifices.
At lower left, we see the offering of bread and wine made by Melchisidech.
At upper left, Moses (his brows adorned with two rays of light) is seen establishing the commandments concerning ritual animal sacrifice at the altar. He places an urn full of manna inside the Ark of the Covenant. At upper right, Aaron, the high priest, sacrifices a lamb according to tradition.
Sacred history on the High Altar
The centre of the altarpiece, placed directly over the high altar, represents Calvary. Beneath the altar, the image of the Last Supper appears – a magnificent wood sculpture based on Leonardo da Vinci’s famous mural – representing the institution of the Eucharist on the eve of Christ’s suffering and death.
In the centre is the Tabernacle, flanked by bas-relief sculptures in wood showing angels and saints in adoration, according to the vision described in Chapter 7 of the Apocalypse (Revelation).
In the upper section of the altarpiece we see the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin. Christ, the Messiah who has conquered death through His resurrection, crowns His mother in heaven.
The way to heavenly bliss
The visual composition directed upwards toward the vault of the church indicates the way to eternal happiness in heaven, an ascent amid angels and stars against a deep blue background. This ascent, as a symbol of life, is traced in the sacrifice of Christ and in the Mass.
Statues of the prophets Isaiah and Daniel, carved by the sculptor Louis-Philippe Hébert in 1882, appear on the right and left sides of the altarpiece.
Over the choir stalls on the right and left sides are six polychrome (painted) statues.
First on the right is Saint Paul, with a sword of his martyrdom in Rome, where he was beheaded. Next are two evangelists and their respective symbols: Matthew, with a winged male figure, and Luke, with his winged ox.
To the left of the altar stands Saint Peter with his keys, and the rooster, recalling Peter’s betrayal of Jesus, his master and friend on the morning of His suffering and death. Then the other two evangelists: John, holding a chalice symbolizing his love for the Eucharist, with the eagle, a sign of his far-seeing gospel, and Mark with his winged lion."
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