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.
The Altar of Celebration and the Pulpit
The liturgical reforms dating from the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) require the priest to celebrate Mass facing the people. In 1998 a new altar was installed. Its designer, the sculptor Denis Dugay, drew his inspiration from the architecture of the high altar at the far end of the choir. The altar was consecrated on Christmas Day 1998. At a Solemn Mass on October 31, 1999, representatives of each of the religious groups concerned came to offer relics belonging to all Canadians either beatified or canonized as saints. These and other relics were inserted in reliquaries and placed under the altar, including relics of Saint Marguerite Bourgeois, Saint Marguerite d’Youville, Blessed Brother André of Saint Joseph’s Oratory, and others.
The pulpit is one of the Basilica’s greatest ornaments. In earlier times, the priest would mount the steps to deliver his sermon. From his position above the congregation, his voice could be heard throughout the church, without electronic amplification. The architect Victor Bourgeau (1809–1888) designed this pulpit during the renovations of the 1870s. The renowned sculptor Louis-Philippe Hébert (1850–1917) created the ornamentation, particularly the two ground-level figures of the Old Testament prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah. As with the altarpiece, the pulpit signifies that the Old Testament of the Bible is the basis of Christian faith.
Above, on the skirting of the pulpit, is a series of smaller statures representing Christ seated and teaching, Saints Peter and Paul, and other religious themes.
Beneath the canopy appears the dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, leading the faithful to be receptive and obedient to God’s inspiration, and guiding through their life of faith.
On the canopy four Church Fathers appear: two from the West: Saint Augustine (4th century) and Saint Leo the Great (pope, 6th century) – and two from the East: Saint Basil the Great (4th century) and Saint John Chrysostom (4th century). These confirm the Church’s traditional fidelity to its origins
Completing the pulpit’s symbolism is a statue representing Faith as a young woman holding a cross in one hand and a chalice (the Mass) in the other.
Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament
This chapel, with its stained glass windows, is a place where the faithful may pray in peace and adore the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the Tabernacle on the altar. This altar is dedicated to the Sulpician Fathers martyred in the French Revolution, on September 2 and September 3, 1792. Next to it is an altar dedicated to Saint Theresa of Lisieux. Her statue, signed by the sculptor, Elzéar Soucy, is surrounded by paintings by the Quebec artist Ozias Leduc.
Chapel of Notre-Dame du Sacré-Cœur
After the disastrous fire in Notre-Dame du Sacré-Cœur Chapel on December 7, 1978, the board of the Fabrique, at the architects’ suggestion, decided on a complete restoration of the chapel’s first two levels. A team of carpenters, sculptors and woodworkers skilled in traditional methods was assembled to carry out the work. The vaulted ceiling, however, received a modern treatment, making full use of available natural light. The entire work is crafted in linden wood. The restored chapel was opened in 1982.
The Quebec sculptor Charles Daudelin was commissioned to create the new altarpiece. This consists of 32 bronze panels, which were cast by Morris Singer Founders of London, England. The altarpiece is 5 metres wide and 8 metres high (16 feet by 26 feet) and weighs 20 tons.
The theme chosen by the artist shows the march of humankind toward God, represented in the form of the Holy Trinity: the Father symbolized by a shining sun, the Son by the head of Jesus and the Holy Spirit by an immense bird with extended wings. The three arches signify the difficult stages of life, the return of human beings to their Creator. The last arch represents the passage from this life to the next, illustrating at the same time the hope of eternal happiness.
In 2002, two bronze statues by the sculptor Jules Lasalle were mounted on either side of Daudelin’s great altarpiece: on the right, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, and on the left, Saint Anne instructing the young Mary.
Installed in the chapel is a French classic organ with traditional mechanical action, built by the firm of Guilbault-Thérien of Sainte-Hyacinthe (1982). The organ case, with its handsome contemporary design, houses 1,648 pipes in 25 stops distributed over two keyboards and a pedalboard.
The Great Casavant Organ
The great organ that towers over the choir loft of the Basilica was built in 1891 by the firm of Casavant et Frères of Saint-Hyacinthe. Since then, the vast instrument has undergone several restorations. To mark its 100th anniversary, additional stops were installed, bringing the total number of pipes to 7,000. The largest pipe measures 10 metres (32 feet) and the smallest, 6 millimetres (1/4 inch).
In 2002 a second trompette en chamade (outward facing trumpet) stop was added. The organ today has 92 stops distributed over four keyboards and a pedalboard. The present console dates from 1962.
Pierre Grandmaison has been the titular organist of the Basilica since 1973. His playing can be heard at weekend Masses, and at the Notre-Dame de Montreal International Organ Festival. The Notre-Dame Choir sings at High Masses on Sundays at 11:00 AM and on the major feasts of the liturgical year.
The Basilica's Stained Glass Windows
To mark Notre-Dame’s centenary celebrations in 1929, Curé Olivier Maurault ordered the creation of new stained glass windows for the church. Besides raising the necessary funds for the project, he himself decided on the themes of the ground-floor windows, which recall the religious and social life of the early Ville-Marie settlement. The Quebec artist Jean-Baptiste Lagacé designed the images, and the windows were executed at the workshops of Francis Chigot at Limoges, France.