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Bible Encyclopedias
Altars in the Christian Church

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

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I. The Early Church.

The altar is spoken of by the early Greek and Latin ecclesiastical writers under a variety of names :- Tpa7rc a, the principal name in the Greek fathers and the liturgies; 8vvcavriipcov (rarer; used in the Septuagint for Hebrew altars); iXafriipcov; (3w�6s (usually avoided, as it is a word with heathen associations); mensa Domini; ara (avoided like Ow�os, and for the same reason); and, most regularly, altare. Af ter the 4th century other names or expressions come into use, such as mensa tremenda, sedes corporis et sanguinis Christi. The earliest Christians had no altars, and were taunted by the pagans for this. It is admitted by Origen in his reply to Celsus (p. 389), who has charged the Christians with being a secret society " because they forbid to build temples, to raise altars." " The altars," says Origen, " are the heart of every Christian." The same appears from a passage in Lactantius, De Origine Erroris, H. 2. We gather from these passages that down to about A.D. 250, or perhaps a little later, the communion was administered on a movable wooden table. In the Catacombs, the arcosolia or bench-like tombs are said (though the statement is doubtful) to have been used to serve this purpose. The earliest church altars were certainly made of wood; and it would appear from a passage in William of Malmesbury ( De Gest. Pontif. Angl. iii. 14) that English altars were of wood down to the middle of the i ith century, -at least in the diocese of Worcester.

The cessation of persecution, and consequent gradual elaboration of church furniture and ritual, led to the employment of more costly materials for the altar as for the other fittings of ecclesiastical buildings. Already in the 4th century we find reference to stone altars in the writings of Gregory of Nyssa. In 517 the council of Epaone in Burgundy forbade any but stone pillars to be consecrated with chrism; but of course the decrees of this provincial council would not necessarily be received throughout the church.

Pope Felix I. (A.D. 269-274) decreed that " mass should be celebrated above the tombs of martyrs " - an observance probably suggested by the passage in Revelation vi. 9, " I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God." This practice developed into the medieval rule that no altar can be consecrated unless it contain a relic or relics.

The form of the altar was originally table-shaped, consisting of a plane surface supported by columns. There were usually four, but examples with one, two and five columns are also recorded. But the development of the relic-custom led to the adoption of another form, the square box shape of an " altartomb." Transitional examples, combining the box with the earlier table shape, are found dating about 450. Mention is made occasionally of silver and gold altars in the 5th to the 8th centuries. This means no doubt that gold and silver were copiously used in its decoration. Such an altar still remains in Sant' Ambrogio at Milan, dating from the 9th century (see fig. 1).

II. The Medieval Church

It will be convenient now to pass to the fully-developed altar of the Western Church with its accessories, though the rudiments of most of the additional details are traceable in the earlier period.

In the Roman Catholic Church, which preserves in this respect the tradition that had become established during the middle ages, the component parts of a fixed altar in the liturgical sense are the table (mensa ), or super-altar, consisting of a stone slab; the support (stipes ), consisting either of a solid mass or of four or more columns; the sepulchrum, or altar-cavity, a small chamber for the reception of the relics of martyrs. The support, in the technical sense, must be of stone solidly joined to the table; but, if this support consist of columns, the intervals may be filled with other materials, e.g. brick or cement. The altarslab or " table " alone is consecrated, and in sign of this are cut in its upper surface five Greek crosses, one in the centre and one in each corner. These crosses must have been anointed by the bishop with chrism in the ritual of consecration before the altar can be used. Crosses appear on the portable altar buried with St Cuthbert (A.D. 687), but the history of the origin and development of this practice is not fully worked out.

According to the Caeromoniale (i. 12.13) a canopy ( baldachinum ) should be suspended over the altar; this should be square, and of sufficient size to cover the altar and the predella on which the officiating priest stands. This baldachin, called liturgically the ciborium, is sometimes hung from the roof by chains in such a way that it can be lowered or raised; sometimes it is fixed to the wall or reredos; sometimes it is a solid structure of wood covered with metal or of marble supported on four columns. The latter form is, however, usual only in large churches, more especially of the basilica type, e.g. St Peter's at Rome or the Roman Catholic cathedral at Westminster. The origin of the ciborium is not certain, but it is represented in a mosaic at Thessalonica of a date not later than A.D. Soo. Even at the present day, in spite of a decree of the Congregation of Rites (27th of May 1697) ordering it to be placed over all altars, it is - even at Rome itself - usually only found over the high altar and the altar of the Blessed Sacrament.

Multiplication of altars is another medieval characteristic. This also is probably a result of the edict of Pope Felix already mentioned. In a vault where more than one martyr was buried an altar might be erected for each. It is in the 6th century that we begin to find traces of the multiplication of altars. In the church of St Gall, Switzerland, in the 9th century there were seventeen. In the modern Latin Church almost every large church contains several altars - dedicated to certain saints, in private side chapels, established for masses for the repose of the founder's soul, &c. Archbishop Wulfred in 816 ordered that beside every altar there should be an inscription recording its dedication. This regulation fell into abeyance after the 12th century, and such inscriptions are very rare. One remains mutilated at Deerhurst (Archaeologia, vol. 1. p. 69).

Where there is in a cathedral or church more than one altar, the principal one is called a " high altar." Where there is a second high altar, it is generally at the end of the choir or chancel. In monastic churches (e.g. formerly at St Albans) it sometimes stands at the end of the nave close to the choir screen.

Beside the altar was a drain (piscina ) for pouring away the water in which the communion vessels were rinsed. This seems originally to have been under the altar, as it is still in the Eastern Church.

That the primitive communion table was covered with a communion-cloth is highly probable, and is mentioned by Optatus (c. A.D. 370), bishop of Milevis. This had developed by the 14th or 15th century into a cerecloth, or waxed cloth, on the table itself; and three linen coverings one above the other, two of about the size of the table and one rather wider than the altar, and long enough to hang down at each end. Five crosses are worked upon it, four in the corners and one in the middle, and there is an embroidered edging.' In front was often a hanging panel of embroidered cloth (the frontal; but frontals of wood, ornamented with carving or enamel, &c., are also to be found). These embroidered frontals are changeable, so that the principal colour in the pattern can accord with the liturgical colour of the day. Speaking broadly, red is the colour for feasts of martyrs, white for virgins, violet for penitential seasons, &c.; no less than sixty-three different uses differing in details have been enumerated. A similar panel of needlework (the dossal) is suspended behind the altar.

Portable altars have been used on occasion since the time of Bede. They are small slabs of hard stone, just large enough for the chalice and paten. They are consecrated and marked with the five incised crosses in the same way as the fixed altar, but they may be placed upon a support of any suitable material, whether wood or stone. They are used on a journey in a heretical or heathen country, or in private chapels. In the inventory of the field apparel of Henry, earl of Northumberland, A.D. 1513, is 1 In the Eastern Church four small pieces of cloth marked with the names of the Evangelists are placed on the four corners of the altar, and covered with three cloths, the uppermost (the corporal) being of smaller size.

included "A coffer wyth ij liddes to serue for an Awter and ned be " (Archaeologia, xxvi. 403).

On the altar are placed a cross and candlesticks - six in number, and seven when a bishop celebrates in his cathedral; and over it is suspended or fixed a tabernacle or receptacle for the reservation of the Sacrament.

III. Post-Reformation Altars.

At the Reformation the altars in churches were looked upon as symbols of the unreformed doctrine, especially where the struggle lay between the Catholics and the Calvinists, who on this point were much more radical revolutionaries than the Lutherans. In England the name " altar " 2 "was retained in the Communion Office in English, printed in 1549, and in the complete English Prayer-book of the following year, known to students as the First Book of Edward VI. But orders were given soon after that the altars should be destroyed, and replaced by movable wooden tables; while from the revised Prayer-book of 1552 the word "altar" was carefully expunged, " God's board " or " the table " being substituted. The short reign of Mary produced a temporary reaction, but the work of reformation was resumed on the accession of Elizabeth.

The name " altar " has been all along retained in the Coronation Office of the kings of England, where it occurs frequently. It was also recognized in the canons of 1640, but with the reservation that "it was an altar in the sense in which the primitive church called it an altar and in no other." In the same canons the rule for the position of the communion tables, which has been since regularly followed throughout the Church of England, was formulated. In the primitive church the altars seem to have been so placed that, like those of the Hebrews, they could be surrounded on all sides by the worshippers. The chair of the bishop or celebrant was on their east side, and the assistant clergy were ranged on each side of him. But in the middle ages the altars were placed against the east wall of the churches, or else against a reredos erected at the east side of the altar, so as to prevent all access to the table from that side; the celebrant was thus brought round to the west side and caused to stand between the people and the altar. On the north and south sides there were often curtains. When tables were substituted for altars in the English churches, these were not merely movable, but at the administration of the Lord's Supper were actually moved into the body of the church, and placed table-wise - that is, with the long sides turned to the north and south, and the narrow ends to the east and west, - the officiating clergyman standing at the north side. In the time of Archbishop Laud, however, the present practice of the Church of England was introduced. The communion table, though still of wood and movable, is, as a matter of fact, never moved; it is placed altar-wise - that is, with its longer axis running north and south, and close against the east wall. Often there is a reredos behind it; it is also fenced in by rails to preserve it from profanation of various kinds.

In 1841 the ancient church of the Holy Sepulchre at Cambridge was robbed of most of its interest by a calamitous " restoration " carried out under the superintendence and partly at the charge of the Camden Society. On this occasion a stone altar, consisting of a flat slab resting upon three other upright slabs, was presented to the parish, and was set up in the church at the east wall of the chancel. This was brought to the notice of the Court of Arches in 1845, and Sir H. Jenner Fust (Faulkner v. Lichfield and Stearn) ordered it to be removed, on the ground that a stone structure so weighty that it could not be carried about, and seeming to be a mass of solid masonry, was not a communion-table in the sense recognized by the Church of England.

Bibliography. - For altars in the ancient East see M. Jastrow, Religion of Assyria and Babylonia; Perrot and Chipiez, Art in Chaldea (i. 1 43, 2 55); Sir J. Gardiner Wilkinson, A Second Series of the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, ii. 387; Benzinger's and Nowack's works on Hebrciische Archciologie. For classical altars, much information can be obtained from the notes in J. G. Frazer's Pausanias. See also Schumann, Griechische Alterthiimer, vol. ii.; the volume on " Gottesdienstliche Alterthiimer " in Hermann's Lehrbuch der griechischen Antiquitdten. On domestic altars and worship see Petersen, Hausgottesdienst der Griechen (Cassel, 1851).

2 Except in one place where the term used is " God's board." On plural dedications consult Maurer, De aribus graecorum pluribus deis in commune positis (Darmstadt, 1885). For Christian altars, reference is best made to the articles on the subject in the dictionaries of Christian and liturgical antiquities of Migne, Martigny, Smith and Cheetham, and Pugin, where practically all the available information is collected. See also Ciampinus, Vetera Monumenta (Rome, 1747), where numerous illustrations of altars are to be found; Martene, De antiquis Ecclesiae ritibus, iii, vi. (Rouen, 1700); Voigt, Thysiasteriologia sive de altaribus veterum Christianorum (Hamburg, 1709); and the liturgical works of Bona. Many articles on various sections of the subject have appeared in the journals of archaeological societies; we may mention Nesbitt on the churches of Rome earlier than 1150 ( Archaeologia, xl. p. 210), Didron, " L'Autel chretien " ( Annales archeologiques, iv. p. 238), and a paper by Texier on enamelled altars in the same volume. (R. A. S. M.)

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Altars in the Christian Church'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​bri/​a/altars-in-the-christian-church.html. 1910.
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