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CONSECRATION . As a cross-cultural concept, consecration refers to the practice of investing particular objects with extraordinary religious significance. The significance of any single instance of consecration depends in good part on the type of object consecrated. Places and buildings are made into habitations for spiritual beings; higher powers enliven icons and food; kings and hierarchs are recognized as maintainers of a higher order on earth. Yet despite the diversity of both consecrated objects and the traditions from which their religious meaning derives, most instances of consecration reveal some basic structural resemblances. First, an act of consecration is at root a creative act. It is a deliberate attempt to alter the environment, to establish in the visible world some definite, concrete means for fruitful interaction with the divine. Second, a consecrated object, now represented as a link to higher reality, is often itself understood to be transformedpurified or empowered, transmuted into divine substance or given over to the divine. And third, as something extraordinary in its environment, a consecrated object is often ritually marked off, delimited from the mundane, everyday

Making Places Holy

The power of limits themselves to consecrate holy places is evident in the practical significance of the Theravāda Buddhist concept of sīmā ("boundary"). In Theravāda Buddhism monks and laity are represented as two orders in society, each with its own role in the economy of salvation. The monks, through observing their ascetic code, help maintain the cosmic order; the laity should serve the monks. These two roles are played out in different physical spaces, with a boundary between them. Thus, in the villages of modern Thailand, the monastic compound is set clearly apart. Monks may leave the compound for specific monastic duties but not to gossip in the village; villagers should enter the compound to serve the monks. In addition to the definite but sometimes unmarked boundary around the extended monastic compound, the observance hall, where monks are ordained and make group confession, has a marked boundary of its own. This boundary is denoted by stonescalled sīmā stonesthat are installed according to prescribed rites; it is normally respected by laypersons, who must remove their shoes to enter the observance hall. Here, then, ritual consecration expresses a crucial socioreligious division visible in this world.

When interaction with sacred reality is seen to demand traffic between worlds, the consecration of a physical structure on earth may instill in it the presence of an otherworldly being. Sometimes this link between worlds is forged with the help of material traces left by a holy person who has passed beyond the earthly realm. Relics of the Buddha are ideally embedded in the great stupas of ancient India and the pagodas still found in Southeast Asia. In reverencing these structures, built as memorials to the Buddha, devotees revere the Buddha's person. In the consecration of Roman Catholic churches, usually named after saints, installation of the relics of the patron saint plays a part in a larger ceremony through which the building is literally marked out for, and consigned to, the crucified Lord.

Each of the three major parts of the ceremony presents a phase in the building's transformation. The bishop begins by marking off and purifying the church externally, circumambulating it three times and sprinkling its walls with water. He then has the door unlocked and makes the sign of the cross with his staff on the threshold; inside, a cross of ashes is drawn joining the four corners of the church. Through the cross on the door and on the floor during this first phase of the ceremony, Christ the crucified is understood to take possession of the church. The second phase of the ceremony makes the church a suitable dwelling place for the Lord through both negative and positive means: first evil is banished through the sprinkling of specially prepared holy water, and then a solemn prayer for grace and sanctification is offered. The third phase, in which relics are enclosed in the altar, materially links the spiritual focus of the church to the power of a divine intercessor.

Putting Life into the Image of a Deity

In Hindu temples, the central physical repositories of spiritual power are not relics but images. Devotees often see the image as a manifestation of the deity itself. In their ritual worship, devotees interact with the deity as a person with whom they attempt to come into intimate terms. In large temples, long-hallowed images are enthroned and revered as sovereigns. At the temple to Śrīnāthjī in Nāthdwāra, Rajasthan, for example, people are allowed to see the image only at the times of day an important personage would be pleased to grant audience. Śrīnāthjī wears clothes suited to the time of day and season and is treated to lavish banquets. Deities in household shrines, on the other hand, are treated more like guests who may only be visiting for a particular festive occasion. In order to perceive the divinity in these household images, the performance of a consecratory rite may be particularly crucial. Grand images at major temples are sometimes understood to have arisen spontaneously: Śrīnāthjī, they say, emerged from Mount Govardhan, sacred to Ka. But a clay image from the bazaar brought into the house for a temporary period must be visibly transformed in order to be seen to embody the deity's person.

The household consecration ceremony performed for Gaeśa, the elephant-headed deity, by Hindus of Maharashtra reveals how human beings can put life into divine images. When the image is brought home it is put on an altar, around which designs of powdered chalk have been drawn and ceremonial implements laid out. Special space has thus been demarcated for the deity to be embodied, but the image itself remains lifeless clay. In the ritual's central act (prāapratihā ) the worshiper installs vital breath into the image. But to do this the worshiper himself must first take on the aspects of the divine through preliminary consecrations. To align his microcosmic world with the macrocosm, the worshiper makes brief utterances while touching parts of his body and his ritual implements, identifying himself as the primal cosmic being and the implements as cosmic elements. The breath is installed in the deity when, to the accompaniment of a priest's recitation of particular utterances, the worshiper touches the image with a kind of grass understood to be a potent conduit. At the climax of this rite, the worshiper understands both himself and the deity to have a common identity in the cosmic life force. This identity is then invoked in further ritual worship that includes feeding the deity and sprinkling it with water, both important aspects of consecratory ritual in many Indian traditions.

The installation of the image of Gaeśa in Maharashtrian homes takes place on the day of his annual festival, which falls in August or September. The consecration of the day itself is thus marked by the visit of Gaeśa, which may be extended for some time longer. As long as the image of the deity continues to remain in the house it is offered daily ceremonial hospitality, with flowers, songs, and incense. Both the image and the time remain sanctified. But when Gaeśa 's visit is over, usually within ten days, the worshiper symbolically closes the image's eyes by brushing them with the same kind of grass he used to enliven it. The breath is then said to leave the clay image, which is immersed in a nearby source of water and dissolves. In separating from each other, both breath and clay return to a state that is both formless and timeless; but through their interpenetration in the enlivened image, the ritual transformation of a material form has helped consecrate a particular time.

One of the most important media through which Hindus interact with a deity like Gaeśa is consecrated food. Devotees offer food to the god in hospitality and later eat what are then seen as the deity's leavings. Through eating the deity's leavings, the devotee partakes of his substance and his power. The idea that something of the deity's person inheres in these leavings derives from pervasive Hindu cultural presuppositions. For traditional Hindus see the world as a hierarchy of interpenetrating substances, and food, ingested in the body, is a potent medium for transmitting psychic substance between individuals. Thus, food prepared by people of low spiritual status is degrading to those above, food offered by brahmans and gurus can offer spiritual benefits, and food left over from the plate of the deity is likely to be the most powerful of all. Through contact with a higher being, food is consecrated naturally in Hindu eyes, sometimes without any special ritual at all. In Hindu tradition, communion with the deity through consecrated food takes place without mystery.

Giving Persons Divine Authority

Communion via the sharing of consecrated food in Roman Catholic tradition is deliberately identified as a mystery and requires a consecrator legitimately ordained in the church to be effective. Although the precise meaning of transubstantiation remains an issue of theological speculation, the rite effecting this transformation of bread and wine into the physical substance of Christa daily, worldwide occurrenceis fairly simple. The priest, reenacting the role of Jesus at the last supper, utters over the offerings a formula taken from the Gospels: "Take, eat; for this is my body." During the act of consecration, the priest is understood to represent Jesus, and for his act to be valid, he must be unambiguously acknowledged by hierarchs recognized as true successors to the apostles. Thus the consecrator himself needs to be consecrated.

While the rite conferring priesthood for a long time highlighted the priest's sacramental authority, it has always expressed his spiritual inheritance through apostolic succession. As an essential element of the ordination rite, the tradition of instrumentswhich distinctly expresses sacramental poweris known only from the twelfth century. In this tradition ordinands touch a chalice filled with wine and a paten containing bread (the "instruments") while the bishop utters a formula that bestows on the applicants the power to celebrate Mass. But the tradition of instruments was always accompanied by that of the laying on of hands, which dates from early Christian times, and is accompanied with prayer by a spiritual elder for the personal religious welfare of the ordinand. Now understood to be the only essential rite of ordination for bishops and deacons as well as for priests, the laying on of hands expresses the continuity of saving grace, from senior to junior, through the generations. From the consecration of a bishop as successor to the apostles of Jesus to the transformation of ordinary foodstuffs into the body of Christ, the rituals of consecration in Roman Catholic tradition make the power of a divine personage of the past present in today's world.

In premodern societies, the religious authority of the priest often exists in tension with that of a monarch, who may claim a divine status of his own. The Christian West has known a series of contests and accommodations between papal and royal power, which led in the early Middle Ages to the celebration of royal consecration as a sacrament of the church. God was understood to empower the king through the bishop, and the king, transformed, was given status in the clergy. In ancient India, on the other hand, though clergy performed the consecration of the king, his religious status was of a different order from theirs. From the beginning, rituals of royal consecration in India have closely resembled rituals performed for divinities. In fact the essential part of the ritual, the anointingabhieka in Sanskrit, literally "sprinkling"seems to have been preeminently a royal ceremony that was later applied to the consecration of divine images. But more than the consecration of images, royal consecrations were also likely to have a visible social and political import. However deified he might sometimes appear, the king was also very much a man subject to the flux of worldly affairs, and his consecration was usually marked by prayers for his popularity, the prosperity of himself and his people, and the extent and stability of his dominion. To maintain all these potentially fleeting goods, the consecration of early Indian kings was ideally repeated annually, a custom that finds parallels in the royal New Year festivals of ancient Mesopotamia and the Chinese imperial sacrifice performed on the winter solstice. The brilliance of the ancient king's reign was usually in practical fact as well as religious belief closely linked to the welfare of his people, and both could use regular, visible signs of renewal.

Personal Consecrations and Renewal

The renewal and repetition of consecration becomes increasingly important in tradition to the extent that consecration is understood to be a human act and a personal one. In Indo-Tibetan Tantra, the consecration of a deityreferred to as abhieka, like the royal anointingexpressly ties outer ritual to inward contemplation and is performed as a regular spiritual exercise. In some instances, moreover, the outer ritual may be dispensed with and only the inward consecration remain. As in Roman Catholic practice, the power to perform consecrations in most Buddhist traditions requires a legitimate source: initiations into both the powers of deities and the sanctity of monkhood need to come through a recognized lineage. But the established channels of sacramental authority in Catholicism and Buddhism are oriented in different directions. In the Roman rite, the power to consecrate is bestowed largely for the good of others, not for the personal benefit of the recipient, who as consecrator becomes a public instrument for the distribution of grace in the world. Once given, the power is supposed to be permanent; a force of its own working through the individual consecrator, it is not closely dependent on his spiritual state. In Buddhism, on the other hand, sacraments are more inwardly oriented: in Buddhist Tantra people perform regular consecrations largely for their own spiritual benefit; in Theravāda, the value of the monk for the community lies in his inner purity, and if this cannot be maintained it is thought best for all that he leave the order.

For people in ritual and devotional traditions everywhere, consecration in its most general sense can become a way of life. In the orthodoxies of Hinduism and Judaism all vital acts are ideally carried out according to divinely ordained precepts and are usually attended by ritual or prayers. In this way, rising, eating, sex, and even elimination become consecrated, that is, made part of the sacred world. For ardent devotees, consecration can mean surrender, a giving up of one's person and one's goods to the Lord. Through dedication, the Christian religious attempt to consecrate themselves fully to the service of God; Hindus following the path of the Bhagavadgītā give up the fruits of their works to Ka. Entailing an infinite succession of individual acts, consecration as a way of life demands perpetual vigilance, an acting out of the tension between divine absolutes and temporary realities that lies at the heart of consecration's religious meaning.


Deriving from Latin roots that connote an act of bringing particular things "together with" (com ) the "sacred" (sacrum ), the very word consecration implies a dichotomy between what is sacred and what is profane. Marking this dichotomy, moreover, is an important aspect of consecratory acts in many religious traditions. But in cross-cultural perspective the concept of consecration also suggests other continuities in the religious thought and practice of diverse peoples. When accompanying the enshrinement of relics of the dead or the initiation of living persons into hallowed spiritual lineages, an act of consecration in the present maintains the efficacy of specific divine sources revealed in the past. The efficacy of the act may also demand a consecration of the consecrators themselves, whose ritual performance presents some of their most exalted religious potentials: while celebrating Mass, the priest already ordained in the church is seen to be most fully representative of Jesus; to enliven an image, the Hindu worshiper is identified with the primordial cosmic person. Finally, the difference between temporary and permanent consecration that emerges from a global perspective highlights the continuing religious problem people face in attempting to establish the divine in the material world: consecrations taken as permanent express the absoluteness of divine presence; those seen as temporary reveal the limits of human effort and the impermanence of material embodiments.

See Also

Blessing; Images; Ordination; Relics.


Most ready material on consecration is to be found in works on specific traditions. Monastic ordinations and the concept of boundary in Theravāda Buddhism are approached through their classical sources by John Holt in Discipline: The Canonical Buddhism of the Vinayapiaka (New Delhi, 1983) and examined in contemporary Thai tradition by S. J. Tambiah: Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-east Thailand (Cambridge, U.K., 1970). The meanings of enlivened images in different Hindu traditions are presented in Gods of Flesh, Gods of Stone (Chambersburg, Pa., 1985) edited by Joanne Waghorne and Norman Cutler in association with Vasudha Narayan. The work of Paul Courtright on the worship of Gaņeśa, a description of whose consecration is condensed into an article for the last-mentioned volume, is found in fuller form in his Gaņeśa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings (New York, 1984). In Ancient Indian Kingship from the Religious Point of View (Leiden, 1966), J. Gonda summarizes accounts of Indian royal consecrations found in diverse Sanskrit sources. A detailed account of the rite described in the priestly srauta sutras with a valuable socio-religious interpretation is presented by J. C. Heesterman in The Ancient Indian Royal Consecration (The Hague, 1957). On the complex rituals of Buddhist Tantra see Yael Bentor, Consecration of Images and Stupas in Indo-Tibetan Tantric Buddhism (Leiden, 1996).

A full treatment of ritual consecrations and their historic development in Catholicism is given in The Liturgy of the Roman Rite by Ludwig Eisenhofer and Joseph Lechner, translated by A. J. and E. F. Peeler, ed. H. E. Winstone (Freiburg, Edinburgh-London, 1961). The development and meaning of the Catholic priest's sacramental authority is concisely described by Joseph Lécuyer, C.S.SP. in What Is a Priest?, translated by P. J. Hepburne-Scott (New York, 1959). On the relationship between the divine authority of kings and hierarchs in Western Europe, the classical account remains Gerd Tellenbach's Church, State and Christian Society at the Time of the Investiture Contest, translated by R. F. Bennett (New York, 1959).

Daniel Gold (1987 and 2005)

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