Altar in Christian Liturgy
ALTAR IN CHRISTIAN LITURGY
1. In The Liturgy
The early Church spoke of the Lord's table (τράπεζακυρίου; 1 Cor 10.21), which stressed the meal aspect of the Eucharist. A less common term, θυσιαστήριον (Heb 13.10), emphasized the sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist. With the gradual separation of the Eucharist from its meal context the second century, the idea of sacrifice gradually received more emphasis. Latin Christians then spoke of an altare (sing.), distinct from the pagan form, altaria (pl.). Ara remained a pre-dominantly pagan term for altar.
Historical Developments. The altars in the first three centuries were wooden, and only rarely stone, tables. A third-century representation of a wooden altar exists in the cemetery of St. Callistus. Deacons moved the table to and from the place of the liturgy; however, fixed altars did exist.
Transition to Fixed Stone and Metal Altars. Fixed altars became customary in the fourth century when stone and metal altars began to replace the wooden altars. In 517, the Council of Epaon in Bourgogne forbade wooden altars (can. 26), yet some were still used in the 12th century. Various reasons exist for the transition from wood. The danger of persecution no longer necessitated movable altars, basilicas called for more fitting altars, and the rock or stone theme in Scripture, as well as increased reverence for altars, possibly exerted some influence. Down to the Carolingian era the altar remained small with space enough for the chalice, bread, and book. The mensa (top part) was usually square, but sometimes rounded. Frequently, until the 13th century, it was slightly concave.
Association with Relics. The cult of martyrs provoked the next important development in the history of the altar. It was an ancient custom to honor deceased heroes; with all the more reason did Christians honor their martyrs (Martyrium Polycarpi 17.1; 18.2). Cyprian tells of the Eucharist being celebrated at grave sites (Epistles 39.3; 12.3). The tombs themselves, however, were not used as altars; instead, portable altars were used. Later, churches and altars were built over the tombs (e.g., St. Peter's and St. Paul's at Rome). Among the reasons for associating relics with the altar were reverence and a desire to retain communion with the martyrs, to obtain their intercessory protection, and to highlight the relation of their sacrifice to the altar's (see, Rv 6.9–11).
This association took place when many new churches were being built. Since not all the new churches could be built over martyr tombs, relics were brought to altars. In Rome and parts of Gaul, however, there often was recourse to second-class relics, such as pieces of cloth touched to reliquaries (brandea, palliola ), because Roman law strictly forbade the disturbance of the dead. Although it is said that the threat of barbarian invasions (fifth to sixth centuries) led to the translation of some relics to safety within cities, we know that popes Hormisdas (514–523) and Gregory I (590–604) forbade any such translation; yet Boniface IV (608–615) brought a large number of relics to Rome for the dedication of St. Mary of the Martyrs. In any event, the spread of relics from Rome was slow. In the East and in northern Italy, relics were divided and translated with little hesitation. Although Theodosius I (375–395) outlawed it (Cod. Theod. 9.7.7), his law was ineffective; the practice continued and eventually prevailed in the West. From the ninth century on, even the Eucharist and corporals were sometimes misused as altar relics till this practice was forbidden in the 14th century.
Types of Altars Resulting from the Association with Relics. This association caused some changes in the structure of altars. Three forms of altars became common. (1) The table altar continued in use with the relics placed either in the base of its main support or in a hollowed out part of the mensa. This type of altar became less common in the Carolingian era because it was impractical for the entombment of relics. (2) There appeared a hollowed box-shaped altar with a window opening on its front or back, permitting access to the reliquary within it. (3) A solid box-shaped altar was built over tombs. Access to the tomb below could be had through a confession in front of the altar. If there was no tomb below the altar,
the relics might have been housed in a sepulcher carved out of the mensa or in a niche carved into the front. It was not until the late Middle Ages that the present practice prevailed of placing the sepulcher in the mensa. In 1596 Church law required a sepulcher for every altar.
Altars made out of, or in the form of, sarcophagi did not exist before the 16th century, and were in vogue only during the baroque and rococo period. Wooden portable altars used by missionaries are mentioned as early as the sixth century. The earliest example of one comes from the tomb of St. Cuthbert in Durham (d.687). In the 14th century the portable altarstone become common.
From One Altar to Many Altars. One altar to a church was the rule in the early Church (Ignatius Ad Phil. 4.1; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 10.4.68); and this remains the practice in the Christian East. The one altar gave symbolic expression to the unity of the Church— one people assembled around one altar table in common worship. In the fifth and sixth centuries altars began to multiply in Western churches. Although the orations super oblata (Secret prayers) in the leonine sacramentary speak of altaria (pl.), this plural reference was to the altar used to receive the offerings. Altars were first multiplied to provide a place for the numerous relics. This change occurred in the time of Pope Symmachus (498–514), and possibly even before. In the seventh century an increase in the number of low Masses for votive intentions and the practice of ordaining monks were factors in the multiplication of altars, especially since it was often the custom to celebrate only one Masss a day at an altar. Gregory had no objection to a church with 13 altars (Epistle 6.49). A Carolingian prescription did try to control this multiplication, but at the end of the Middle Ages the Cathedral of Magdeburg and the Marian Church of Danzig each had 48 altars. Nevertheless, the principle of one altar has been preserved to the extent that there still is only one main altar to a church.
Position of Altar. In the pre-Carolingian period, the altar was situated away from the apse wall: at the edge of the apse, between the apse and the nave, or in the middle of the nave. Moreover, it might have been built on the floor of the elevated apse or on the floor of the nave, in either case with or without a few steps elevating it. At all events, it was most visible. Two developments played a large part in shifting the altar to the rear or apse wall: orientation and the development of retables. Perhaps an exaggerated reverence for the Eucharistic mystery also played a part in moving the altar away from the people.
As regards orientation, the basilicas in Rome were usually portal-oriented, i.e., the church entrance faced the east (vs. apse-oriented churches). When the bishop went to the altar from his throne in the apse, he would be facing the people. However, the Eastern custom of apse-oriented churches spread to the West, especially from the early fifth century on. The apse-oriented churches in Gaul and the emphasis on orientation in prayer there caused changes in the ceremony books that originally came from Rome. The celebrant then stood facing the apse, leading the people behind him. The use of this position was brought to Rome with the Roman-Germanic ceremony books of the tenth century. It was eventually accepted by Roman churches, unless other conditions prevented celebrating Mass on the people's side of the altar (e.g., the confession at St. Peter's). This change brought the bishop's throne from behind the altar to the front gospel side of the altar. The clergy moved to the front or people's side of the altar. Thus, orientation contributed to moving the altar to the rear.
However, a second factor contributed to this movement of the altar, namely, the placing of martyr's relics on it in reliquaries that often were quite large. Churches without first-class relics began to substitute retables, vertical structures of varying height, built onto the rear of the altar (or later, from the floor up). At first they were of modest dimensions and painted with religious scenes, especially scenes from the life of a saint. They appeared gradually in the 10th and 11th centuries and flourished in the Gothic period (12th–15th centuries). The oldest extant retables are from the 12th century. Retables grew in size as panneling became common (triptychs and polyptychs). Carved figures were also added to them. Some retables allowed for changes in keeping with the liturgical season. By the end of the Middle Ages, hardly an altar was without a retable. Some cathedral churches built in the 12th and 13th centuries continued to place the bishop's throne behind the altar. In these churches the retable was a subsequent development that blocked out the bishop's throne and made its location useless for the liturgy. The retable in these instances was an additional factor in moving the throne from behind the altar, and thus permitting the location of the altar against the apse wall, farther from the congregation.
The distance between the laity and the altar was further accented by the chancel or rood screen. Even in the early churches a division of some sort separated laity and clergy (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 10.4). In both East and West this dividing piece grew. In the East it developed into the iconostasis that blocked out the view of the altar except when its center door was opened. In the West the altar could still be seen, but the chancel grew large enough to provide an elevated platform for Scripture readings, preaching, cantors, and even the organ. Since in the late Middle Ages the bishop's throne and choir of canons or monks separated the laity from the altar, an altar for the laity (rood altar) was placed in front of the chancel in many churches. The baroque period was largely responsible for clearing the churches of chancels and replacing them with the altar railing.
Tabernacles and Gradines. Until the 16th century the Eucharist was reserved in various parts of the church. In the 16th century the tabernacle become a permanent fixture of the altar. Its presence on the main altar was mandated by law during that time, although provision is made for reserving the Sacred Species elsewhere if there is another place more convenient and fitting for veneration and worship. The presence of the tabernacle has distracted attention from the altar and to some extent made of it a support for the tabernacle and a place for exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.
In the 16th century one or more gradines (steps) were added to the rear of the mensa. These gradines have served as pedestals for candles, flowers, relics, statues, etc. Again, they tend to obscure the nature of the altar.
In the Renaissance and baroque periods, large paintings flanked with pillars and statuary served as retables. Another favorite motif, especially in the baroque period, was the exposition throne for the Blessed Sacrament. The
retables often became monumental in their proportions so that the altar seemed a mere appendage. This development, with various modifications, persisted until the early 20th century when the altar has again begun to receive the emphasis it deserves.
Altar Accessories. Retables, chancels, and tabernacles have been discussed in treating the historical development of the Altar. But there are many other altar accessories that deserve special mention.
Civory and Baldachino. The civory is a canopy structure over the altar supported by four columns. Various reasons have been given for its use, but most likely it was adopted from profane use to express the sovereign dignity and liturgical importance of the altar. This seems especially true for the small altar in the large fourth-century basilicas. The popularity of the civory, however, lessened in proportion to the growth of retables. In the late 15th century the baldachino developed from the civory as a canopy supported from above or from behind the altar.
Curtains are sometimes related to the civory. St. John Chrysostom (344?–407) speaks of curtains in conjunction with the liturgy (Homil. in 1 Cor. 36.5). In the East, they were frequently attached to the chancel rather than to the civory. They served to hide the altar from catechumens and, later, to hide the mysteries themselves from the laity, as the iconostasis does today. In the West, curtains attached to the civory are mentioned in the time of Sergius I (687–701), but they served a decorative, not liturgical, purpose.
Altar Cloths. A cloth completely covering the altar dates back to at least the fourth century. Sometimes a separate white linen cloth, the ancestor of the corporal, was placed on this covering cloth. The back-part of the upper cloth was raised and folded back over the chalice to serve as a pall, but soon the pall became a separate piece. By the eighth century, two or four linen cloths were used to cover the altar in case of spillage. At this time the uppermost cloth came to be called "corporal" since it held the Body (Corpus ) of Christ. Meanwhile, when the altar received a retable and was moved against the back wall, the original cloth that covered the altar completely became the frontal (or antependium), for only the front could then be covered.
Candles and Cross. candles (see light, liturgical use of) provided light for the altar from earliest times, but did not appear on the altar until the 11th century. The cross appeared on the altar around the 11th century; the crucifix became increasingly common from the 14th century on.
Vatican II Reforms. The Instruction for the Proper Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sept. 26, 1964, prescribed that the main altar be free-standing in such a way that Mass might be celebrated with the priest facing the congregation. The actual decision of whether or not Mass would be celebrated facing the people was left as a local option. Mass facing the people became the common practice following the rationale that facing the people better promotes active participation, the primary goal of the liturgical renewal, and better symbolizes that the Eucharistic Sacrifice occurs under the sacramental sign of a meal.
Postconciliar instructions and documents favor the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in a special Eucharistic chapel, or, if that is not possible, on a separate "altar of reposition", rather than on the principal altar where the Eucharist is celebrated. Restoration of the practice of concelebration has obviated the need for secondary altars.
According to the reformed Roman Rite of the Mass, only the liturgy of the Eucharist takes place at the altar, while the introductory and concluding rites are led from the presidential chair, and the liturgy of the Word from the ambo. Thus the altar, which has always been regarded as a sign of Christ, becomes more clearly a sign of his special presence in the Eucharistic Sacrifice.
The revised order for the dedication of churches and altars according to the Roman rite (May 29, 1977) sums up the postconciliar doctrine concerning the altar. The altar is a symbol of Christ the Lord, who is the living altar of the heavenly temple (Heb 4.14; 13.10). Its function is as "the table of the sacrifice and of the paschal banquet." It is defined as the "center of the thanksgiving which is achieved through the Eucharist, to which all the other rites of the Church are in some way directed." An older tradition is restored: new churches should have only one altar, to signify the one Savior Jesus and the one Eucharist of the Church—although there may be a second altar in a separate chapel for weekday celebrations.
The Roman document, which is part of the Roman pontifical, repeats the 1969 norm that the altar, rather than the ambo or the tabernacle, should occupy a position in the church building that is truly central and to which the attention of the entire assembly is spontaneously directed. Thus, in newer churches the altar is brought forward, ideally located at the crossing, close to the congregation; it is the place where the bishop or priest (facing the congregation) and other ministers meet the assembled body of the faithful. In the restoration of older churches, if it is not desirable to completely remove the altar near the east wall of the sanctuary area, it has often been possible to retain its reredos or other altar piece while changing its appearance so that the altar near the congregation is the central focus of the church.
Bibliography: e. bishop, Liturgica historica (Oxford 1918; repr. 1962) 20–38. j. b. o'connell, Church Building and Furnishing (Notre Dame, Ind. 1955) 133–218. Congregation of Rites, Instruction for the Proper Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sept. 26, 1964). l. bouyer, Liturgy and Architecture (Notre Dame 1967). j. d. crichton, Changes in the Liturgy (New York 1965) 87–98. g. diekmann, "The Place of Liturgical Worship." Concilium 2 (New York 1965) 67–107. j. jungmann, "The New Altar," Liturgical Arts 37 (1969) 36–40. c. napier, "The Altar in the Contemporary Church," Clergy Review 57 (1972) 624–632.
[r. x. redmond/
f. r. mcmanus/eds.]
2. In The Bible
The article will be developed in four parts: terminology, pagan altars in the Bible, altars of Israel, and altars in the N T.
Terminology. The most common Hebrew word for altar in the OT is mizbēa[symbol omitted] from the root zbh :, meaning "to slaughter." Though mizbēa[symbol omitted] probably meant at first that upon which the victim was slaughtered (Gn 22.9), later the victim was slaughtered at a distance from the altar and then placed upon it (Lv 9.13). The altar came to be even more dissociated from slaughter when grain offerings were made upon it, and when the term mizbēa[symbol omitted] was applied to the altar of incense and even to the altar of the Transjordanian tribes, a mere memorial not used for sacrifice (Jos 22.26–27). Less common is šul[symbol omitted]ān, the "table" of the Lord (Mal 1.12). The Greek equivalent of mizbēa[symbol omitted] is θυσιαστήριον likewise linked with the root "to sacrifice," θύω. In the Books of Maccabees θυσιαστήριον is the characteristic word for the altar of the true God, carefully distinguished from βωμός, a pagan altar (1 Mc 1.54, 59, in Septuagint). In the NT altars of sacrifice are called both θυσιαστήριον (Mt 5.23) and τράπεζα "table" (1 Cor 10.21), the first term being applied also to the altar of incense (Lk 1.11).
Pagan Altars in the Bible. Solomon offered sacrifice at the "great high place" in Gibeon (1 Kgs 3.4), most likely an ancient Canaanite sanctuary. Danger of harmful pagan influence, however, led to laws calling for the destruction of pagan altars (Ex 24.13; Dt 7.5), an attack renewed in the postexilic hostility to the small pagan incense altars known as [symbol omitted]ammānîm (2 Chr 34.4). In time, the contamination of pagan worship became so abhorrent that the altar of holocausts defiled by Antiochus Epiphanes (1 Mc 1.57) was entirely dismantled and a new altar constructed in its place (1 Mc 4.44–47).
The Altars of Israel. A large stone in its natural condition could serve as an altar (1 Sm 6.14); most often, however, altars were constructed either of mud brick or unhewn stones. The ancient legislation of Ex 20.24–26 permitted either material, but there is no clear indication as to which was more generally used. Just as a heifer not yet yoked to the plow was suitable for sacrifice (Nm 19.2), so unhewn stones not yet removed from the divine sphere by human industry were proper altars. This desire to separate the divine from the human is probably the origin of the law against steps leading up to the altar (Ex 20.26): such steps would have been hewn out by human labor and would also have been trodden by the priest. The danger of indecent exposure as the priest mounted the steps clad in just a loincloth seems to be a secondary explanation. In time the ancient prescriptions lost their force, and the most sacred parts of the altar became the carved horns at its four corners (Ex 29.12), while the priest, now fully clad, used steps to ascend to the altar (Ex 28.42–43).
Despite changing custom, the symbolism of the altar remained constant. Above all, it was a symbol of God's presence. Thus Abraham and Jacob built altars to commemorate a theophany (Gn 13.18; 35.7), as did Gideon, even giving a theophoric name to his altar: "Yahweh-Peace" (Jgs 6.24). At the altar, communion was achieved with God, as the offerings were removed from the human sphere to the divine, and blessings were received from God in return (Ex 20.24). The sprinkling of blood (see blood, religious significance of) on the worshipers and the altar brought the people into communion with God Himself (Ex 24.6).
The horns of the altar were a special sign of God's protective presence, and thus afforded sanctuary to the fugitive who grasped them (1 Kgs 2.28). Their origin is not clear. Perhaps they are vestiges of the ancient memorial pillars (Gn 28.18). They may have been used originally for holding the animal in place, or may merely be considered the altar's extremities prolonged to express a religious respect parallel to that shown for the extremities of the priest's body (Ex 29.20). In any case, they were characteristic of the two altars in the Temple of Jerusalem, the altar of holocausts and the altar of incense. [see temples (in the bible).]
The Altar of Holocausts. Although traditions about sacrifice date from the desert period (Ex 10.25; 18.12; 32.6, 8), there is no proof that such sacrifices were performed on a fixed altars. The desert altar of holocausts described in Ex 27.1–8 and 38.1–7 is more accurately understood as a movable likeness of the Temple's altar, which the author assumes to have been in use in the desert period. Since it was wooden and hollow, high but without steps, it is not clear how such an altar could have been used for holocausts. It also contained a bronze grating that gave it the name "the bronze altar." It is not clear what the position or function of this grating was.
The Books of 1 and 2 Kings contain several allusions to the altar of holocausts in Solomon's Temple, though it is noticeably absent from the lengthy description of the temple furnishings in 1 Kgs 6–7. It was made of bronze (1 Kgs 8.64) and was movable (2 Kgs 16.14); similar altars are familiar from Phoenician inscriptions. The sacred writer may have omitted his description of the altar because of its Phoenician origin. Data on the altar measurements are supplied by 2 Chr 4.1; however, these may be taken from the altar built later by Ahaz (2 Kgs 16.10–11) or from the postexilic altar of the author's own time. The precise relationship between this altar in 2 Chronicles, ch. 4, Ahaz's altar, the altar in Ezekiel's vision (Ez 43.13–17), and the postexilic altar of holocausts remains obscure. Ahaz moved Solomon's altar somewhat to the north and installed a much larger one, built on different levels and modeled on one he had seen in Damascus, and therefore probably Syrian in origin. Whether it should be related to Ezekiel's altar, also constructed on various levels but Babylonian in its inspiration, is doubtful. The names Ezekiel gives his altar's different levels ("bosom of the earth," "the divine mountain") came from the various levels of Babylonian temples and were employed by Ezekiel to make the altar a temple in miniature. The altar in 2 Chr 4.1 has almost the same dimensions as Ezekiel's but its description may have been taken from the postexilic altar, about which further information is lacking.
The Altar of Incense. The incense altar of the tent of meeting is described in Ex 30.1–5 and 37.25–28, but is probably a projection of the temple altar into the desert period. The arrangement of the tent's furnishings is found in Ex 25–27, but, here, there is no mention of the incense altar, described later and out of context in Ex 30.1–5. Nor is it mentioned in texts describing the offering of incense in the desert (Nm 16.6–7, 17–18; 17.11–12), where individual censers are used. Like the desert altar of holocausts, it is a portable altar, built of wood and carried with poles. It is, however, also plated with gold, and so is known as "the golden altar."
The existence of this altar just outside the Holy of Holies in Solomon's Temple is well documented in 1 Kgs 7.48 and Is 6.6. Excavations in Mageddo and Shechem have also yielded small stone incense altars that can be said to date back as early as the 10th century b.c.
No mention is made of the incense altar among the precious appurtenances restored by Cyrus to the returning exiles (Ezr 1.6–11), but Antiochus Epiphanes later removed the golden altar when he plundered the second Temple (1 Mc 1.23). Under the Maccabees, an incense altar was reinstalled (1 Mc 4.49), undoubtedly the same one at which Zachary offered incense (Lk 1.8–10).
In the New Testament. The ancient symbolism of the altar as the sign of God's presence is reflected in the words of Jesus: the altar sanctifies the gift (Mt 23.18). The symbolism now lessened the altar's importance, for the NT sacrifice was already sanctified without the altar. The new sacrifice is Jesus who sanctifies Himself (Jn 17.19). Thus, in 1 Cor 10.16–17, St. Paul affirms that Christians partake of the Lord's Body and Blood without reference to the altar. In Hebrews also the author shows no concern for an altar for the Eucharistic sacrifice. When he asserts, "We have an altar, from which they have no right to eat who serve the tabernacle" (Heb 13.10), he means the cross, or more likely he means the person of Jesus Himself.
The imagery of the Revelation recalls the Temple's altars, although it is not always clear which is meant, the one for holocausts or for incense. In Rv 11.1, the author is told to measure the Temple and the altar. In its context the image refers to the small group of men who remain faithful to Christ. Other references to altars found in the Revelation (Rv 6.9; 8.3, 5; 9.13; 14.18; 16.7) seem to envisage the altar of holocausts from which the prayers of the martyred saints arise. In any case, even in the Revelation, the altar's value is ultimately eclipsed, for in the vision of the new Jerusalem there is no temple or altar, "for the Lord God almighty and the Lamb are the temple thereof" (Rv 21.22).
Bibliography: r de vaux Ancient Isreal, Its Life and Institutions (New York 1961) 406–414. k. galling, The Interpreters' Dictionary of the Bible ed. g. a. buttrick 4 v. (Nashville 1962) 1:96–100; 2:699–700. "Le Mystère de l'Autel," Maison-Dieu 29 (1952) 9–31.
[p. j. kearney]
"Altar in Christian Liturgy." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 13, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/altar-christian-liturgy
"Altar in Christian Liturgy." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 13, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/altar-christian-liturgy
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.