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Altars in the Christian Church


ALTARS IN THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH The Early Church.—Thealtar is spoken of by the early Greek and Latin ecclesiastical writers under a variety of names : TpairEa, the principal name in the Greek fathers and the liturgies; 9vaccu riipcov (rarer; used in the Septuagint for Hebrew altars); DAaar? pcov ; 13wµ5s (usually avoided, because of its pagan asso ciations) ; mensa Domini; ara (avoided like t3wµos for the same reason) ; and, most regularly, altare.

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," Origen says, "The altars are the heart of every Christian." We gather from this, and from a passage in Lactantius, De Origin Erroris, ii. 2, that down to about A.D. 25o, 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 for this purpose. The earliest church altars were certainly made of wood ; and it appears from a passage in William of Malmesbury (Gesta Pontif. iii. 14) that in the diocese of Worcester altars were of wood down to the middle of the 11 th century.

The Mediaeval Church.

It will be convenient now to pass to the fully-developed altar of the Western Church with its accessories.

In the Roman Catholic Church the component parts of a fixed altar are the table (mensa), consisting of a stone 'slab ; the support (stipes), either a solid mass or four or more columns; the sepul chrurn, or altar-cavity, a small chamber for the reception of relics. If the support consist of columns, the intervals may be filled with other materials, e.g., brick or cement. The table alone is conse crated, 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 Caeremoniale (i. 12, 13) a canopy (baldac/ii num) should be suspended over the altar ; this should be square and large enough to cover the altar and the predella on which the celebrant stands. It is sometimes hung from the roof by chains so 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. This last 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 canopy (called litur gically the ciborium) is uncertain, but it appears in a mosaic at Thessalonica of a date not later than A.D. soo. The Congregation of Rites (May 27, 1697) ordered it to be placed over all altars, but even at Rome it is usually only found over the high altar and the altar of the Blessed Sacrament.

Multiplication of altars is a mediaeval characteristic, no trace of which appears before the 4th century. In the church of St. Gall, Switzerland, in the 9th century there were 17. In the modern Latin Church almost every large church contains several altars. Archbishop Wulf red in 816 ordered that beside every altar there should be an inscription recording its dedication. This regulation fell into abeyance after the I 2th century, and such inscriptions are very rare. One remains mutilated at Deerhurst (Archaeologia, vol. so, p. 69).

The principal altar, in a church having more than 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., for merly 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.

In the time of Optatus (c. A.D. 37o), bishop of Milevis, and probably earlier, the altar was covered with a cloth. This had developed by the 14th or I sth 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. In front was often a hanging panel of embroidered cloth (the frontal) ; but frontals_of wood, ornamented with carving or enamel, etc., 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. 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.

Post-Reformation Altars.

At the Reformation the al tars in churches were looked upon as symbols of the unief ormed doctrine. In England the name "altar" was retained in the English Communion Office printed in and in the First Prayer Book of Edward VI. But the altars were soon after ordered to be de stroyed, and replaced by movable wooden tables; while in the revised Prayer Book of 1552 the term "God's board" or "the table" was substituted for "altar." After a temporary reaction under Mary, the work of reformation was resumed under Elizabeth.

The name "altar" has been retained in the English Coronation Office. In the canons of 164o it was recognized, but with the reser vation that "it was an altar in the sense in which the primitive church called it an altar and in no other"; and 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 against a reredos erected at the east side of the altar; the celebrant was thus brought round to the west side and caused to stand between the people and the altar. 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 mov able, 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 a stone altar, consisting of a flat slab resting on three upright slabs, was set up by the Camden society in the ancient church of the Holy Sepulchre at Cambridge, at the east wall of the chancel. But the Court of Arches in 1845 ordered it to be removed, on the ground that a weighty stone structure was not a com munion-table in the sense recognized by the Church of England.

BIBLIOGRAPHY.-For altars in the ancient East see M. Jastrow, Bibliography.-For altars in the ancient East see M. Jastrow, Religion of Assyria and Babylonia; Perrot and Chipiez, Art in Chaldea (i. ; 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 Hebriiische Archaologie. For classical altars, much information can be obtained from the notes in J. G. Frazer's Pausanias. See also Schomann, 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). 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 Cabrol, Migne, Martigny, Smith and Cheetham, and Pugin, where 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, Thysiasteri ologia 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 11 5o (Archaeologia, xl. p. no), Didron, "L'Autel chretien" (Annales archeologiques, iv. p. 238), and a paper by Texier on enamelled altars in the same volume.

altar, east, table, wood and churches