Altar, Christian, the table or raised surface on which the eucharist is consecrated.
I. Names of the Altar. —
1. Trapeza (τράπεζα, a table; as in 1Co 10:21). This is the term most commonly used by the Greek fathers and in Greek liturgies; sometimes simply the table by pre-eminence, but more frequently with epithets expressive of awe and reverence. St. Basil in one passage (Ep. 73) appears to contrast the tables of the orthodox with the altars of Basilides. Sozomen says (Hist. Eccles. 9:2, p. 368) of a slab which covered a tomb that it was fashioned as if for a holy table — a passage which seems to show that he was familiar with stone tables.
2. Thusiasterion (θυσιαστήριον, the place of sacrifice), the word used in the Sept. for Noah's altar (Ge 8:20), and both for the altar of burnt-sacrifice and then altar of incense under the Levitical law, but not for heathen altars.
This word in Heb 13:10 is referred by some commentators to the Lord's table, though it seems to relate rather to the heavenly than to the earthly sanctuary. In Ignatius, too, it can scarcely designate the table used in the eucharist. But by this word Eusebius (Hist. Eccles. 10:4, 44) describes the altar of the great church in Tyre, and again (Panegyr. s. f.), he speaks of altars erected throughout the world. Athanasitus, or Pseudo- Athanasius ( Disp. contra Arium). explains the word "table" by this term. This name rarely occurs in the liturgies. It not unfrequently designates the enclosure within which the altar stood, or bema (see Mede, Works, p. 382 sq.).
3. The Copts call the altar Hilasterion (ἱλαστήριον), the word applied in the Greek Scriptures to the mercy-seat, or covering of the ark; but in the Coptic liturgy of St. Basil they use the ancient Egyptian word Pimanershoiishi, which in Coptic versions of Scripture answers to the Greek thusiasterion.
4. The word Bomos (βωμός) is used in Scripture and in Christian writers generally for a heathen altar (so 1 Maccabees 1:54, 59). The word is, however, applied to the Levitical altar in Ecclesiasticus 1:12, the work of a gentilizing writer. It is generally repudiated by early Christian writers except in a figurative sense: Clement of Alexandria (Stromata, 7:717) and Origen (Contra Celsum, 8:389) declare that the soul is the true Christian altar (bomos), the latter expressly admitting the charge of Celsus that the Christians had no material altars. Yet in later times it was sometimes used for the Christian altar.
5. The expression mensa Domini, or mensa Dominica, is not uncommon in the Latin fathers, especially Augustine. An altar raised in honor of a martyr frequently, bore his name; as "mensa Cypriani." The word mensa is often used for the slab which formed the top of the altar.
6. Ara is frequently applied by Tertullian to the Christian altar, though not without some qualification. Yet it is repudiated by the early Christian apologists on account of its heathen associations. In rubrics, ara designates a portable altar or consecrated slab. Ara is also used for the substructure on which the mensa, or altar proper, was placed.
7. But by far the most common name in the Latin fathers and in liturgical diction is altare, a "high altar," from altus. This is the Vulgate equivalent of thusiasterion. So Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine. Yet Cyprian speaks (Ep. 59, § 15) of "diaboli altaria," so uncertain was the usage. In the Latin liturgies scarcely any other name of the altar occurs than altarne. The plural, altaria, is also occasionally used by ecclesiastical writers, as invariably by classical authors, to designate an altar. The singular altarium occurs in late writers, but is also used in a wider sense for the bema, or sanctuary; so also altaria.
8. In most European languages, not only of the Romanesque family, but also of the Teutonic and Slavonic, the word used for the Lord's table is derived, with but slight change, from altare. In Russian, however, another word, prestol, properly a throne, is in general use.
II. Parts Composing Altars. — In strictness the table or tomb-like structure constitutes the altar — the steps on which it is placed, and the ciborium, or canopy which covered it, being accessories.
The altar itself was composed of two portions — the supports, whether legs or columns, in the table form, or slabs in the tomb-like, and the mensa, or slab which formed the top.
The expression cornu altaris (horn of the altar), often used in rituals, appears to mean merely the corner or angle of the altar, no known example showing any protuberance at the angles or elsewhere above the general level of the mensa, although in some instances the central part of the surface of the mensa is slightly hollowed. By the cornu evangelii is meant the angle to the left of the priest celebrating; by cornu epistole that to the right. These phrases must, however, it would seem, date from a period subsequent to that when the Gospel was read from the ambo.
III. Tomb-altars. — The change from wood to stone as the material of altars in the early Church was not only for reasons of durability and elegance, but probably grew in part out of the necessities of the times, especially the. celebration of worship in the catacombs of Rome; and this in turn gave rise to the custom, especially prevalent there, of combining an altar and a tomb together. Hence the form gradually changed from the flat table, or mensa, to the chest, or arca.
It was, however, not only in Rome that the memorials of martyrs and altars were closely associated. The eighty-third canon of the African Code (A.D. 419) orders that the altaria which had been raised everywhere by the roads and in the fields as memorice martyrum should be overturned when there was no proof that a martyr lay beneath them, and blames the practice of erecting altars in consequence of dreams and "inane revelations." The most clear proofs of the prevalence of the practice of placing altars over the remains of martyrs and saints at an early period are furnished by passages in Prudentius. The practice of placing the altar over the remains of martyrs or saints may probably have arisen from a disposition to look upon the sufferings of those confessors of the faith as analogous with that sacrifice which is commemorated in the eucharist; and the passage in Re 6:9," I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the Word of God," no doubt encouraged or instigated the observance. The increasing disposition to venerate martyrs and their relics fostered this practice. SEE TOMB-ALTAR.
It is difficult to find the date at which it became customary to incise crosses, usually five in number, on the mensa of an altar; but they are found on the portable altar which was buried with St. Cuthbert (A.D. 687). Two are to be seen on the oaken board to which the plating of silver was attached, and two on the plating itself, but it is quite possible that originally there were five on each. In the order for the dedication of a church in the sacramentary of Gregory the Great, the bishop consecrating is desired to make crosses with holy water on the four corners of the altar; but nothing is said of incised crosses.
The practice of making below the mensa a cavity to contain relics, and covering this by a separate stone let into the mensa, does not appear to be of an early date.
IV. Structural Accessories of the Altar — Usually, though not invariably, the altar was raised on steps, one, two, or three in number. From these steps the bishop sometimes preached. Beneath the steps it became customary, from the 4th century, at least, at Rome and wherever the usages of Rome were followed, to construct a small vault called confessio. This was originally a mere grave or repository for a body, as in the Church of St. Alessandro, near Rome, but gradually expanded into a vault, a window or grating below the altar allowing the sarcophagus in which the body of the saint was placed to be visible.
In the Eastern Church a piscina is usually found under the altar. What the antiquity of this practice may be does not seem to be ascertained; but it may have existed in the Western Church, since in a Frankish missal, in consecrating an altar, holy water is to be poured ad basem.
The altar was often enclosed within railings of wood or metal, or low walls of marble slabs. These enclosures were often mentioned by early writers under the names ambitus altaris, circuitus altaris; the railings were called cancelli, and the slabs transennae.
Upon these enclosures columns and arches of silver were often fixed, and veils or curtains of rich stuffs suspended from the arches. Pope Leo III gave ninety-six veils, some highly ornamented, to be so placed round the ambitus altaris and the presbyterium of St. Peter's at Rome. For the canopy over the altar, SEE CIBORIUM.
V. Appendages of the Altar. — In ancient times, a feeling of reverence prevented anything from being placed upon the altar but the altar-cloths and the sacred vessels with the elements. Even in the 9th century Leo IV (De Cura Pastorall, § 8) limited the objects which might lawfully be placed on the altar to the shrine containing relics, or perchance the codex of the Gospels, and the pyx, or tabernacle in which the Lord's body was reserved for the viaticum of the sick.
The book of the Gospels seems anciently to have been frequently placed on the altar. With regard to the relics of saints, the ancient rule was, Ambrose tells us (Ad Marcellinam, epist. 85), that they should be placed "under the altar;" and this was the practice of much later times The passage of Leo IV quoted above seems, in fact, the first permission to place a shrine containing relics on the altar, and that permission was evidently not in accordance with the general religious feeling of that age.
In the early centuries of the Christian Church, the consecrated bread was generally reserved in a vessel made in the form of a dove and suspended from the ciborium, or perhaps in some cases placed on a tower on the altar itself. Gregory of Tours speaks distinctly (De Gloria Martyrum, 1, 86) of the deacon taking the turris from the sacristy and placing it on the altar; but this seems to have contained the unconsecrated elements, and to have been placed on the altar only during celebration; nor does the reservation of the consecrated bread in the turris, capsa, or pyx, on the altar appear to be distinctly mentioned by any earlier authority than the decree of Leo IV quoted above.
No instance of a cross placed permanently on the mensa of an altar is found in the first eight centuries. Crosses were seen in the sanctuary in the 4th century. The cross was found on the summit of the ciborium, as in the great Church of St. Sophia at Constantinople, and in some churches, both at Rome and in Gaul, suspended from the ciborium over the altar, but not on the mensa of the altar itself. A cross was, however, placed on the altar during celebration. The third canon of the second Council of Tours (A.D. 567) probably means that the particles consecrated should not be arranged according to each man's fancy, but in the form of a cross, according to the rubric.
Tapers were not placed on the altar within the period we are considering, though it was a very ancient practice to place lights about the altar, especially on festivals. Flowers appear to have been used for the festal decoration of altars at least as early as the 6th century. They appear as decorations of churches as early as the 4th century.
VI. Number of Altars in a Church. — There was in primitive times but one altar in a church. Augustine speaks (On 1 John, tract 3) of the existence of two altars in one city as a visible, sign of the Donatist schism. But in the time of St. Basil there were more than one altar in Neocesarea.
The Greek and other Oriental churches have even now but one altar in each church; nor do they consecrate the eucharist more than once on the same day in the same place. They have had, for several centuries, minor altars in side-chapels, which are really distinct buildings. Such side-chapels are generally found where there has been considerable contact with the Latin Church.
Some writers rely upon the arcosolia, or altar-tombs in the catacombs, as proving the early use of many altars, Two, three, and more such tombs are often found in one crypt, and in one case there are, as many as eleven arcosolia; but there is a deficiency of proof that such tombs were actually so used, nor is their date at all a matter of certainty in the great majority of cases.
The practice of considering the tomb of a martyr as a holy place fitted for the celebration of the eucharistic sacrifice, and such celebration as an honor and consolation to the martyr who lay below, probably led first to the use of several altars in a crypt in the catacombs where more than one martyr might rest, and then, when the bodies of several martyrs had been transferred to one church above ground, to the construction of an altar over each, from a wish to leave none unhonored by the celebration of the eucharist above his remains. Such ideas were prevalent as early as the beginning of the 5th century. At that period, and indeed long after, the disturbance of the relics of saints was held a daring and scarcely allowable act, and was prohibited by Theodosius and much disapproved of by pope Gregory the Great; nor was it until some centuries later that the increasing eagerness for the possession of such memorials was gratified by the dismemberment of the holy bodies.
It has been contended that more than one altar existed in the Cathedral of Milan in the latter part of the 4th century. Ambrose more than once uses the plural altaria in connection with the church, but altaria frequently means an altar. In the Theodosian Code altaria is probably equivalent to sanctuary. At the end of the 6th century we find distinct traces of a plurality of altars in Western churches. Gregory of Tours speaks (De Gloria Martyrunm, 1, 33) of saying masses on three altars in a church at Braisne, near Soissons; and Gregory the Great says (Epist. 5, 50) that he heard that his correspondent Palladius, bishop of Saintonge. had placed in a church thirteen altars, of which four remained unconsecrated for defect of relics. Moreover, the Council of Auxerre (A.D. 578) forbade two masses to be said on the same day on one altar, a prohibition that probably contributed to the multiplication of altars, which was still further accelerated by the disuse of the ancient custom of the priests communicating with the bishop or principal minister of the church, and the introduction of private masses, more than one of which was frequently said by the same priest on the same day. Bede mentions (Hist. Eccles. 5, 20) that Acca, bishop of Hexham (deposed 732), collected for his church many relics of apostles and martyrs, and placed altars for their veneration, placing a separate canopy over each altar within the walls of the church. There were several altars in the church built by St. Benedict at Aniane. In the 7th and 8th centuries the number of altars had so increased that Charlemagne, in a capitulary (805-806) at Thionville, attempted to restrain' their excessive multiplication. This was not very effectual, and in the 9th century the multiplication of altars attained a high point. In the plan of the Church of St. Gall, in Switzerland, prepared in the beginning of that century, there are no less than seventeen altars. The will of Fortunatus, patriarch of Grado (died cir. 825) also affords proof of the increase in the number of altars then in active progress. In one oratory he placed three altars, and five in another.
VII. Places of Altars in Churches. — From the earliest period of which we have any knowledge, the altar was usually placed, not against the wall, as in modern times, but on the chord of the apse, when, as was almost invariably the case, the church ended in an apse; when the end of the church was square, the altar occupied a corresponding position. The officiating priest stood with his back to the apse and thus faced the congregation. In St. Peter's at Rome, and a very few other churches, the priest still officiates thus placed; but though in very many churches, particularly in Italy, the altar retains its ancient position, it is very rarely that the celebrant does so.
Exceptions at an early date to the rule that the altar should be detached are of the greatest rarity, if we except the tombs in the catacombs, which have been supposed to have been used as altars. It is possible, also, that in small chapels with rectangular terminations, the altar may, for convenience, have been placed against the wall. When, however, it became usual to place many altars in a church, it was found convenient to place one or more against a wall; this was done in the Cathedral of Canterbury, where the altar enclosing the body of St. Wilfrid was placed, against the wall of the eastern apse; another altar, however, in this case occupied the normal position in the eastern apse, and the original high altar was placed in the same manner in the western apse. In the plan of the Church of St. Gall, prepared in the beginning of the 9th century, only two of seventeen altars are placed against walls.
In a few instances the altar was placed not on the centre of the chord of the arc of the apse, but more towards the middle of the church. In some early churches at Rome, the altar occupies a position more or less advanced. In the time of pope Gregory IV (A.D. 827-844) the altar of Santa Maria in Trastevere stood in a low place, almost in the middle of the nave; the pope therefore removed it to the apse; so the altar of Santa Maria Maggiore in the time of pope Hadrian I (772795). It is thought by some that in the large circular or octagonal churches of the 4th and 5th centuries the altar was placed in the centre.
In the churches of Justinian's period constructed with domes, there is usually a sort of chancel intervening between the central dome and the apse; when such is the case, the altar was placed therein.
VIII. Use of Pagan Altars for Christian Purposes. Pagan altars, having a very small superficies, are evidently ill suited for the celebration of the eucharist; nor would it appear probable that a Christian would be willing to use them for that purpose. Nevertheless, traditions allege that in some cases pagan altars were so used; and in the Church of Arilje, in Servia, a heathen altar sculptured with a figure of Atys forms the lower part of the altar (Mittheil. der k.-k. Central-Comm. zur Erforschung und trhaltung der Baudenkmnale [Vienna, 1865], p. 6). Such altars, or fragments of them, were, however; employed as materials (particularly in the bases) in the construction of Christian altars.