The Altar: the Church's Sancta Sanctorum, Worship from the early Church to this Day.

A view of Rome from nearby Janiculum Hill.

As of today, the Roman spring is in full bloom, the weather is warm, the flowers are as colorful as ever, and the sun is high in the sky. As Italy is slowly working its way towards a post-lockdown phase, life is slowly getting back to normal, even churches are starting to reopen. After months, I have started taking up walks again. A few days ago I entered the ancient Basilica of San Pancrazio which is quite close to where I live. Built by Pope Symmachus between the 5th and 6th centuries - the church is one of many great examples of an early churches built in the Constantinian style. This little excursion made me wonder about the evolution in which Christians have been worshipping in the past couple of thousand years, and especially what is at the center of our worship, the altar. The central focus of a church building, where Christianity's most sacred act, the Eucharist, the sharing of Chris's body and blood, takes place. In order to write this I have had to go through some of my texts from my Archeology courses at the Pontifical Gregorian University, and it has been rather fun! During these lockdown days, some of you may have started taking up the cycle of the Daily Office. I am a great fan of the Anglican tradition of Prayer Book Mattins and Evensong, and am rather nostalgic of that beautifully Anglican type of Sunday routine - I believe there is still room for it, after all morning prayer always preceded the Eucharist in the early Church, and that is still true of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy. What “lockdown house worship” is however is anything but early Church house worship, this is what this article aims at explaining, the very reason why it is good to pray at home, but we also need our church buildings. I believe that the history of the church altar must begin with an understanding of pre-Constantinian Christian worship.

The Basilica of San Pancrazio in Rome.

Before I begin though, I think it will be fun to add a little anecdote; did you know that the earliest Christian altar predates the birth of Christ? Legend goes that one night Emperor Augustine received a vision of the Tiburtine Sibyl holding a child from his residence at the Capitoline Hill. That was later interpreted by Christian tradition to be the first revelation of Christ to humankind. Later, a church was built on the site, Santa Maria in Aracœli, and on the site was built an altar using pre-existing material, from the Augustinian residence, one of this, an ancient pagan altar, became the Aracœli, heaven’s altar. The altar still survives to this day under a 19th century canopy dedicated to Saint Helena, mother of Augustine - within it is a Medieval altar that encloses the most ancient altar in Christianity, the one that predates Christ’s birth.

A painting at the Louvre by Antoine Caron showing Emperor Augustus receiving the vision.

As you may know, very soon after the disciples went to the four corners of the earth, early Christianity was soon made illegal throughout the Roman Empire - the problem being not that Christians had only one God, as Jews did too, but because they were proselytizing. However, lots of untrue legends exist about early Christianity. For example, Christians were slaughtered in huge numbers in places such as the Coliseum, which is not true as most Christians were slaughtered in the Circus Maximus or the Circus of Nero, which occupied the site of the present St. Peter’s Basilica. It is true that Christians were persecuted, but sometimes it was more of a known fact, pretty much like Anglican cherry-picking today - lots of wealthy Christians got away with it. Catacombs were definitely not used for secret Masses or to bury thousands of martyrs - well, the latter occurred indeed every so often, but catacombs were essentially Christian cemeteries, they were built in a different manner to the Pagan ones as Christians (like Jews - they had catacombs too) needed to be buried fully, catacombs were very well known, and it was common for long processions to take place from the city center to the burial sites. It is true that Mass was often offered in the catacombs, but that only occurred as a devotional service atop the tomb of a saint or martyr - often covered with a stone layer, thus constituting an early example of Christian altar.

An 18th century view of the ruins of the Circus of Nero, with the obelisk now in St. Peter's Square.

The other legend which is slightly more popular in Church circles and which needs to be debunked in order to proceed is how Christians met in houses as a group of Plymouth Brethren would do nowadays, having an occasional Lord’s Supper service around the kitchen table. What must be understood is that the tradition and knowledge of the early Church comes from direct practice, and it goes back to the very foundation of the Church. There was also a rediscovery of the ancient world under the ideals of Renaissance Humanism - this is also when Christian archeology began, Saint Philip Neri himself was indeed the first saint to rediscover the world of the ancient Christians, exploring the catacombs by himself - at the same time Antonio Bosio became the first Christian archeologist, producing works such as the Roma Sotterranea - leaving a legacy that lasts to this day. After all, it must be assumed they must have not been that wrong since they were working on site, with the instruments of tradition, and not in some cold hostel room in a tiny Northern European town. Jokes aside...

Antonio Bosio's Roma Sotterranea, early 17th century.

First of all, we have to know the difference between the various types of Roman dwelling in order to proceed - there were two main types of Roman homes, the Insulae, which were sets of apartments with shops at the first floor, much as the palazzos one sees in 21st century Rome, and these were where the working and middle classes lived, depending on how crammed or less crammed these were. However a rich patrician would live in a Domus, which was a luxurious villa centered around a garden with fountains, shrines to the gods, sometimes even thermal baths and central heating (I am not going into the details this time). It was these Christian patricians who offered their vast house to the benefit of their communion, in a tradition that reflected the Passover fellowship of the not long-distant Jewish mothers and fathers in the faith, and also inspiring the sense of Christian philanthropy that made it possible for us to worship in great temples, from Constantine to the Medici and the Della Rovere, and from the Medici to the Victorians, and from them to the Astors and Vanderbilts.

The site of the Domus Ecclesia at Dura Europos.

These houses had a specific room where Christian worship would take place in an organized manner, the congregation wouldn’t just sit around a table or sit around a circle - they all stood or sat formally, and everybody faced one direction: east. The Eucharist was the main act of worship, and the leader of a large community was usually a bishop, assisted by priests and deacons - this was usually the use of Rome, with deaconries, such as the one where Saint Lawrence operated being also centers for preaching but also for social care - the role of the three orders were slightly different from what our perception of them is nowadays. The liturgical space was divided into two areas, an open one and an enclosed one - often divided by a curtain - only the baptized, the catechumens were allowed when the liturgy of the Mass was to take place. This tradition was continued in later church architecture through the addition of a narthex, for the non-catechumens, and screens to separate the sanctuary from the nave, much like in the old Temple of Jerusalem, as was the case both in old St. Peter's and St. Paul's Basilicas.

The interior of the old Constantinian Basilica of St. Peter in Rome.

Dura-Europos, a 3rd century building in Syria that is perhaps considered to be the oldest example of house church. There, we can see the traditional lay out with a room which was used for worship and it was called the Domus Dei, the House of God, which traditionally faced east, looking towards heaven in expectation for the second coming. Another room is for use as baptistry, where the rite of entrance in the Church was to take place. By the 3rd century these rooms started to be decorated beautifully with frescoes and mosaics, especially the baptismal fonts, but also the altars would be beautifully carved in wood or stone, often in the late-classical tradition of Rome. It is true that the Eucharist started out of the Passover, but Christian worship also stemmed out of the liturgy at the Old Temple and the Priesthood of Melchizedeck, and since Pentecost, it evolved very quickly into a formal affair, as we see in the architecture of these house churches but also in written documents, such as the Didiscalia, written about 250AD.

The worship space in the Domus Ecclesia of Dura Europos, with the assembly at worship facing east.

Here is an excerpt from it: now, in your gatherings, in the holy Church, convene yourselves modestly in places of the brethren, as you will, in a manner pleasing and ordered with care. Let the place of the priests be separated in a part of the house that faces east. In the midst of them is placed the bishop’s chair, and with him let the priests be seated. Likewise, and in another section let the lay men be seated facing east. For thus it is proper: that the priests sit with the bishop in a part of the house to the east and after them the lay men and the lay women, and when you stand to pray, the ecclesial leaders rise first, and after them the lay men, and again, then the women. Now, you ought to face to east to pray for, as you know, scripture has it, Give praise to God who ascends above the highest heavens to the east. 

The high altar in the Basilica of San Saba in Rome.

Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire in the year 313AD with the Edict of Milan, signed by Constantine - the current shape of the liturgy of the Mass goes back to this time. Very soon, Christianity became the state religion, with the Emperor’s own conversion and its geopolitical role and love affair with power would change for ever. Churches began to be built in the so-called Constantinian style, with three naves, a semi-circular apse, with an altar and a Cathedra for the bishop, the head of a Christian congregation. They were inspired by the classical basilicas already existing in Rome. The emperor became a sort of protector of the Church, a role that continued through the Roman Empire of the East, and later in the Holy Roman Empire, and later in France and Britain, where it still continued today and where the anointed monarch is still Supreme Governor of the Church. With these new massive churches built in the new style, it was important for the Church to assert its new power but also its link with Christ. This occurred through remembrance, many catacombs in Rome were built around the tomb of a saint, for example Saint Sebastian, just to name one, as it was thought that being buried near a saint made you closer to Christ - as a consequence the altars of these early churches were built on top of catacomb, and especially of the saint’s shrine, in order to recreate that link with heaven, through the remains of a holy martyr who shed his blood for the faith. 

The beautiful Constantinian Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome.

When an altar was built on the tomb of said martyr, it became known as a Titulus, and the altar was dedicated to her or him - this practice begins to this day in a similar form, by the Middle Ages, Cardinals were often entrusted with these titles - that is why all the princes of the Church have a church under their patronage in Rome. We see that at St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s Basilicas, we see that in the many Constantinian basilicas in Rome, from San Sebastiano to Santa Pudenziana, and indeed San Pancrazio. 

The 5th century altar in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna.

The altar became a literal link between heaven and earth, and when they ran out of catacombs, the altars kept being built over the tomb of a saint, these were called Confessio by the 5th century - when there was no catacomb or the church was in a city center, the body or the relics of a martyr would be translated beneath the altar, this was the translatio reliquorum and the depositio reliquorum. In this way urban congregations were also able to endow their own churches with a Memoria. These were built at the east end of a basilica, themselves facing east - so as to be blessed by the morning sun early in the day during the celebration of the Mass. The early Roman basilicas therefore were not built with "free-standing" altars, they were simply built with altars facing east, above the Confessio.

The high altar in the Basilica di San Lorenzo in Rome, with the Confessio and the tomb of the martyr.

The oldest form of Christian altar was a four-legged wooden table (a practice that continued in the East), these may have been translated into stone by the 5th century. They were predominantly rectangular, but there were occasional variants such as semicircular, circular and squared ones (inspired by older Pagan altars). A 5th century mosaic in Ravenna’s Baptistry shows a slab supported by four columns which seems to be what most altars looked like by the 6th century. From the 6th to about the 11th century the box-type of altar becomes popular, with room for relics inside, an example of this can be seen in the crypt of SS. Cosma e Damiano in Rome. As already said the Cippus, squared altars, inspired by the ones of antiquity were also common, although these were often fitted with a rectangular Mensa. It would be right to say, that most altars, where the relics would be stored, were regular squares or rectangular shaped boxes - it was usually the Mensa on top of it which came in different shapes, usually rectangular, but also squared, semi-circular, or even circular. Altars were at the focal point of the church, from the house churches to this day. They were located in the east end of the church, commonly facing east and were often separated by a stone screen, as we see in the Medieval Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome. Already by the 5th and 6th centuries basilicas came to be fitted with other spaces that could have a second or third altar, and by even the 8th century it became common for churches to have chapels and several altars - in the late Middle Ages, and especially after the Council of Trent - other altars could be dispensed from facing east. Altars began to be attached to the wall by the 10th century, even when not facing east (which remained the ideal arrangement) - still somewhat reminiscing of the shape of a sarcophagus - with that symbolism going back to the ancient martyrs becoming even stronger, especially after Trent, as we see made manifest in the shape of many a Baroque altars.

A 14th century altar in the church of Santa Croce in Florence.

By about the 12th century, altars evolved into the rectangular boxed shape that remained popular until the Second Vatican Council. By about the 10th century, altars were often pushed against a wall or against an altarpiece of some kind, before the quire, usually located in the apse in large churches, religious foundations or some cathedrals, especially in Italy. - the altar was raised by several steps which aided the servers and clergy with the way in which the ritual of the Mass was being enriched with the times. Altars were completely made out of stone, and to maintain the original early Christian canons, they had to be fitted with at least two first class relics of two saints, with one being a martyr. The relics were inserted with a stone which was itself inserted inside the altar stone - this practice continues to this day. The complex and yet beautiful rite for the conservation of an altar was shaped in its present form at this time, with a Bishop blessing special “Gregorian” water with wine, salt and ashes, the anointing of the same and other special ceremonies. Every altar was dedicated to a Titulus, for example, the Holy Trinity. Little did change between the late Middle Ages, but the architectural style of the altar, by the 13th and 14th centuries more elaborate gradines were added, and after the Council of Trent, the tabernacle was often fixed on the high altar of a church or an important chapel. By the 12th century, altars were often decorated with beautiful altarpieces and with rich altar frontals - often representing scenes from the life of Christ, eucharistic scenes, or depictions of the saints to whom said altars were dedicated to. The tradition of decorating the altar in this way would flourish in the Renaissance and with the Baroque style it reached its apotheosis - the many artworks made for this purposes are among the most well recognized masterpieces of all time. 

The Renaissance Basso della Rovere chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome with its 15th century altar and the beautiful frescoes by Bernardino Pintoricchio.

We can find beautiful examples of late Medieval altars in the church of Santa Trinita in Florence among many. They also reflected the local rite, while the Roman Rite was the simplest, the rites of Northern Europe, such as the Parisian or the rites of Westminster or Salisbury, came with beautiful elaborate altars enclosed by curtains. In Rome we can find beautiful Renaissance altars in the Della Rovere chapels at Santa Maria del Popolo, while the whole church is filled with beautiful Baroque Tridentine altars, an example dear to me is the beautiful marble altar in the Spada Chapel in San Girolamo near the Piazza Farnese. 

The Spada Chapel in the church of San Girolamo in Rome.

In England, the altar as we know it today, lived through all sorts of evolutions. At the beginning of the Henrician Reformation very little was changed and the original English stone altars remained in place. However, under the Calvinistic influence of Reformers under Edward VI “Communion Tables” were moved to the center of the church or chapel, the original stone altars, and were remade out of wood in an simple manner. Under Elizabeth I, we know that little did change, but whereas she was a fervent Protestant, she also had a certain respect for proper worship, she had ordered the altars to be moved to the east-end behind a rail, and to be covered with a linen cloth. She had first ordered this to happen in her chapels, it is thought that she allowed the lighting of candles as well, which had been abolished by Edward. It is not unthinkable that given her appreciation of beauty, which we know from her taste in liturgical music, she had deep respect for an ordered sanctuary. Regarding her eucharistic theology, it is thought that she once said when asked about Holy Communion: the same took bread and brake it, and as the Word did make it, so I believe and take it

Elizabethan Communion vessels.

At the time of James I, communion tables were still made of wood, which was a trend that mostly remained to this day in the Church of England, but were often carved beautifully in the Jacobean style, partly inspired by the continental Mannerist style of Italy and France. The LXXXII article from the 1604 canon of the Church of England, called a decent Communion-Table in every Church, is the first Anglican document of its kind and reads: Whereas we have no doubt, but that in all Churches within the Realm of England, convenient and decent Tables are provided and placed for the Celebration of the holy Communion, We appoint that the same Tables shall from time to time be kept and repaired in sufficient and seemly manner, and covered in time of Divine Service with a Carpet of Silk or other decent Stuff thought meet by the Ordinary of the place, if any question be made of it, and with a fair Linen Cloth at the Time of the Ministration, as becometh that Table, and so stand, saving when the said holy Communion is to be Administered. At which Time the same shall be placed in so good sort within the Church or Chancel, as thereby the Minister may be more conveniently heard of the Communicants in his Prayer and Administration, and the Communicants also more conveniently and in more number may communicate with the said Minister: and that the Ten Commandments be set up upon the East-end of every Church and Chapel where the people may best see and read the same, and other chosen Sentences written upon the Walls of the said Churches and Chapels in places convenient: And likewise, that a convenient Seat be made for the Minister to read Service in. All these to be done at the Charge of the Parish. The Anglican Communion-Table had to be dignified as Thomas Cranmer's Prayer Book prescribed Holy Communion to take place every Sunday and on major feast days, called red letter days.

The Laudian Altar at Staunton Harold.

Charles I and his William Laud, his Archbishop of Canterbury, were essential in the laying out the traditions for an Anglican sanctuary, with a beautiful Communion Table to be placed against the east wall of the church, and enclosed by an altar rail. The Laudian table was to be covered with a rich silk frontal and with a white linen cloth, and two candles lighting it. This trend was to survive in the Georgian Church and it is thanks to the Caroline Divines of the 1620s and 1630s and their revival with the Restoration, after the destruction of the Civil War, that we can be thankful for Catholicity to survive to this day within Anglicanism - without it, it would have been impossible for the next movement to begin. A second “High Church” movement began within Anglicanism by the second half of the 19th century. The Oxford Movement, pushed for by the Tractarians, theologians such as Edward P. Pusey, called for a return to the ritualism within the Church of England, this pushed for a return in many places to the aesthetics of the English Medieval altar. This push was especially strong thanks to works such as the Parson’s Handbook by Percy Dearmer, and thanks to the art of great Victorian architects and artists such as Scott, Bodley, and Comper. These two latter movements are to be thanked for the shape of the present-day Anglican sanctuary. Personally, I like both Anglican styles, as I like early and Baroque altars in Rome, to each their own tradition!

The Comper high altar at Ripon Cathedral.

The altar has evolved various times throughout history, but despite its changes it has remained the focal point of any church building, where Christ is made real in his body and blood. This is why it is good to pray at home, but also why we need our churches, God is everywhere, but it is only before his throne of grace that we can enter in full communion with him, only where he is constantly remembered and made real.


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