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Altars in the Christian Church

Article from the 1911 Encyclopedia


I. The Early Church. -- The altar is spoken of by the early Greek and Latin ecclesiastical writers under a variety of names: -- trapefa, the principal name in the Greek fathers and the liturgies; thusiasterion (rarer; used in the Septuagint for Hebrew altars); ilasterion; bomos (usually avoided, as it is a word with heathen associations); mensa Domini; ara (avoided like bomos, and for the same reason); and, most regularly, altare. After the 4th century other names or expressions come into use, such as mensa tremenda, series corporis et sanguinis Christi.

The earliest Christians had no altars, and were taunted by the pagans for this. It is admitted by Origen 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." "The altars," says Origen, "are the heart of every Christian." The same appears from a passage in Lactantius, De Origine Erroris, ii. 2. We gather from these passages that down to about A.D. 250, 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 to serve this purpose. The earliest church altars were certainly made of wood; and it would appear from a passage in William of Malmesbury (De Gest. Pontif. Angl. iii. 14) that English altars were of wood down to the middle of the 11th century, at least in the diocese of Worcester.

The cessation of persecution, and consequent gradual elaboration of church furniture and ritual, led to the employment of more costly materials for the altar as for the other fittings of ecclesiastical buildings. Already in the 4th century we find reference to stone altars in the writings of Gregory ot Nyssa. In 517 the council of Epaone in Burgundy forbade any but stone pillars to be consecrated with chrism; but of course the decrees of this provincial council would not necessarily be received throughout the church.

Pope Felix I. (A.D. 269-274) decreed that "mass should be celebrated above the tombs of martyrs" -- an observance probably suggested by the passage in Revelation vi. 9, "I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God." This practice developed into the medieval rule that no altar can be consecrated unless it contain a relic or relics.

The form of the altar was originally table-shaped, consisting of a plane surface supported by columns. There were usually four, but examples with one, two and five columns are also recorded. But the development of the relic-custom led to the adoption of another form, the square box shape of an "altar-tomb." Transitional examples, combining the box with the earlier table shape, are found dating about 450. Mention is made occasionally of silver and gold altaus in the 5th to the 8th centuries. This means no doubt that gold and silver were copiously used in its decoration. Such an altar still remains in Sant' Ambrogio at Milan, dating from the 9th century.

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This article is from the 1911 edition of an encyclopedia, which is out of copyright here in the U.S. See the encyclopedia main page for disclaimer and copyright information.

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