(This article continuation of my last post: Holy Tables with Reliquaries: A Short History )
A ciborium is a form of canopy supported by columns over the holy table (25). It is sometimes also called a baldachin, but strictly speaking this latter term should be limited to cloth canopies. Ciboria came to be common, at least for large churches, from the fourth century onwards. They traditionally had curtains that could be drawn on all four sides (26). Ciboria serve to draw attention to the altar and lend it gravitas as well as help protect the gifts from falling debris and dust.
Antecedents and Symbolism of the ciborium
Canopies have been used in many cultures to cover rulers for both symbolic and practical reasons. Those over Roman emperors were called aediculae, and continued in use through Byzantine times. Rather grand stone versions called tetraphylon were used, particularly in the eastern provinces, over the intersection of two streets. Smaller versions were sometimes also to memorialise the tomb of a notable (27). An early example of a Christian tetraphylon is that over the tomb of St John the Evangelist at Ephesus, which Richard Krautheimer dates perhaps to as early as 300 AD.5
The arch behind Theodosios I depicted in the Missorium of Theodosios – a silver plate made in 388 – is understood to represent an aedicula (28). The term aedicula seems to have stuck when referring to the ciborium over the Holy Sepulchre, but otherwise the term ciborium is that used most commonly for a covering over the altar.
Patriarch Germanos I of Constantinople (c.634-73), in his work On the Divine Liturgy writes that the ciborium symbolises the place of the Lord’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection, and also the arc of the covenant, the dwelling place of the Lord.
Early examples and their various forms
Judging by manuscripts and icons and the few extant ancient examples, the most common forms of the ciborium roof were domical (29), pyramidal (30) and octagonal (31a).
Ciborium were initially erected over the graves of martyrs, and from thence it was natural to have them over altars which, as we have seen above, were often built over the tombs of martyrs or themselves contained relics.
An unusual and once famous example of a tomb ciborium is that which once existed in the basilica of St Demetrios, Thessaloniki. This hexagonal ciborium was originally of marble. It is depicted behind St Demetrios in the extant fifth century mosaic of the saint seen in the south west of the church (31b), and so the actual ciborium predates the mosaic. It sat a little to the north west side of the church in the nave. Probably in the time of Justinian this was replaced with a silver clad structure with an hexagonal pyramidal roof, with doors, and a couch within. For quite a time it was the focus of pilgrimage to the basilica since the Thessalonian hierarchy pleaded ignorance as to the whereabouts of the saint’s relics in order to prevent the Byzantine emperors removing them to Constantinople.6 In the virtual absence of relics the ciborium became a symbolic house of the saint, a focus of veneration.
The practice of placing ciboria over altars begins in the fourth century. The earliest example mentioned in texts is a silver ciborium (probably of wood cased in silver) for St John Lateran in Rome, donated by the Emperor Constantine. He also donated another over the tomb of St Peter, circa 324.7 The Holy Sepulchre ciborium in Jerusalem is of similar antiquity, again donated by Constantine. The form of this ciborium in Jerusalem can be reconstructed from three sources: fifth century ampullae now found in Bobbio and Monza (ampullae are small containers for holy water or oil) (32); a fifth century stone model now in Narbonne, France; written descriptions, such as that by the pilgrim Egeria 381-384 AD(33).8
Probably the oldest fully intact ciborium is that found to the left of the sanctuary in Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna (34, 35). It dates to around 806-810. The Royal Ontario Museum possesses a Byzantine ciborium top, but without the original columns, dated to 550. (36).
Agia Sophia sported one in silver plate with gold additions, commissioned by Justinian c. 537. Paulus Silentarius (d. 575-580 AD), poet and palace official to Justinian describes the roof as having eight panels, which I take to mean that it was either an eight sided pyramid or perhaps hemispherical with eight moulded panels.
Most extant medieval ciboria are from basilicas or other large churches. It is not known if smaller churches had them or not. Perhaps that ilustrated below (37) belonged to a small church. Dated to the 8th or 9th century , it is unusual for its small size, which suggests that it was placed not on the ground but directly on the altar. The museum catalogue gives the region of Rome as its provenance, but in my view the style of its carving is more Spanish than Italian.
We know that ciboria usually had veils on all four sides. For example we read that Pope John VI (701-705) gave a set of veils (tetravela, a Greek term meaning four veils) to St Paul Outside the Walls. It is not known for certain at what points in the liturgy these were drawn. St John Chrysostom talks in his Third Homily on Ephesians about curtains being withdrawn at the time of Eucharistic consecration. The mosaics between the apsidal windows in Apollinare in Classe show bishops inside what appears to be a domical ciborium, with curtains drawn and a crown hanging above (38), and illuminations sometimes show ciboria with curtains (see image 26 for example).
Few medieval ciboria have remained intact in the Eastern Orthodox world. One example is found in the ancient church of Ekatontapyliani on Paros, Greece (39). It is supported on four columns and Corinthian capitals dating from the classical era. The ciborium was described first hand by Simon Metaphrastis in the beginning of the tenth century, who had visited Paros when accompanying admiral Himerio on his campaign against the Saracens of Crete. “As soon as we saw the canopy on top of the Holy Table we were surprised by its beauty because it didn’t seem to be carved of marble nor did it seem chiselled by iron tools or by human hands, but it seemed to be moulded, to be like curdled milk”.
From around the tenth century, except in Italy and the Orient, ciboria were only rarely employed. The lessening popularity of ciboria in Byzantine churches may well be related to the development of icon screens. Before this period the chancel partitions took the form of low walls (40), and later, columns with architraves (41, 42). These screens or templa did not bear icons. But from around the tenth century we begin to see icons placed atop the architrave (43), and later, between the columns (44). Such icon screens, especially the higher ones seen in Russia from the beginning of the fifteenth century, and the curtains and Royal Doors placed across the central opening, effectively made the ciborium redundant. We can assume that in western Europe the development of the rood and palpitum screens had the same effect of ousting ciboria.
Potential for their revival today
In many quarters of the Orthodox world there is a trend towards simpler and more transparent templa, with fewer icons. This runs parallel with a shift in emphasis from panel icons towards wall paintings. It is particularly in these situations that a ciborium can be considered. It saves the sanctuary area from becoming too plain and adds visual emphasis to the holy table.
Care should be taken not to make ciboria so high or massive that they obscure any iconography in the apse. See for example image 45, where the oversized ciborium added in 1294 obstructs the view of the frescoed apse. There was also little attempt to harmonise its style with that of the existing architecture and furnishings.
Though perhaps still a bit oversized, a more successful ciborium is that added in 1227 to the remarkable Euphrasian basilica in Porec, Croatia (46). This cathedral apse has splendid 6th century Byzantine mosaics in near pristine condition. In 1227 Bishop Otto had the original 6th century ciborium replaced with the current one. The original columns were reused, but the roof structure was made anew, probably somewhat more massively than the original which would have been somewhat like the one built in the same century in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria (47). To some extent this increase in bulk is mitigated by the use of mosaics on the ciborium itself (48), which makes it merge with the apsidal mosaics behind, and the use of a flat roof to allow a clear view of the apse. And the lower apsidal mosaics sited between the windows remain largely visible through the ciborium arches.
Each ciborium must be scaled to suit its church. Due proportion, choice of good materials, and if ornamentation is desired, controlled use of low relief carving is sufficient for their beauty. Superfluous ornamentation should I think be avoided. A contemporary example of a ciborium is that designed by Archimandrite Zenon (Teon) for the crypt church of the Feodorovsky Cathedral in Petersburg (49). Ciboria also have the advantage of allowing the revival of the dove artophoria discussed below, as these are usually suspended from ciboria over the holy table.
A tabernacle is a receptacle for storing the reserved sacrament, or more accurately, it the outer housing within which the sacraments are stored in a smaller pyx of precious metal. In modern times this pyx is often called a ciborium. In current Orthodox practice the tabernacle, also called an ortophorion, is sited on the altar table at all times, and is often in the form of a miniature church building (50, 51).
Over the past years I have been commissioned to make three tabernacles. Two are in the form of a miniature church for placement on the holy table (52, 53). One of these is in the form of a Russian church since it was commissioned by a Russian monastery, and the second is Romanesque, for a chapel in Britain. The third tabernacle a larger structure (820 x 444 mm/32 x 17 inches) and was designed to be attached to the wall behind the holy table (54). This work depicts the Annunciation on the doors in the manner of royal doors on icon screens. The association of the Annunciation with the holy gifts is intended to associate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Mary with His descent upon the gifts and the congregation at the epiclesis.
What is the tabernacle’s history, and what forms have they taken over the past two millennia?
During the first three centuries after Christ it was not safe for the sacraments to be reserved in churches on account of the persecutions . But it was customary in many cases for the faithful, after receiving communion at the Liturgy, to be given consecrated bread to take home for self communion during the week, or for the purpose of receiving before the time of death. St Basil the Great (c.329-379) writes: “In Alexandria too, and in Egypt, each one of the laity, for the most part, keeps the communion at home, and whenever he wishes partakes of it himself.”9
A deacon or other ordained person, perhaps even a church server, would take the gifts to the sick or those unable to attend. The martyrdom of St Tarsisius in the third century (recorded by Pope Damascus 366-384) occurred when he was on the road to take the holy gifts to imprisoned Christians. St Ambrose of Milan (339-397) mentions that Christian sailors and passengers in danger of death at sea “have with them the divine sacrament of the faithful.” In all such cases the sacraments were kept safely in some form of box, which was the earliest form of tabernacle or pyx.
But after persecution ceased under with the Edict of Milan (313 AD) this custom soon stopped. In its place the tradition developed of reserving the sacrament permanently in the churches, at first primarily to administer to the sick and later so that the faithful could be given communion at the Liturgy of the Presanctiifed during weekdays of Great Lent when the Holy Liturgy was not celebrated.
The means used to store the sacrament varied with time and place. The main options were: in a chamber in the sacristy, called in the West the secretarium; in a niche in the wall (ambry), which was the common Roman Catholic common practice until the Tridentine reforms (1545-1563); in a room separate from the nave or sanctuary, variously called diaconium, sacrarium, pastophorium, and vestiarium; in the altar, in the safe-like predella reliquaries described above. This last method is mentioned in “Admonitio synodalis” of the ninth century by Regino of Prum (d. 915). Wherever the gifts were kept, it was expected that their pyx container be of silver or gold. This was not just to honour the gifts, but had the practical reason of avoiding any contamination due to corrosion or wood worm.
From the time of Emperor Constantine a common form of tabernacle, both East and West, was a dove (called in the West columbae), which was hung over the altar from the ciborium canopy (55). It was high enough not to be stolen easily, and could be lowered with a pulley system. In some cases this rope was attached to the church bells so that people were alerted if someone tried to steal the columba. It was ideally of silver or gold, though in Romanesque times we see brass enamelled versions, since the Host itself was still contained within a pyx of silver or gold stored within the dove (56,57, 58,). See illustration 59 for a contemporary example.
The dove form of tabernacle may have stemmed from the early practice of storing the consecrated chrism in a dove suspended above the font. One of the charges brought against the Monophysite patriarch of Antioch Severus by the clergy of Antioch at the Council of Constantinople in 536 was that he removed and took for his own use the golden and silver doves that were suspended over the altars and the baptismal fonts. The association of the dove with the Eucharist is also natural on account of the epiclesis, when we call down the Holy Spirit “upon us and upon these Your gifts”.
In Rome and in some other parts of the West it was customary to contain the dove within a tower (called a turres). In the Liber Pontificalis we find from the fourth century onwards that mentions of gifts of doves are never without a parallel gift of a tower. We know that Emperor Constantine gave a tower and dove of gold to St Peters in Rome, and some Popes later did the same. It is debated where these towers were kept. Some scholars say they were kept in the sacristy, others claim they were placed on the altar from an early time. This latter is debatable in the light of early prohibitions against having anything on the mensa apart from the holy vessels and the Gospels.
The dove and tower practice continued in the West until around the sixteenth century, when it became the custom to have a tabernacle on the altar (the Orthodox current practice). In Britain the adoption of such fixed and lockable tabernacles seems to have been introduced because of increasing accounts of the desecration and theft of the gold and silver columbae, such as by King Henry II of England’s eldest son, Prince Henry.
It was not until the Counter Reformation (c. 1545-1648) and particularly the Council of Trent’s reforms that the reserved sacrament became a focus of devotion among western Christians, a reaction to the Protestant rejection of the real presence. Hitherto the sacrament had been reserved solely to give to the sick or for communion when there was no Liturgy, and not as a focus of devotion.
Some thoughts on contemporary Orthodox tabernacles
It would be good to explore the merits of reviving the dove tradition. It has the advantage of leaving the mensa more clear, which in turn restores the emphasis to the holy table’s primary role as altar for the Eucharistic sacrifice. The high visibility of the dove would also serve to underline the role of the Holy Spirit in the Liturgy.
A revival of dove artophoria would need to go hand in hand with the revival of the ciborium from which they are usually hung. A pulley system would be used to lower the dove, and the gifts themselves would be contained within a pyx inside the dove to permit ease of use.
5 Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, Richard Krautheimer, revised with Slobodan Curcic, (New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 1986), p. 36.
6 For details see “Pilgrimage to Thessalonike: The Tomb of St. Demetrios”, by
Charalambos Bakirtzis , in Dumbarton Oaks Papers, No. 56 , Editor: Alice-Mary Talbot , Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., 2002.
7 Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, Richard Krautheimer, revised with Slobodan Curcic, (New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 1986), p. 36.
8 Egeria’s Travels, John Wilkinson (SPCK, 1971), page 174
9 St Basil, Letter 93, translated by W.H. Freestone, The Sacrament Reserved (Alcuin Club Collections, Vol. XXI; London: A.R. Mowbray and Co, 1917), p. 41.