In this overview and the one that will follow I have combined the history of altars (also called holy tables), ciboria and tabernacles because their respective developments are somewhat related. In this first section I will deal with Holy Tables and will focus on ciboria and tabernacles in the second installment. My interest in these has grown over the years as I have worked on various liturgical furnishings: icon screens, altars, reliquaries, tabernacles, as well as icons and wall paintings. In preparing designs it has struck me that so often we accept current Orthodox liturgical art as though it has always been so, and forget that over the two millennia there has been considerable variety. When designing new churches or refurbishing existing ones we need to be aware of all the options that tradition offers us from the past two thousand years.
There have of course been altars from the early times of the Church, but here I want to concentrate on altars with a reliquary visible from the front, such as we see in the fifth to eighth century examples found in Ravenna. In the West this front area of the altar is sometimes called the predella.
A ciborium is a form of canopy over the Holy Table, very common from the fourth to eleventh centuries, both in the East and the West, and from early times considered as virtually part of the altar.
A tabernacle is a container for the reserved sacrament, which for quite a time was, as we discuss below, in the form of a dove suspended from the ciborium.
It is my hope that this article will encourage Orthodox communities to use some of these ancient prototypes for inspiration when furnishing their churches. Because of Ravenna’s historical role as a meeting point of the pre-schism West and East , the altars of Ravenna as well as its famous mosaics can offer a particularly rich source of inspiration for contemporary Orthodox churches in the West.
This article was prompted by a commission for an altar that I received from the Roman Catholic chaplaincy to Cambridge University (1, 2, 2a). Though based on fifteen hundred year old holy tables found in Ravenna, the congregation say that their new altar harmonises perfectly with the chapel’s modern and minimalist interior.
Holy Tables with predella reliquaries
My interest in altars with reliquaries was seeded by the realization that the enigmatic shape painted on the front of the table in Andrei Rubliof’s “Trinity” icon (3) is in fact a reliquary cavity. It is a simplified version of predella reliquaries. Many examples are extant, particularly in Ravenna and environs (4, 5). These usually had metal doors or grilles of wrought iron, although most surviving examples are left only with the cavity, the brass doors long since plundered. How did this altar-with-reliquary form of holy table develop?
From wood to stone altars
The very first Christian altars were wooden tables, like those used in ordinary meals. They could be semi-circular, square or rectangular. The earliest depictions of “the breaking of the bread”, fractio panis, can be seen in the early second century Capella Greca in the catacomb of St. Priscilla, Rome (6). The people are seated around a curved and draped dining table. Another second century fresco of a meal, found in the catacomb of Callixtus, is also understood to be of the Eucharist. This one shows a three legged wooden table (7). There are also numerous literary references to ancient wooden altars, such as when St Athanasius (c.296-373) writes of a wooden altar burnt by Count Heraclius.1 A wooden altar said to have been in continuous use since the fourth century is enclosed within the stone high altar of St John Lateran, Rome. Another of similar antiquity is found within the altar in St Pudenziana, Rome.
By the fourth century stone altars increasingly replace wood. In his De Christi Baptismate St Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-c.395) speaks of the stone of which the altar is made being hallowed by consecration. And St John Chrysostom (c. 349-407) said that stone rather than wood is the most suitable material for altars (Homily on 2 Corinthians, XX). The oldest council stipulating stone over wood is the French Synod of Epao in 517, although being from a local and not universal council this canon was not considered binding for all. Wood has continued until today as an acceptable material for altars, both in the West and the East.
The tops of primitive stone altars, called the mensa, could be rectangular, square or semi circular (8), and were often carved with a lip around the edge.There are two ancient Byzantine mensa, semi-circular in shape, now imbedded as decoration in the exterior of St Marks in Venice. One is of Thessaly green marble and is on the wall of the north western transept (9), and the other of a red veined marble is found on the southern facade.
Stone mensa were supported initially by columns, either one (10), four (11) or five (12) in number. Sometimes single pedestal altars used a column section taken from a pagan temple. This is the case in the Portaitissa chapel at Iviron monastery, Mt Athos.
The tendency to use stone rather than wood is in part the preference for a more durable material, but increasingly because Christians began to see the altar as also symbolic of a tomb. The incorporation of a reliquary into the altar is a natural consequence of this. So instead of the top being supported primarily by legs or columns, we increasingly find it atop a cuboid reliquary. Sometimes there are still columns in the corners (13), sometimes not (14). In the latter case the columns are often integrated into the predella in the form of decorative relief carvings (15) .
Relics and altars
Today, an integral part of an altar’s consecration in the Orthodox Church’s tradition involves the Bishop fixing relics into the altar top. And the antimension cloth(16), which a priest must use for every Holy Liturgy, also has an imbedded relic. How then did relics come to be so closely associated with altars?
The early Christians worshipped in synagogues, but very soon had to recourse to gathering in private homes. Gradually purpose-built churches were constructed, even before the legalisation of Christianity in 312. From the beginning it was common practice to build these churches, where possible, either over the site of pre-existing house churches (St Clements in Rome being a famous example) or over the burial place of a martyr, called the confessio. The 83rd canon of the Council of Carthage, AD 419 witnesses to these altars when it decrees: “Altars which have been set up here and there, in fields and by the wayside as Memories of Martyrs, in which no body nor relics of martyrs can be proved to have been laid up, should be overturned by the bishops who rule over such places, if such a thing can be done.”
From around the fourth century it was customary in Rome and in places following Roman custom to raise the sanctuary floor over the martyr’s tomb and build the altar directly above the confessio. A vertical grating (fenestella confessionis) was often placed in front of the tomb, facing the nave, so that the faithful could view the sarcophagus of the saint and at the same time make connection between the sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the martyrs. Though an early 13th century reconstruction, an extant example of this can be found at San Giorgio Velabro in Rome, probably built by the Greek Pope Leo II (782-783). (17). The ciborium over the altar dates to the 12th or 13th century. Another version with a much higher altar floor level (probably raised to this height in the tenth century) is found in San Pietro in Trent near Ravenna (18).
St Peters itself has another version of this system of an altar raised above the confessio (19). Because the altar is some distance above the original tombs of St Peter and St Paul a long shaft was made from the altar to the tombs. Grills (cataractae) were placed over the shafts so that a cloth (called a brandeum) could be placed there for a while, and subsequently honoured as a secondary relic.
Another version of this system developed which is the direct precursor of the predella reliquary altars. In these the actual tomb becomes the support for the altar top, and a fenestella is made in front of the altar. A fifth century example of this system was found in the ruins of the basilica of Saint Alexander (S. Alessandro) on the via Nomentano, seven miles outside Rome (20). The mensa is of porphyry and the rest of marble. It is believed that the square hole in the centre functioned as the fenestella.
This custom of building altars and celebrating the Liturgy over the burial place of martyrs was probably inspired by the belief that martyrdom is a sharing in Christ’s sufferings. As St Paul wrote: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24).
At first the church was built where the martyr’s relics lay. There was a strong sentiment against moving the bodies of the martyrs from their final resting place, as can be seen in a letter by Gregory the Great to the empress Constantia. But, beginning in the fourth century, Christians began to move the relics to where the church was built. The practice seems to have gained currency in the East largely with the development of Constantinople as the new Christian capital of the Roman Empire. Emperor Constantine needed relics for his new capital. Constantinople had to at least match the old capital Rome in its wealth of churches and relics, but, unlike Rome, it had no local martyrs. The only solution was to move martyrs’ relics to it.
The practice of translating relics was much slower to develop in the West, in large part perhaps because Rome was amply supplied with martyrs and therefore did not need to do any translating. In Rome relic translation began only in the fifth century, in large part motivated by the need to protect relics from the invading barbarian tribes.
At first whole bodies were removed to the altar. An early record of such a translation is that of St Babylas to Daphne, a suburb of Antioch, in 354. The earliest mention of the division of relics comes from Theodoretus writing in the fifth century, who, defending the practice, asserts that “grace remains in every part”. By the time of the Second Council of Nicaea (787) the actual division of relics had become common practice, for this council stipulates that every altar must contain a relic.
The altar as image of Christ
For early Christians the altar is itself an image of Christ. Writing in 110, St Ignatius of Antioch refers to Christ as the celestial altar: “All are directed to the one Jesus Christ who proceeded from the Father, who was one with Him . . . To Him must all go as to the one temple and one altar.”
The Apostle John, writing around 90 AD and probably referring to current liturgical practice, says that in his vision he “saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” (Rev. 6:9). The presence of actual relics of saints within the altar can be seen as an extension of this, for the martyrs are a form of sacramental continuation of Christ’s crucified and resurrected body, only the martyr’s bodies await the resurrection on the last day. The linking of martyr’s relics with the altar is therefore an embodiment of the eschatological life of the Church. Relics link the suffering Church of the present with the Church to be resurrected at Christ’s Second Coming .
This explains why many early Christian altars bear five crosses. These crosses carved on the mensa of the altar represent the five wounds of Christ, and its anointing with sacred chrism at the consecration represent Christ’s unction as High Priest at the Incarnation. These practices come down to us from at least the time of St. Gregory the Great. We see for example five crosses carved into the portable wooden altar placed within St Cuthbert of LIndisfarne’s tomb in 687 AD (21).
The association of the altar with Christ explains why the early Church, East and West, was quite strict about not having anything on the mensa except the Gospels and the sacred vessels for the Eucharist – no candlesticks, relics, tabernacles, crosses or anything else. The desire to keep the mensa clear on the one hand, and yet for the altar to have relics on the other, is one important motivation for the development of predella reliquaries below the mensa.
The practice of keeping the mensa uncluttered began to change in the West around the 9th century, when we read a Synodal Admonition attributed to Pope Leo IV (847-855): “Let nothing be placed upon the altar except the chests and relics, or perhaps the Gospels and a pyx, with the body of the Lord for the viaticum of the sick.” This loosening of earlier practice is doubtless a major factor leading to the demise of predella reliquaries.
Current Orthodox practice
Current Orthodox practice is for a small relic to be imbedded in a recess in the mensa using wax and resin during the altar’s consecration service, then made flush with the table surface . However, it is the consecrated cloth called an antimension (Greek for ‘instead of the table’) which is required for the celebration of the Liturgy rather than a consecrated altar table as such. The Liturgy can be celebrated anywhere as long as the priest has this antimension. It bears the image of the Lord being laid in the tomb and the signature of the bishop as well as a relic. Originally, antimensia simply bore an image of the cross and the signature of the Bishop and date (22).
The practice of an antimension as a portable cloth altar was extant at least by 809, when it is referred to it in a letter by Naukratios to his spiritual father, St. Theodore the Studite: “If… the orthodox priest possesses a consecrated altar in the form of a wooden plank or a cloth….” (St. Theodore the Studite, Letters, P.G. 99 : 1056).2 A western example of a portable plank altar is the one placed in St Cuthbert’s tomb already mentioned. Besides the five crosses it also has carved the words IN HONOREM S PETRU, (In Honour of St Peter)3.
The revival of reliquary altars today
Because the relics both within the mensa and within the antimension are now all but hidden from the layman’s view, the association of relics with altars is in danger of being lost. This is a powerful argument for predella reliquaries to be considered as an option when creating new altars today. The altar with reliquary, such as we see in Ravenna and which was made for Fisher House, lies between these two poles of the ancient custom of churches built over the burial place of martyrs and the later custom of imbedding very small relics in the mensa. The relics – or at least the door behind which the relics lie – are always visible to the congregation. This helps the worshipping faithful remember that the witness of martyr’s deaths and their own daily lives (martyr is Greek for witness) are a participation on the Lord’s death and resurrection.
Even if a reliquary is not created in the front of the altar, reliquary predellae offer a wealth inspiration for designs to carve in relief on the front of holy tables. This one illustrated I carved for my parish church in Shrewsbury, UK. (23). There are numerous predellae available for design ideas that have survived, even though now separated from their altars (24).
It is significant for our discussion about furnishings for Orthodox churches in the West that most of the extant reliquary altars are found in Ravenna4. In its heyday Ravenna’s churches were the fruit of a union of Byzantine and Western liturgical art. Situated near the north eastern coast of Italy, Ravenna was the capital of the Western Roman Empire from 402 until the latter disintegrated in 476. Ravenna then became the capital for the Arian Ostrogoths until 540, when it was reconquered under the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. From 540 it was the centre of the Byzantine governor of Italy, the Exarchate, until 751 when it fell to the Franks. Most of the ancient churches were built either in the reign of the Ostrogoth Theodoric between 493 and 526 (Sant’Apollinare in Nuovo, the Arian Baptistery, the Orthodox Baptistery of Neon, the Archiepiscopal Chapel), or under the Byzantine Emperors between 540 and 600 (the basilicas of San Vitale and Sant’Apollinare in Classe, when also Arian elements of the Ostrogoth mosaics in Sant’Apollinare in Nuovo were expunged and made orthodox).
1 Athanasius, Ad. Mon., lvi.
2 For a history of the antimension see “The Antimension in the Liturgical and Canonical Tradition of the Byzantine and Latin Churches”, by Archimandrite Justinian Januarius, available at https://archive.org/stream/antimensioninlit00izzo/antimensioninlit00izzo_djvu.txt
3 See “The Pectoral cross and Portable Altar from the Tomb of St Cuthbert”, by Elizabeth Coatsworth in St. Cuthbert, His Cult and His Community to AD 1200,
edited by Gerald Bonner, David Rollason, Clare Stancliffep, (Boydell Press, 2002), page 297.
4 For A thorough survey see Gli Altari Nella Scultura e nei Mosaici di Ravenna (V-VIII Secolo), Letizia Sotira (Ante Quem, Bologna, 2013).