« Alsted, Johann Heinrich Altar Altar-bread »



I. In Primitive Religion.

Altar not Necessarily a Raised Structure (§ 1).

Altar and Divinity One (§ 2).

Altar and Divinity Differentiated (§ 3).

II. In the Old Testament.

Pre-Deuteronomic and Deuteronomic (§ 1).

Post-Deuteronomic (§ 2).

III. In the Christian Church.

1. Before the Reformation.

a. To about the year 1000.

Form and Structure (§ 1).

Accessories and Ornamentation (§ 2).

Number and Varieties of Altars (§ 3).

b. From the year 1000 to 1300.

c. From 1300 to the Reformation.

2. Since the Reformation.

Lutheran and Reformed Churches (§ 1).

Church of England (§ 2).

I. In Primitive Religion:

1. Altar not Necessarily a Raised Structure.

The word “altar,” derived ultimately from the Latin alere, “to nourish,” through altus, derived meaning “high,” 139 is usually taken to mean a raised structure; but etymology and history are against this. “Altar” is the rendering in the Old Testament of mizbeah (Aram. madhbah), “place of sacrifice,” and in the New Testament of thusiastērion, having the same meaning. The Greek word bōmos indeed means a raised structure; but the possession of two words by the Greek suggests development and differentiation. The Latin ara means the seat or resting-place, not “of the victim” (so Andrews, Latin Lexicon, s.v.), but of the deity; and on that account the word was avoided by the Fathers. The word “altar” has its ultimate root in the actual purport of the early sacrifice, viz., a meal of worshipers and worshiped. So far from the place of sacrifice being invariably a raised structure, it was sometimes a trench (e.g., in the celebrated sacrifice of Ulysses described in Odyssey, xi.), while in the famous tombs at Mycenæ there were depressions connected by small shafts with the graves, and generally explained as the places of deposit of offerings to the dead. At the present day the African places his offering of oil to the tree spirit not on an altar, but on the ground.

To understand the development of the altar it must be recalled that, as is generally conceded, religion has passed through the animistic stage. That is to say, man in his primitive state might regard any object—tree, rock, mountain, fountain, stream, sea, etc.—as the seat of divine power. His mental processes then led him to approach whatever he regarded as divinity as he approached human superiors, namely with gifts, which he applied directly to the objects of his worship, casting his offerings into fountain, stream, sea, or fire, laying them at the foot or on the top of the mountain, or smearing oil or fat, or pouring blood or wine on the divine stone. In other words, these objects were both divinity and altar.

2. Altar and Divinity One.

The best Biblical example of this primitive mode of thinking and acting is in the passage Gen. xxviii. 11-18. Jacob had pillowed his head on a stone, and there resulted his dream of the ladder. In accordance with the mental processes of his time, on awakening he conceived the cause of this dream to be the divinity in (or of) the stone—note his exclamation, “this is a Bethel” (a “place or house of God”)—and he “poured oil upon the stone.” In this he paralleled the custom of the pre-Mohammedan Arabs, as proved by W. R. Smith (Rel. of Sem., Lecture v.) and Wellhausen (Heidentum, pp. 99 sqq.). The passages referred to in these two authors demonstrate that such a stone was more than an altar; it was the visible embodiment of the presence of deity. The same might be shown in the customs of other peoples, as for example, the Samoans (cf. Turner, Samoa, London, 1884, pp. 24, 281). This anointing of sacred stones is a custom followed by the Samoyeds to this day, and was known in Russia and in the west of Ireland in the early part of the last century. The custom is entirely on a par with the superstitious practise, only recently abandoned, in remote parts of Wales and Cornwall, of putting pins and other trifles in wells and springs reputed to have healing qualities, doubtless in pagan times the seat of worship (cf. Folk-Lore, in which many examples are given). The Greek and Roman custom of pouring a libation to Neptune into the sea at the beginning of a voyage will occur to the reader as a survival from the time when the sea was a deity and not merely the domain of one.

The stone (in the Old Testament the word is often rendered “pillar,”) and cairn “or witness” (Gen. xxxi. 45-54; cf. Josh. xxiv. 26-27 with xxii. 26-27) were almost certainly such embodiments of the presence of deity (note the words, Gen. xxxi. 52, “This heap be witness and this pillar [stone] be witness,” and, in Josh., “It [this stone] hath heard”); the covenant and oath were under the protection of the deity there present (cf. Baal-berith = “Baal [protector] of the covenant,” Judges viii. 33, and El-berith = “God [protector] of the covenant,” Josh. ix. 46, R. V., and the Greek Zeus orkios = “Zeus [protector] of the oath”). In the Genesis passage the covenant-making feast, at which the clan and the deity were commensals, followed the appeal to the covenant-guarding object. And while the fact is not expressly stated, that the pillar of Jacob and Laban was anointed hardly admits of question, in view of the custom attending the holding of such a feast-sacrifice. At least in early times, then, the same object was sometimes both divinity and altar.

3. Altar and Divinity Differentiated.

The next step shows the differentiation between the two. The later Arabic term for altar is nub from the same root as the Hebrew maẓẓebah (“pillar”). It has been shown by W. R. Smith and Wellhausen in the works already cited that the anab (pl. of nub) were stones, the objects of worship, and later merely altars. This shows a development in conception. A similar unfolding took place in Hebrew practise (see II., below), where stones are shown to have been used as altars. But often among the Hebrews the stone pillar was retained, an altar was erected, and the two stood side by side (Hos. iii. 4; Isa. xix. 19). Then the pillars came to be more or less ornate (cf. the Greek Hermæ and the two pillars in Solomon’s Temple, I Kings vii. 15-22, which last are hard to explain except as a transference to the Temple of the pillars customary at shrines). That the maẓẓebah represented deity is now generally granted. The old custom of applying the sacrifice to the monolith had become outworn; it was no longer deity but only deity’s representative, and the altar was provided on which to place (or, in the case of fire-sacrifices, to consume) the offerings.

That the altars were rude at first, and that the elaborate ones of later times were the product of developed esthetic perceptions, is as clear from archeological investigations as is the development of the house and temple from the simple cave or booth dwellings, and of the elaborate ritual from the simple worship of primitive ages.

The location of altars is implicitly indicated in the foregoing. Wherever deity indicated its presence either by some such subjective manifestation 140 as a dream, or by terrestrial phenomena such as the issue of a fountain or of subterranean gases, or by such supposed interference in the sphere of human events as by a storm which changed the fortune of battle, or by aerial phenomena such as the formation of thunder-claps with resultant lightning on the crest of a mountain—thither men brought their offerings and there altars were found or placed. Naturally the tops of hills (see High Places) and groves were universally adopted; and these passed from early to late possessors of the lands as sacred places. The one test was the supposed residence or frequent attendance of deity at the spot.

II. In the Old Testament:

1. Pre-Deuteronomic and Deuteronomic.

The altars of the oldest code were of earth, and therefore simple mounds, or of unhewn stones (Ex. xx. 24). (Were the two mules’ burden of earth, II Kings v. 17, for an altar ?) Sometimes a single boulder or monolith sufficed (Josh. xxiv. 26-27; cf. xxii. 26-27; Judges vi. 20; I Sam. vi. 14, xiv. 33; I Kings i. 9). For the cairn as an altar, note Gen. xxxi. 45-54, and cf. xxviii. 18. As late as the Deuteronomic code (Deut. xxvii. 5) undressed stone is specified as the material for the altar, and the height of the altar is limited. The elaboration in form and material of the altars of Solomon (I Kings viii. 64) and of Ahaz (II Kings xvi. 10-11) are directly traceable to contact with outside culture and the development of esthetic perception and desire (see Art, Hebrew). The locations correspond closely with primitive usage and with the fact that early Hebrew worship was in large part derived from or coalesced with Canaanitic practise. “High places,” i.e., the tops of hills, were especially used, and there are several traces of tree and fountain altars, e.g., the Paneas source of the Jordan and the Fountain of Mary near Jerusalem.

2. Post-Deuteronomic.

Post-Deuteronomic means exilic or postexilic and the history of the Hebrew altar is bound up with that of the Temple. The effects of contact with advanced culture are shown in the elaborated structure and equipment, while the differentiation of the altar of burnt offering and that of incense tells the story of advancing elaboration of cult. The “table of showbread” was in form and purpose an altar.

Geo. W. Gilmore.

III. In the Christian Church:

The oldest designation of the place of celebration of the “Lord’s Supper” is “the Lord’s table” (Gk. trapeza kuriou, I Cor. x. 21). This expression or “table” alone or with an adjective (“holy, sacred, mystic table;” trapeza hiera, hagia, mystikē, etc.) is used by the Greek Fathers. The general Greek word for altar (thysiastērion) is less frequently used and bōmos is purposely avoided. The Latin writers use mensa, altare, altarium, but show repugnance to ara.

1. Before the Reformation:

a. To about the Year 1000:

1. Form and Structure.

As the oldest meeting-places of Christian worship, rooms in ordinary dwellings, differed essentially from the Jewish sanctuary in Jerusalem and from the temples of the Greeks and Romans, so also the “table of the Lord” differed from the Jewish and heathen altars; and it is significant that the absence of altars in the Christian service was especially offensive to the heathen (Minucius Felix, Octavius, 10; Origen, contra Celsum, vii. 64, viii. 17; Cyprian, Ad Demetrianum, 12). The celebration of the agape and the Eucharist required a table, and it was but natural that the first disciples of the Lord, like himself, should celebrate the sacred meal about and on a table. When the religious service was transferred from private houses to special buildings, the exclusive use of tables for the celebration of the Eucharist was still continued. The frequent notices that the persecuted sought and found a safe hiding-place beneath the altar or embraced the legs of the altar as a sign of their distress (cf. Schmid, pp. 31-32, 69-70), as well as notices in Gregory of Tours (Miraculorum libri vii., i. 28) and Paulus Silentiarius (Descriptio ecclesiæ S. Sophiæ, pp. 752 sqq.), that the altars in St. Peter’s at Rome and in St. Sophia at Constantinople were supported by columns, presuppose the table-form of the altar. The recollection of this original form has never been lost in the Church, and to this day the table-altar is the rule in the Greek Church.

When relics first began to be transferred from their original resting-places to churches, their receptacles were placed beneath the altar—seldom before or behind it, and not until the Middle Ages above it. The space was then sometimes walled up, giving the altar a coffin- or chest-like form. Such altars are found here and there as early as the fifth century, and during the Middle Ages they became usual. The terms martyrium and confessio were applied to such tombs as well as to the crypt-like space which held the coffin (arca), to the coffin itself, and to the altar. To make it possible to see and touch the holy contents an opening (fenestrella) was left in front with a lattice of metal or marble (transenna) or two doors (regiolæ). It must not be assumed that all altars of the Middle Ages were provided with relics. A canopy (ciborium), supported by pillars, was frequently found as early as the time of Constantine. The material used was wood, stone, and metal; gold, silver, and precious stones were sometimes employed.

2. Accessories and Ornamentation.

It was usual in antiquity to spread a table with a cloth in preparation for a banquet, and this custom was transferred to “the table of the Lord.” Optatus of Mileve in the second half of the fourth century is the first to mention such a covering (De schismate Donatistorum, vi. 1, 5). Thenceforth altar-cloths are more frequently mentioned. Their size can not be determined. They seem to have been generally of linen, though other materials, as silk and gold-brocade, were used. Only one such covering was used at first, later the number varied. To this period belongs the corporale (called also palla corporalis, oportorium dominici corporis, Gk. sindōn), in which the bread intended for the oblation was wrapped (Isidore of Pelusium, Epist., i. 123). Later there were two corporalia (or pallæ): one spread over the altar- 141 cloths, on which the holy vessels stood; the other used to cover the cup and the paten. In time the name corporale was restricted to the first of these, and palla was used for the second. Both were of linen. Among the most elaborate and costly of altar-appendages in the Romanesque period were the antependia or frontalia, which were used as decorations for the altar-front; the back and the sides of the altar also were often adorned in like manner. When altars of gold and silver are mentioned it is probable that in most cases metal plates in the front of the altar are meant. The oldest specimens which have been preserved date from the ninth to the twelfth centuries. They represent scenes from Bible history and the lives of saints, usually with the figure of Christ in the center. Precious stones and glass are inserted. Antependia were also made of costly cloths with gold and silver embroidery, and mosaics and reliefs were built into the sides of the altar. Crosses are represented in these decorations, and stood near altars; they were also placed above or hung below the ciborium, but in the first millennium crucifixes did not stand on the altars. In like manner lamps were hung from the ciboria or stood about the altars, but not on them.

3. Number and Varieties of Altars.

At first there was only one altar in the place of worship, symbolic of unity. In a basilica without transepts it stood at the center of the chord of the apse. The Eastern Church retained the single altar; but in the West the number increased under the influence of the custom of private masses and the veneration of relics. A church in Gaul in the time of Gregory the Great (d. 604) had thirteen; the cathedral at Magdeburg, forty-eight. After the year 1000 altars received different names according to their position and use. The main altar was called the altare majus, capitaneum, cardinale, magistrum, or principale, “high altar"; the others were altaria minora. After Alexander VI. began to grant special indulgences at certain altars the term altare privilegiatum came into use; a mass for the dead read at such an altar brought plenary indulgence. Abbey-churches had an altar dedicated to the holy cross (altare sanctæ crucis), placed between the choir and the nave, and intended for the lay brothers. Portable altars (altaria viatica, portabilia, itineraria, gestatoria, motoria) are mentioned from the seventh century; they were used by missionaries, prelates, and princes on journeys.

b. From the Year 1000 to 1800:

The increasing veneration which was paid to relics led early in this period to a desire to place holy remains on the altar—not beneath it or near it as had been done previously. In the thirteenth century, relics on the altar were a part of its regular equipment. When the entire body of a saint was removed from its original resting-place some special provision for its shrine had to be made, and this led to an extension of the altar at the rear (retabulum). Wood or stone was used, and decorations similar to those of altars were provided. In some instances such retabula took the place of the canopies; where the latter were retained they began to be made in two stories, the relic-case being put in the upper one. Many such cases have been preserved; they are made of copper, silver, gold, and ivory, and are ornamented with enamel, filigree-work, and gems. Altars were surrounded with columns connected by cross-bars from which curtains hung. Railings fencing off the altar were known to the earlier time, but were not general. They became more common with the growing distinction between clergy and laity, and as the number of the clergy increased, the size of the chancel became greater. From the thirteenth century, crosses, crucifixes, and candles appear on the altar. The position of the cross and the lights was not fixed, and the latter numbered one or two, seldom more. Other articles which belonged to the altar furniture were gospel-books, often in costly binding, flabella, little bells, and thuribles.

c. From 1800 to the Reformation:

The ciborium altar lasted through the period of Romanesque art and even defied the influence of the Gothic. In France the retabulum was retained till toward 1400, but in Germany before that time it gave way to higher structures built upon the altar. The tendency to regard such additions as mere receptacles for the relic-cases disappeared. The holy remains were again placed within the altar, or, if retained upon it, filled only a subordinate part. Wood came to be more generally used as material. Doors were provided for the shrine. Later both shrine and doors were set upon a pedestal (predella), which after 1475 became an integral part of the altar. The earlier altars of this period hold rigidly to the Gothic style, but later more freedom is apparent. Carving, sculpture, reliefs, and painting were freely used as decoration.

2. Since the Reformation:

1. Lutheran and Reformed Churches.

The Reformed Churches undertook to remove all accessories of medieval worship, including the altar, for which they substituted a simple table. The Lutheran churches, however, aiming merely to do away with that which was contrary to Scripture, opposed only the conception of the “table of the Lord” as a sacrificial altar. The secondary altars were no longer used, but were not always removed from the churches. The high altar was generally reserved for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the relic-cases with the monstrance and host being removed, and the decorations with the crucifixes and lights, and the antependia and the like being retained. The relics beneath the altar were sometimes merely covered over, not disturbed. New altars built for evangelical churches during the first half of the sixteenth century followed the general plan and structure of those already existing. In the paintings Bible scenes or events of the Reformation took the place of incidents in saints’ lives. Portraits of founders and their families were introduced. The general form and structure were made subordinate to the paintings, but in the latter half of the century the architectural features sometimes obscured the paintings. During the baroco period altars and all church furniture shared in the generally depraved taste of the time. From the middle of the seventeenth 142 century the pulpit began to be placed behind the altar, and elevated above it, and then the organ and choir were placed above the pulpit. The result was to dwarf and degrade the altar, and the tasteless pictures and other decorations of the time do not diminish the displeasing effect. The nineteenth century brought a return to the early Christian and Gothic forms. The altars of the latest time are marked by eclecticism and by a striving after novelty which often mixes discrepant elements.

(Nikolaus Müller).

2. The Church of England.

In the Church of England, after the Reformation much stress was laid by many Reformers on bringing the altar down into the body of the church and designating it as the “Holy Table,” the name which it nearly always bears in the Prayer-book. By the eighteenth century it had usually assumed the shape of a small table, frequently concealed from sight by the immense structure of pulpit and reading-desk in front of it; but with the Tractarian and Ritualist movements of the nineteenth century and the increasing frequency and reverence of the celebration of the Eucharist, it gradually resumed its former shape and dignity. In the American Episcopal Church this change was productive of bitter controversy, and about 1850 the retention of a table with legs was considered a sign of unimpeachable Protestant orthodoxy.

Bibliography: On primitive altars, besides the works mentioned in the text, consult: C. Maurer, De aris Græcorum pluribus deis in commune positis, Darmstadt, 1885; E. B. Tylor, Early Hist. of Mankind, London, 1878; idem, Hist. of Civilization, ib. 1891; J. G. Fraser, Golden Bough, 3 vols., ib.1900. On Jewish altars: P. Scholtz, Götzendienst und Zauberwesen, Regensburg, 1865; C. Piepenbring, Histoire des lieux de culte et du sacerdoce en Israel, in RHR, xxiv. (1891) 1-60, 133-186; Benzinger, Archäologie, § 52; Nowack, Archäologie, ii., §§ 73 sqq.; A. van Hoonacker, Le lieu du culte dans la législation rituelle des Hebreux, 1894; A. F. von Gall, Altisraelitische Kultstätte, in ZATW, iii. (1898). On Christian altars: J. Pocklington, Altare Christianum, London, 1637; Sven Bring, Dissertatio historica de fundatione et dotatione altarium, ib. 1751; J. Blackburne, A Brief Historical Inquiry into the Introduction of Stone Altars into the Christian Church, Cambridge, 1844; On the Hist. of Christian Altars, published by the Cambridge Camden Society, 1845; M. Meurer, Altarschmuck, Leipsic, 1867; A. Schmid, Der christliche Altar und sein Schmuck, Ratisbon, 1871; Charles Rohault de Fleury, La Messe, études archéologiques sur ses monuments, 8 vols., Paris, 1883-89 (the most comprehensive collection of the material, with illustrations, to the close of the Romanesque period); E. U. A. Münzenberger and S. Beisel, Zur Kenntniss und Würdigung der mittelalterlichen Altäre Deutschlands, 2 vols., Frankfort, 1885-1901; V. Statz, Gothische Altäre, Berlin, 1886; A. Hartel, Altäre und Kansler des Mittelalters und der Neuzeit, Berlin, 1892; N. Müller, Ueber das deutsch-evangelische Kirchengebäude im Jahrhundert der Reformation, Leipsic, 1895; H. D. M. Spence, White Robe of Churches, pp. 210-243, New York, 1900; E. Bishop, History of the Christian Altar, London, 1906. Consult also works on Christian archeology and Christian art, especially Christian architecture.

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