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§ 105. Interior Arrangement of Churches.


The interior arrangement of the Christian churches in part imitated the temple at Jerusalem, in part proceeded directly, from the Christian spirit. It exhibits, therefore, like the whole catholic system, a mixture of Judaism and Christianity. At the bottom of it lay the ideas of the priesthood and of sacrifice, and of fellowship with God administered thereby.

Accordingly, in every large church after Constantine there were three main divisions, which answered, on the one hand, to the divisions of Solomon’s temple, on the other, to the three classes of attendants, the catechumens, the faithful, and the priests, or the three stages of approach to God. The evangelical idea of immediate access of the whole believing congregation to the throne of grace, does not yet appear. The priesthood everywhere comes between.

1. The portico: In this again must be distinguished:

(a) The inner portico, a covered hall which belonged to the church itself, and was called πρόναος, or commonly, from its long, narrow shape,νάρθηξ, ferula, i.e., literally, staff, rod.11411141   Sometimes the narthex again was divided into two rooms, the upper place for the kneelers (locus substratorum), i.e., catechumens who might participate, kneeling, in the prayers after the sermon (hence genuflectentes, γονυκλίνοντεςand the lower place, bordering on the outer portico, for mere hearers, Jews, and pagans (locus audientium). The name paradise also occurs, because on one side of the wall of the portico Adam and Eve in paradise were frequently painted,—probably to signify that the fallen posterity of Adam find again their lost paradise in the church of Christ. The inner court was the place for all the unbaptized, for catechumens, pagans, and Jews, and for members of the church condemned to light penance, who might hear the preaching and the reading of the Scriptures, but must withdraw before the administration of the Holy Supper.

(b) The outer portico, αὐλή, atrium, also locus lugentium or hiemantium, which was open, and not in any way enclosed within the sacred walls, hence not a part of the house of God properly so called. Here those under heavy penance, the “weepers”11421142   Flentes, hiemantes. as they were called, must tarry, exposed to all weather, and apply with tears to those entering for their Christian intercessions.

In this outer portico, or atrium, stood the laver,11431143   Κρήνη, cantharus, phiala. in which, after the primitive Jewish and heathen custom, maintained to this day in the Roman church, the worshipper, in token of inward purification, must wash every time he entered the church.11441144   In Num. xix. 2 ff.; xxxi. 19 ff. (comp. Heb. ix. 13) the sprinkling-water, or “water of separation” (i.e., water of purification, LXX.: ὕδωρ ῤαντισμοῦ), already appears, prepared from the ashes of the burned red heifer and water, and used for the cleansing of those made unclean by contact with a corpse. The later Jews were very strict in this; no one could appear in the temple or synagogue, or perform any act of worship, prayer, or sacrifice, without being washed, 1 Sam. xvi. 6; 2 Chron. xxx. 17. Therefore synagogues were built by preference in the neighborhood of streams. The Pharisees were very paltry and pedantic in the matter of these washings; comp. Matt. xv. 2; Mark vii. 3; Luke xi. 38. The same custom of symbolical purification before worship we find among the ancient Egyptians, Persians, Brahmans (who ascribed to the water of the Ganges saving virtue), Greeks, and Romans, and among the Mohammedans. At the entrance of every Turkish mosque stands a large font for this purpose.

After about the ninth century, when churches were no longer built with spacious porticoes, this laver was transferred to the church itself, and fixed at the doors in the form of a holywater basin, supposed to be an imitation of the brazen sea in the priest’s court of Solomon’s temple.11451145   1 Kings vii. 23-26; 2 Chron. iv. 2-5. This symbolical usage could easily gather upon itself superstitious notions of the magical virtue of the holy water. Even in the pseudo-Apostolic Constitutions the consecrated water is called “a means of warding off diseases, frightening away evil spirits, a medicine for body and soul, and for purification from sins;” and though these expressions related primarily to the sacramental water of baptism as the bath of regeneration, yet they were easily applied by the people to consecrated water in general. In the Roman Catholic church the consecration of the water11461146   Benedictio fontis. is performed on Easter Sunday evening; in the Greco-Russian church, three times in the year.

2. The temple proper,11471147   Ναός. the holy place,11481148   Ἱερόν.. or the nave of the church,11491149   Ναῦς, navis ecclesiae. Many derive this expression from a confusion of the Greek ναόςwith ναῦς and navis. Not till the ninth and tenth centuries is navis used in this way. The more exact equivalent in English would be long-room, or hall. as it were the ark of the new covenant. This part extended from the doors of entrance to the steps of the altar, had sometimes two or four side-naves, according to the size of the church, and was designed for the body of the laity, the faithful and baptized. The men sat on the right towards the south (in the men’s nave), the women on the left towards the north (in the women’s nave), or, in Eastern countries, where the sexes were more strictly separated, in the galleries above.11501150   Called ἐπερῶα, the elevated galleries on the side walls. Besides this the women’s places were protected by wooden lattices from all curious or lascivious glances of the men. Chrysostomsays, Homil. 74 in Matth.: “Formerly these lattices certainly did not exist; for in Christ there is neither male nor female (Gal. iii. 28), and in the time of the apostles men and women were together with one accord. But then men were still men, and women were women; now women have sunk to the level of prostitutes, and men are like horses in rutting.” A sad commentary on the moral and religious condition of that time! The monks and nuns, and the higher civil officers, especially the emperors with their families, usually had special seats of honor in semicircular niches on both sides of the altar.

About the middle of the main nave was the pulpit or the ambo,11511151   Ἄμβων from ἀναβαίνω, pulpitum, suggestus. Hence the English pulpit, while the corresponding German Kanzelis derived from cancelli. or subsequently two desks, at the left the Gospel-desk, at the right the Epistle-desk, where the lector or deacon read the Scripture lessons. The sermon was not always delivered from the pulpit, but more frequently either from the steps of the altar (hence the phrase: “speaking from the rails”), or from the seat of the bishop behind the altar-table.11521152   Βῆμα, exedra.

Between the reading-desks and the altar was the odeum,11531153   Ὠδεῖον.Subsequently the singers were usually placed in the galleries of upper-church. the place for the singers, and at the right and left the seats for the lower clergy (anagnosts or readers, exorcists, acolytes). This part of the nave lay somewhat higher than the floor of the church, though not so high as the altar-choir, and hence was also called the lower choir, and the gradual, because steps (gradus) led up to it. In the Eastern church the choir and nave are scarcely separated, and they form together the ναός, or temple hall; in the Western the choir and the sanctuary are put together under the name cancelli or chancel.

3. The most holy place,11541154   Τὰ ἅγια τῶν ἁγίων, τὰ ἄδυτα, ἱερατεῖον,, sacrarium, sanctuarium. or the choir proper;11551155   Χορός, βῆμα, (ascensus). called also in distinction from the lower choir, the high choir,11561156   Hence the terms high mass, high altar. for the priests, and for the offering of the sacrifice of the Eucharist. No layman, excepting the emperor (in the east), might enter it. It was semi-circular or conchoidal11571157   Hence called also κόγχη, shell. in form, and was situated at the eastern end of the church, opposite the entrance doors, because the light, to which Christians should turn themselves, comes from the east.11581158   Thus so early as this was the line of east and west established as the sacred (or church-building) line. Yet there were exceptions. Socrates, H. E. v. 22, notes it as peculiar in the church of Antioch, that the altar here stood not in the eastern end, but in the western (οὐ γὰρ πρὸς ἀνατολὰς τὸ θυσιαστήριον, ἀλλὰ πρὸς δύσιν ὁρᾷ). It was separated from the other part of the church by rails or a lattice,11591159   Ἀμφίθυρα, κιγκλίδες,cancelli, whence the name chancel. and by a curtain, or by sacred doors called in the Greek church the picture-wall, iconostas, on account of the sacred paintings on it.11601160   Eusebius mentions, in his description of the church of the bishop Paulinus in Tyre, H. E. x. 4, an elegantly wrought lattice, and Athanasius mentions the curtains. Indeed, the pictures placed upon these curtains date back even to the fourth century, since Epiphanius, Ep. ad Joann. Hierosolymit., inveighed against a painted curtain in a village of Palestine. The lattice has perpetuated itself to this day in the picture wall or iconostas (εἰκονόστασις) in the Russo-Greek church. It bears, on the right the picture of Christ, and on the left that of the Virgin Mary, and is pierced with three doors; the middle one, called the Emperor’s gate (dweri Zarskija), because only the emperor, besides the chief priest, may pass through it to take the holy Supper, is decorated and distinguished with the utmost splendor; oftentimes a golden sun with a thousand rays appears, which suddenly separates during the worship, and discloses the altar; or a Mount Zion with innumerable temples and battlements; or a network of golden garlands of flowers and fruits, among which especially clusters of grapes, probably with reference to the sacramental wine, frequently occur. While in the Eastern churches this screen is still used, it in time gave place in the West to a low balustrade.

In the middle of the sanctuary stood the altar,11611161   Altare, mensa sacra, θυσιαστήριον, ἁγία τράπεζαThe altar-cloth, palla, pallia, covers the whole upper face of the altar. This must not be confounded with the corporale (εἴλητον,from εἰλέω, involvo), i.e., a white linen cloth, with which the oblations prepared upon the altar are covered. generally a table, or sometimes a chest with a lid; at first of wood, then, after the beginning of the sixth century, of stone or marble, or even of silver and gold, with a wall behind it, and an overshadowing, dome-shaped canopy,11621162   Πυργος, tower; κιβώριον(of doubtful origin), ciborium, umbraculum. Subsequently the ciborium gave place to the steeple-shaped tabernaculum for the preservation of the body of Christ. With the ciborium the dove-shaped form of the receptacle for the body of Christ (hence called περιστήριον) also gradually disappeared. above which a cross was usually fixed. The altar was hollow, and served as the receptacle for the relics of the martyrs; it was placed, where this was possible, exactly over the grave of a martyr, probably with reference to the passage in the Revelation: “I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held.”11631163   Rev. vi. 9. In the Greek and Roman churches every altar must contain some relics, be they never so unimportant. Often a subterranean chapel or crypt11641164   Κρυπταί, memoriae, confessiones, testimonia. was built under the church, in order to have the church exactly upon the burial place of the saint, and at the same time to keep alive the memory of the primitive worship in underground vaults in the times of persecution.

The altar held therefore the twofold office of a tomb (though at the same time the monument of a new, higher life), and a place of sacrifice. It was manifestly the most holy place in the entire church, to which everything else had regard; whereas in Protestantism the pulpit and the word of God come into the foreground, and altar and sacrament stand back. Hence the altar was adorned also in the richest manner with costly cloths, with the cross, or at a later period the crucifix, with burning tapers, symbolical of Christ the light of the world,11651165   This usage also no doubt came from Judaism into the Christian church; for in the temple at Jerusalem, and in the tabernacle before it, a lamp was perpetually burning according to divine command, Exod. xxvii. 30f. Probably lamps were in earlier use in the church. But tapers also were already in use in the time of Chrysostom, especially for lighting the altar, while lamps were rather employed in chapels and before images of saints. and previously consecrated for ecclesiastical use,11661166   In the Roman church the second of February, or the fortieth day after Christmas, when Mary presented the Lord in the temple, and when the aged Simeon prophetically called the child Jesus “a light to lighten the Gentiles,” is appointed for this consecration, and is hence called Candlemas of Mary, a contraction of the two names, Purification of Mary and Candlemas. with a splendid copy of the Holy Scriptures, or the mass-book, but above all with the tabernacle, or little house for preserving the consecrated host, on which in the middle ages the German stone-cutters and sculptors displayed wonderful art.

Side altars did not come into use until Gregory the Great. Ignatius,11671167   He even expressly (Ep. ad Philad. c. 4) likens the unity of the church in the episcopate to the unity of the altar: Ἔν θυσιαστήριον, ὡς εἷς ἐπίσκοπος. Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzen, and Augustine know of only one altar in the church. The Greek church has no more to this day. The introduction of such side altars, which however belong not to the altar space, but to the nave of the church, is connected with the progress of the worship of martyrs and relics.

At the left of the altar war, the table of prothesis,11681168   Πρόθεσις. oblationarium, still used in the Greek church. on which the elements for the holy Supper were prepared, and which is still used in the Greek church; at the right the sacristy,11691169   Σκευοφυλάκτιον, διακονικόν, sacristia, sacrorum custodia, salutatorium, etc. where the priests robed themselves, and retired for silent prayer. Behind the altar on the circular wall (and under the painting of Christ enthroned, if there was one) stood the bishop’s chair,11701170   Θρόνος, cathedra. overlooking the whole church. On both sides of it, in a semicircle, were the seats of the presbyters. None but the clergy were allowed to receive the holy Supper within the altar rails.11711171   Before Ambrosethe emperors were permitted to take their seats within the altar-space. But Ambrose, with the approval of Theodosius, abolished this custom, and assigned to the emperors a special place at the head of the congregation, just outside the rails. Sozomen, H. E. vii. 25.



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