An altar is a table or platform for the presentation of religious offerings, for sacrifices, or for other ritualistic purposes. Altars are found at shrines, temples, churches, and other places of worship. They are used particularly in paganism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism,[a] modern paganism, and in certain Islamic communities around Caucasia and Asia Minor. Many historical-medieval faiths also made use of them, including the Roman, Greek, and Norse religions.
The modern English word altar was derived from Middle English altar, from Old English alter, taken from Latin altare ("altar"), probably related to adolere ("burn"); thus "burning place", influenced by altus ("high"). It displaced the native Old English word wēofod.
Altars [b] in the Hebrew Bible were typically made of earth or unwrought stone. Altars were generally erected in conspicuous places. The first altar recorded in the Hebrew Bible is that erected by Noah. Altars were erected by Abraham, by Isaac, by Jacob, and by Moses.
The word altar, in Greek θυσιαστήριον (see:θυσία), appears twenty-four times in the New Testament. In Catholic and Orthodox Christian theology, the Eucharist is a re-presentation, in the literal sense of the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross being made "present again". Hence, the table upon which the Eucharist is consecrated is called an altar.
The altar plays a central role in the celebration of the Eucharist, which takes place at the altar on which the bread and the wine for consecration are placed. Altars occupy a prominent place in most Christian churches, both Eastern[c] and Western[d] branches. Commonly among these churches, altars are placed for permanent use within designated places of communal worship (often called "sanctuaries"). Less often, though nonetheless notable, altars are set in spaces occupied less regularly, such as outdoors in nature, in cemeteries, in mausoleums/crypts, and family dwellings. Personal altars are those placed in a private bedroom, closet, or other space usually occupied by one person. They are used for practices of piety intended for one person (often referred to as a "private devotion"). They are also found in a minority of Protestant worship places; in Reformed and Anabaptist churches, a table, often called a "Communion table", serves an analogous function.
The area around the altar is seen as endowed with greater holiness, and is usually physically distinguished from the rest of the church, whether by a permanent structure such as an iconostasis, a rood screen, altar rails, a curtain that can be closed at more solemn moments of the liturgy (as in the Armenian Apostolic Church and Armenian Catholic Church), or simply by the general architectural layout. The altar is often on a higher elevation than the rest of the church.
Churches generally have a single altar, although in the Western branches of Christianity, as a result of the former abandonment of concelebration of Mass, so that priests always celebrated Mass individually, larger churches have had one or more side chapels, each with its own altar. The main altar was also referred to as the ".mw-parser-output .vanchor>:target.vanchor-textbackground-color:#b1d2ffhigh altar". Since the revival of concelebration in the West, the Roman Missal recommends that in new churches there should be only one altar, "which in the gathering of the faithful will signify the one Christ and the one Eucharist of the Church." This does not exclude altars in distinct side chapels, however, but only separate altars in the main body of the church. But most Western churches of an earlier period, whether Roman Catholic or Anglican, may have a high altar in the main body of the church, with one or more adjoining chapels, each with its own altar, at which the Eucharist may be celebrated on weekdays.
Architecturally, there are two types of altars: Those that are attached to the eastern wall of the chancel, and those that are free-standing and can be walked around, for instance when incensing the altar.[e]
In the earliest days of the Church, the Eucharist appears to have been celebrated on portable altars set up for the purpose. Some historians hold that, during the persecutions, the Eucharist was celebrated among the tombs in the Catacombs of Rome, using the sarcophagi (see sarcophagus) of martyrs as altars on which to celebrate. Other historians dispute this, but it is thought to be the origin of the tradition of placing relics beneath the altar.
When Christianity was legalized under Constantine the Great and Licinius, formal church buildings were built in great numbers, normally with free-standing altars in the middle of the sanctuary, which in all the earliest churches built in Rome was at the west end of the church. "When Christians in fourth-century Rome could first freely begin to build churches, they customarily located the sanctuary towards the west end of the building in imitation of the sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple. Although in the days of the Jerusalem Temple the High Priest indeed faced east when sacrificing on Yom Kippur, the sanctuary within which he stood was located at the western end of the Temple. The Christian replication of the layout and the orientation of the Jerusalem Temple helped to dramatize the eschatological meaning attached to the sacrificial death of Jesus the High Priest in the Epistle to the Hebrews." The ministers (bishop, priests, deacons, subdeacons, acolytes), celebrated the Eucharist facing east, towards the entrance. Some hold that for the central part of the celebration the congregation faced the same way. After the sixth century the contrary orientation prevailed, with the entrance to the west and the altar at the east end. Then the ministers and congregation all faced east during the whole celebration; and in Western Europe altars began, in the Middle Ages, to be permanently placed against the east wall of the chancel.
Most rubrics, even in books of the seventeenth century and later, such as the Pontificale Romanum, continued to envisage the altar as free-standing. The rite of the Dedication of the Church continued to presume that the officiating bishop could circle the altar during the consecration of the church and its altar. Despite this, with the increase in the size and importance of the reredos, most altars were built against the wall or barely separated from it.
In almost all cases, the eastward orientation for prayer was maintained, whether the altar was at the west end of the church, as in all the earliest churches in Rome, in which case the priest celebrating Mass faced the congregation and the church entrance, or whether it was at the east end of the church, in which case the priest faced the eastern apse and had his back to the congregation. This diversity was recognized in the rubrics of the Roman Missal from the 1604 typical edition of Pope Clement VIII to the 1962 edition of Pope John XXIII: "Si altare sit ad orientem, versus populum ..."
When placed close to a wall or touching it, altars were often surmounted by a reredos or altarpiece. If free-standing, they could be placed, as also in Eastern Christianity, within a ciborium (sometimes called a baldachin).
The rules regarding the present-day form of the Roman Rite liturgy declare a free-standing main altar to be "desirable wherever possible". Similarly, in the Anglican Communion, the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer assumed an altar fixed against the wall, until Prayer Book revision in the twentieth century removed language which assumed any particular form of altar.
As well as altars in the structural sense, it became customary in the West to have what in Latin were referred to as altaria portatilia (portable altars), more commonly referred to in English as altar stones. When travelling, a priest could take one with him and place it on an ordinary table for saying Mass. They were also inserted into the centre of structural altars especially those made of wood. In that case, it was the altar stone that was considered liturgically to be the altar. The Pontificale Romanum contained a rite for blessing at the same time several of these altar stones. In the East the antimension served and continues to serve the same purpose.
Movable altars include the free-standing wooden tables without altar stone, placed in the choir away from the east wall, favoured by churches in the Reformed tradition. Altars that not only can be moved but are repeatedly moved are found in low church traditions that do not focus worship on the Eucharist, celebrating it rarely. Both Catholics and Protestants celebrate the Eucharist at such altars outside of churches and chapels, as outdoors or in an auditorium.
The Eastern Catholic Churches each follow their own traditions, which in general correspond to those of similar Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox Churches. All Christian Churches see the altar on which the Eucharist is offered as the "table of the Lord" (trapeza Kyriou) mentioned by Saint Paul. The rules indicated here are those of the Latin Church.
The Latin Church distinguishes between fixed altars (those attached to the floor) and movable altars (those that can be displaced), and states: "It is desirable that in every church there be a fixed altar, since this more clearly and permanently signifies Christ Jesus, the Living Stone. In other places set aside for sacred celebrations, the altar may be movable."(298)
A fixed altar should in general be topped by a slab of natural stone, thus conforming to tradition and to the significance attributed to the altar, but in many places dignified, well-crafted solid wood is permitted; the supports or base of a fixed altar may be of any dignified solid material. A movable altar may be of any noble solid material suitable for liturgical use.(301)
This last norm explicitly excludes the practice customary in recent centuries of inserting relics into a specially created cavity within the table of an altar or altar stone. Placing of relics even in the base of a movable altar is also excluded. 041b061a72