Thursday, November 14, 2013

Altar history

The Altar of Ratchis, Duke of Friuli
737 - 744
1.44 x 0.90 x 0.88 m
Museo Cristiano, Cividale del Friuli, Italy

You do not have to be an out and out  "Traditionalist" to feel at least a degree of sadness when you see a Christian altar in a Museum or art gallery

We are of course already well into and past the age described by Philip Larkin in his poem "Church Going"

We should be used to it by now

It is a but like visiting the Egyptian section of The British Museum to see some of the mummies. All that is left is the old husk. No life.

The altar of Duke Ratchis of Friuli is displayed in the Christian Museum in  Cividale del Friuli.

The altar dates from 737 and  744,when Ratchis was Duke of Friuli

It is one of the most important extant works of sculpture from the Lombard Renaissance under Liutprand, King of the Lombards

The reliefs depict Christ in Majesty, the Visitation, and the Adoration of the Magi

Decorative pieces include  angels, crosses, palms, stars and flowers

The reliefs were polychromed and when constructed must have been extremely impressive

In the English language, an "altar" is an "altar"

We do not readily distinguish the different types and functions.

The Latin fathers used different terms for "altar" often as a means of distinguishing their use, their symbolism and means of differentiating them from pagan altars.

The words used were: altare, mensa, ara, altarium

In Greek there were also different terms: trapeza, thysiasterion, bomos

See also: Schulte, A.J. (1907). Altar (in Liturgy). In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved November 14, 2013 from New Advent: 

According to Schulte:
"[The altar] signifies, according to Amalarius (De Eccles. Officiis, I, xxiv) the Table of the Lord (mensa Domini), referring to the Last Supper, or the Cross (St. Bernard, De Coena Domini), or Christ (St. Ambrose, IV, De Sacram. xii; Abbot Rupert, V, xxx). The last meaning explains the honour paid to it by incensing it, and the five crosses engraved on it signify His five wounds."
Needless to say the French with their great precision in language have an extensive vocabulary relating to altars. The word "autel" is only the start:  Maître-autel, Autel secondaire, Autel de chœur de religieux, Autel isolé, Autel du Saint-Sacrement, Autel des morts and so on

See Joël Perrin, L’autel : fonctions, formes et éléments   In Situ [En ligne], 1 | 2001, mis en ligne le 24 avril 2012, consulté le 14 novembre 2013.

The standard works in German on Catholic altars is by the theologian, Jesuit and art historian, Joseph Braun SJ (1857  -  11 July 1947). They are available online at the website of the University Library of the University of Heidelberg.

Der christliche Altar in seiner geschichtlichen Entwicklung (Band 1): Arten, Bestandteile, Altargrab, Weihe, Symbolik [The Christian Altar in its Historical Development. Vol. 1: Types, Components, Altar Cavity, Consecration, Symbolism]

Der christliche Altar in seiner geschichtlichen Entwicklung (Band 2): Die Ausstattung des Altars, Antependien, Velen, Leuchterbank, Stufen, Ciborium und Baldachin, Retabel, Reliquien- und Sakramentsaltar, Altarschranken [The Christian Altar in its Historical Development. Vol. 2: The Appointments of the Altar, Frontals, Vela, Gradines, Steps, Ciborium and Tester, Reredos, Relic and Sacrament Altar, Altar Rails]

The work was encouraged before the First World War  by the then German Superior General of the Jesuits Father Franz Xaver Wernz

The work aimed to be a history of the development of the altar and its furninshings and accoutrements

His aim is to show that the altar, the location of the Eucharist, was from the earliest times not only the location of a feast but also a real sacrifice

Theology, Christian history and art history all come together in these great works of erudition

Here are just some of the over 800  illustrations and plates from these works:

Three column support marble table altar (possibly 7th century), at the Museum of Vienne, France

Block altar in S. Giovenale, Orvieto,  Italy commissioned by Abbot Guido in 1170

HIgh altar at the Cathedral of Tarragona, Spain (14th century)

Altar ciborium, Or San Michele, Florence