1902 Encyclopedia > Altar


ALTAR, in Classical Antiquity, was a solid base or pedestal on which supplication was made and sacrifice offered to the gods and deified heroes. According to this difference in the service for which they were employed, altars fell into two classes, of which the one, similar and lower so that the supplicant could kneel upon it, stood inside temples, in front of the sacred image; while the other, destined for burnt sacrifice, was placed in the open air, and, if connected with a temple, in front of the entrance. Possibly altar of the former class were substitutes for , and rendered the same service in historical times as, in an early age, the base of the sacred image within a temple. In this case the alter of Apollo of Delphi, on which Neoptolemus is frequently represented on the Greek vases as taking refuge from Orestes, might be regarded as the pedestal of an invisible image of the god, and as fulfilling the same function as did the base of the actual image of Minerva in Troy, towards which Cassandra flied from Ajax. The other class of altars, called bomoi by the Greeks and altaria by the Romans, appear to have originated in such temporary constructions as occasion offered for kindling a fire for sacrifice. The next step was to allow the bones and ashes of the victims sacrificed to accumulate, and upon this to kindle new fires. Altars so raised were viewed with particular sanctity, the most remarkable recorded instances of them being the altars of Juno at Samus and at Olympia (Pausanias, v. 14. 5; v. 15, 6). Of Apollo at Thebes (Pausanias, ix. 11, 5), and of Juniper at Olympia. The last-mentioned stood on a platform (prothusis) measuring 125 feet in circumference, and led up to by steps, the alter itself being 22 feet high Women were excluded from the platform. Where hecatombs were sacrificed, the prothusis necessarily assumed colossal proportions, as in the case of the altar at Parion, where it measured on each side 600 feet. The altar of Apollo at Delos (ho keratinos bomos) was made of the horns of deer believed to have been slain by Diana; while at Miletus was an altar composed of the blood of Dædalus on Mount Cithæron was of wood, and was consumed along with the sacrifice (Pausanias, ix. 3. 2). Others, of bronze, are mentioned; but while these were exceptional the usual material of an altar was marble, and its form, both among Greeks and Romans, either square or round; polygonal altars, of which examples still exist, being exceptions, When sculptured decorations were added they frequently took the form of imitations of the actual festoons with it was usual to ornament altars, or of symbols, such as crania and horns of oxen, referring to the victims sacrificed. As a rule, the altars which existed apart from temples bore the name of the person by whom they were dedicated, and the named of the deities in whose service they were; or, if not the name, some obvious representation of the deity. Such is the purpose of the figures of the Muses on an altar to them in the British Museum. An altar was retained for the service of one particular god, except where, through local tradition, two or more deities had become intimately associated, as in the case of the altar at Olympia to Diana and Alpheus jointly, or that or Nepture and Erechtheus in the Erechtheum atAthens, and others. Such deities were styled sumbomoi, each having a separate part of the altar, if we ay judge from that at the amphriareum at Oropos (Pausanias, I, 34, 2). Deities of an inferior order, who were conceived as working together --- e.g., the wind gods, --- had an altar in common. In the same way, the "unknown gods" were regarded as a unit, and had in Athens and at Olympia one altar for all (Pausanias, I, 1, 4; v. 14, 5; Acts of Apostles, xvii. 18). An altar to all the gods is mentioned by _schylus (Suppl. V. 225). Among the exceptional classes of altars are also to be mentioned those on which fire could not be kindled (bomoi apuroi), and those which were kept free from blood (bomoi anaimaktoi) of which in both respects the altar of Zeus Hypatos at Athens was example. The hestia was a round altar; the eskara, one employed apparently for sacrifice to inferior deities or heroes, or on comparatively unimportant occasions, as was also the ara among the Roman; though ara is sometimes used with the same signification as altare, and etymologically would have the same meaning if it is correctly derived from aeiro, not from ardere; while altare is connected with altus, "high."

Egyptian altars were monoliths, in the form of a truncated come about four feet in height. Some are extent, made of granite, others of green basalt; in almost every case they bear hieroglyphical inscriptions. In the temple of Jupiter at Baylon there was an altar of massive gold. Assyrian, Egyptian, and Persian altars were either square or oblong.

The most ancient altars of which any record has been preserved are those mentioned in the Bible. As sacrifice implies an altar, there must have been altars for those of Cain and Abel; but the first which is mentioned is that which Noah after the flood "builded unto Jehovah" (gen. viii. 20). The three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, are repeated said to have built an altar in the different parts of the land of Canaan in which they sojourned; and though it is not stated expressly, yet it may be inferred from there having evidently been a place where Abraham was accustomed to "stand before Jehovah" (ibid. xix. 27), that, once built, it remained during the whole period of the encampment at the particular place, and was frequently used for the purpose of sacrificing.

But the most remarkable altar mentioned in the book of Genesis is that which Abraham built for the sacrifice of his son Isaac, from which we glean several particulars relative to the patriarchal worship. The altar was evidently something district for the wood by whose fire the sacrifice was to be burnt, for Abraham "built an altar and laid the wood in order," which he had brought with him from Beersheba, as if he could not count upon finding it at the place. The victim also was bound, laid upon the wood, and there slain. This was contrary to the practice under the Levitical dispensation, when the fire on the top of the altar was kept continually burning, and the animal was killed before being carried up to it; but it is probably alluded to in averse of the Psalms, which has given much trouble to commentators who have tried to reconcile it with the precepts of the Mosaic law --- "Bind the sacrifice with cords unto the horns of the altar" (Ps. Cxviii. 27). To this simple patriarchal ritual belong also the rules about the construction of altars given to the Israelites shortly after they left Egypt (Exod. Xx. 24-26). While sojourning in that country they do not seem to have offered any sacrifice to Jehovah, till, just as they were leaving it, they were commanded to sacrifice the Passover. It is not unlikely that they might have despised the simple altars of their forefathers, a tried to imitate those which they had seen in Egypt, as they so soon copied their late oppressors in a still graver matter, the making a supposed likeness of the Deity. They were therefore ordered to make their altars of earth. Stones might also be used, but they were not to be hewn, nor were the altars to be so high as to require the offered to go up by steps to arrange the sacrifices upon them.

The first altar that is mentioned as having been built after these directions were given, was the one for the solemn covenanting sacrifice between God and the Israelites (Ex. Xxiv. 4-8). There it is mentioned that Moses ‘builded an altar under the hill, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel/" Its being under the hili may have been a significant protest against the prevalent heathen error of localizing the Deity in the sky, and the twelve pillars or rough blocks of stone appear to have been a principal part of the materials used in constructing it. They may be compared with the "twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob," with which Elijah built his altar on Carmel (1 Kings xviii. 31). We see, to learn from these examples that when an altar was to be constructed for a special occasion, it was fitting hat it should bear a symbolism of all in whose name the sacrifice was offered. It is to be observed that this precept about making altars of earth or of unhewn stones was anterior to the Levitical ceremonial, and was superseded by it. After the sin of making the golden calf, the whole ceremonial of the worship of the Israelities was altered. According to the new ritual, two different altars were required, and they were permanent, being carried about in the people’s wanderings, and replaced by others, similar, but larger and more costly, when the ark was placed in the temple on Mount Moriah.

The first of these altars was that for burnt offerings. For the tabernacle this was hollow, made of boards of shittim-wood, covered with brass. It was three cubits or about five high, and five cubits or eight feet square. It had a horn at each corner, and was carried about by means of staves. The corresponding altar in the temple was of greatly larger dimensions, ten cubits or about 18 feet high, and in the first temple 20 cubits square, and in the second 24 cubits. The tradition of the Jew is, that it was 32 cubits (about 50 feet) square at the base, contracting to 24 at the top, by several ledges round it at different heights. It must therefore have been an immense structure, and though called "an altar of brass," was probably built of stones, and merely covered with plates of that metal. From the account of the building of the altar in this second temple given in 1 Macc. Iv 45-47, it is probable that it consisted merely of a mass of masonry of the proper form. Ezekiel, in his vision of the temple, gives a description of the altar of burnt-offerings, from which we learn that it was surrounded by several ledges or steps, each a cubit broad. The uppermost of these was two cubits (about 3 feet) below the top of the altar, so that, standing upon it, the priest was able to arrange the sacrifice upon the fire, which was kept always burning, to supply it with fuel, and to remove the ashes. The lower ledges were to enable him to sprinkle the blood on the sides of the altar, which (according to the Levitical ritual) was sometimes on the lower part. The lowest step is said to have had a raised ledge on the outside, by which the blood poured upon it was confined till it ran through a hole into a subterranean pipe.

One of the most difficult questions about the Levitical altars is their having horns; for these do not seem to have been used in that ritual, yet they are specially ordered to be made, not only in the altar of burnt-offerings, but also in that of incense; and on certain solemn occasions they were sprinkled with blood, as if they were not mere appendages or ornaments of the altar, but had a special significance of their own. From the way they are spoken of in the book of Exodus, we see that they must then have been well known, and it might almost be thought that they were retained from the older ritual, according to which they were used to bind the victim that was slain upon the altar.

The second temple having suffered greatly in the wars between the kings of Syria and Egypt, and been plundered by the Romans, was almost rebuilt by Herod, the restoration occupying forty-six years. The altar of burnt-offering erected then is thus described by Josephus (De Bell. Jud. V. 5,6): --- "Before this temple stood the altar, 15 cubits height, and equal both in length and breadth, each of which in was a square: it had corners like horns, and the passage up to it was by an insensible activity from the south. It was formed without any insensible acclivity from the south. It was not formed without any iron tool, nor did any iron tool so much as touch it at any time." A pipe was connected with the south-west horn, through which the blood of the victims was discharged by a subterraneous passage into the brook Kedron. Under the altar was a cavity to receive the drink-offerings. This was covered with a marble slab, and cleaned from time to time. On the north side of the altar several iron rings were fixed to fasten the victims. Lastly, a red line was drawn round the middle of the altar to distinguish between the blood that was to be sprinkled above and below it.

The second altar belonging to the Jewish worship was the altar of incense, the golden altar (Ex. Xxx. 1). It was placed in the holy place, between the table of shew-bread and the golden candlestick. This altar, in the tabernacle, was made of shittim-wood overlaid with gold plates, 1 cubit in length and breadth, and 2 cubits in height. It had horns of the same materials; and round the flat surface was a border of wrought gold, underneath which were the ring to receive "the staves, made of shittim-wood overlaid with gold, to bear it withal;" (Exod. Xxx 1-5; Joseph. Antiq. Iii.6,8). The altar in Solomon’s temple was similar in form, but made of cedar overlaid with gold (1 Kingsvi. 20). It is a question whether it was hollow or filled up with stones, the construction of the Hebrew being doubtful, but the former supposition appears the more probable. The altar in the second temple was taken away by Antiochus Epiphanes (1 Macc, I 21), and archangel Gabriel stood at the right side of this altar when he announced the birth of John the Baptist to Zacharias, who was burning incense upon it (Luke i.11); and it is alluded to in the vision shown to St. John (Rev. viii. 3), where it is immediately "before the throne," the veil, which under the Mosaic dispensation had separated it from the holy of holies, having been rent asunder at the crucifixion.

On this altar incense was offered twice every day, and this was the only use of incense under the Levitical rutual; for through the word "censer" is repeatedly used in our common translation of the Old Testament, neither in the Hebrew nor the Greek has the word any connection with incense, but denotes the fire-pan in which the burning charcoal was carried from the brazen altar to be emptied out upon that of incense. The true equivalent for censer is only used of sinful or heathen worship (2 Chron. Xxvi. 14; Ezek. Viii, 11, and perhaps 2 Chron. Xxx. 14) The fire pans used as censers in the story of Korah, and of the atonement subsequently made by Aaron burning incense among the people, do not belong to the Levitical ritual, but were to prove whether it was to be observed or not.

The single exception to the exclusive use of the golden altar for incense was n the great day of atonement, when the high priest went into the holy of holies carrying a fire-pan containing lighted charcoal from the great altar, and having set it down, threw incense upon it, and left it for some time before the ark while went and came back once and again to sprinkle it with the blood of the sacrifices. This fire-pan is accordingly called a golden censer by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (ix. 4); but even this is no precedent for the swinging censers which have been used for so many centuries in the Latin churches. Incense, indeed, was put on the loaves of shew-bread; but it does not appear that it was burned upon that table, which is nowhere is nowhere called an altar. More probably, when the loaves were taken away, the incense was burnt on the proper altar. But the shew-bread was so completely special an appointment of the Mosaic ritual that it is impossible to class it among sacrifices.

Among the early Christians, alike in the East and West, that on which the bread and wine were put in the celebration of the Eucharist appears to have been regarded as an altar, and accordingly sacrificial words were used in connection with it, such as "offering," unbloody sacrifice." It should be observed, however, that the Greek fathers scarcely ever apply the word bomos to Christian altars confining themselves to thusiasterion; while in the West there seems to have been a preference for altare rather than ara, though the latter term is often found. As the Christians generally shrunk from disclosing to the heathen the details of their worship, their enemies used to taunt them with having neither temples nor altars, and some of the apologists admit this; but all they meant by this was that they had no such altars as the heathen had, altars for slain beasts and for the burning of their bodies.

From the privacy with which the early believers had to meet, their altars at first would naturally be simple and unobtrusive. We have seen that the Levitical altars were four-square, but Christian altars seem to have been always longer than they were broad, and to have been placed "athwart" the length of the basilica or church, so as to present one of the broad sides and both the sacred vessels to the eyes of the great body of the worshippers.

There does not seem to have been any rule as to the material of which altars might be made. At first they appear to have been mostly of wood, as being easily procured and fashioned. But when the persecutions ceased, and the Christians began to erect churches for worship, there seems to have sprung up some diversity of usage, each province following its own traditional custom, which perhaps was affected in some degree by the nature of the building-stone found there, and the use commonly made of it. It seems that in Egypt and the region afterwards called Barbary the altars were of wood; and there is a tradition that this was also the case originally at Rome. On the other hand, in the latter half of the 4th century, they were made of stone in Asia Minor. Early in the 6th century a council, held at Epaone in Burgundy ordered that only altars made of stone should be consecrated with the chrism, which shows that wooden altars also were still made in that province. In England the change from wood to stone seems to have taken place about the time of the Norman Conquest, Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester, being mentioned as having introduced it in his diocese. No doctrinal significance can be ascribed to the change, which was simply in keeping with the greater costliness of the whole structure, when the cessation of the inroads of the Scandivaian sea-kings allowed the nations of Western Europe to accumulate wealth, of which a portion was dedicated to religion. A few exceptional instances are mentioned of altars of silver, and they were sometimes even covered in part with plates of gold; but the current set in steadily in favour of stone as the most suitable materials, and by degrees the legislation of the Latin church on this point grew more definite. The altar could only be of stone; not that it was necessary that the whole structure should be so, for it was enough if there was a slab of stone on the large enough for the sacred vessels to stand upon; the upper face of the altar must have five crosses incised in the stone; before being used, it must have been consecrated by the bishop with the chrism, according to the ritual prescribed, in the pontificals, which by degrees grew more elaborate; and a first a plain cross, and afterwards a crucifix, was placed erect upon it.

At the Reformation the altars in churches were looked upon as symbols of the old Catholic doctrine, in those countries where the struggle lay between the Catholics and the "Reformed" or Calvinists, who on this point went much further than the Lutherans. In England the name "altar" was retained in the Communion Office in English, printed in 1548, and in the complete English Prayer-book of the following year, known to students as the First Book of Edward. But orders were given soon after that the altars should be destroyed, and replaced by movable wooden tables; while from the revised Prayer-book of 1552 the word "alter" was carefully expunged. The short reign of Mary reverses all this, but the work was resumed on the accession of Elizabeth, and has been carried out so thoroughly that the industry of recent antiquaries has only been able to find about thirty cases in all England where the old stone altar-slabs still exist, and of these that at Arundel is almost the only one which is still used.

The name "altar" has been all along retained in the Coronation Office of the kings of England in the canons of 1640, and an important change was then made in the position of the communion tables, which has become universal throughout the Church of England, In primitive times the position of the Christian altar seems to have been such that, like the Jewish and patriarchal altars, they could be surrounded on all sides by the worshippers. The chair of the bishop or celebrant was on their west side, and the assistant clergy were ranged on each side of him. But in the Middle Ages the altars were placed against the east wall of the churches, or else a screen, called a reredos (generally much decorated with carving), was erected close to east of the altar, so as to cut off any one on that side from joining in the worship, and the celebrant was brought round to the west side, to stand between the people and the altar; while there were often curtains on the north and south sides. When tables were substituted for altars in the English churches, these were not merely movable, but at the administration of the Lord’s Supper were actually moved into the body of the church, and placed table-wise as it was called --- that is, with the long sides turned to the north and south, and the narrow ends to the east and west --- the officiating clergyman standing at the north side. In the time of Archbishop Laud, however, the present practice of the Church of England was introduced. The communion table, though still of wood and movable, is as a matter of fact, never moved; it is placed altar-wise --- that is, with its longer axis running north and south, and close against the east wall, with for the most part a reredos behind it, it is also fenced in by rails, within which the laity do not enter.

When under the superintendence and partly at the charge of the Christian Society, the church of Saint Sepulcher at Cambridge, founded 1101, was restored, a stone altar, consisting of a flat slab resting upon three other upright slabs, was presented to the parish, and set up in the church at the east wall of the chancel. This circumstance was brought before the Court of Arches in 1845, and Sir H. Jenner Fust (Faulkner v. Lichfield and Stearn) ordered it to be removed, on the ground that a stone structure so weighty that it could not be moved, and seeming to be mass of solid masonry, was not a communion-table within the meaning of the Church of England. No attempt has been made to obtain a reversal of this judgment; but from other decisions some infer that only such altars as cannot also be considered as tables are forbidden.

Few particulars have come down to us regarding the construction of the wooden altars used by the Christian Church in early times, except that several circumstances indicate that they were hollow. Gregory of Tours applies the word "area" or "chest" to them; and in order cases they must have been simply like ordinary tables supported by legs, since we read of persons taking refuge beneath them. There is nothing, therefore, wither in the matter or the form of the ordinary English communion-tables, to prevent them serving as altars. The stone altars at first were probably only one or more blocks of rough hewn stone; but by degrees they were ornamented, and this produced two different types. Either the altar remained a solid mass of masonry, but had its front richly paneled (in later times it had figures in bas-relief), or the upper slab was supported by from one to five columns, often of highly-polished stone. It was in the 16th century that a new fashion was introduced in France, according to which the altar was regarded as being itself a tomb or sarcophagus, and to which are due the unsightly altars which now disfigure the wonderfully beautiful mediæval churches of that country. So complete was the change, that now, perhaps, there are not more ancient altars in France than there are in England.

In early times, before the altars were placed close to the east wall or to a large reredos, they were often surmounted by a canopy or baldacchino, supported by four pillars rising from the ground just beyond the corners of the altar.

At first there was but one altar in a church; but for many centuries this rule has been disregarded in the Latin churches, and almost every large church contains several altars dedicated in honour of different saints, and sometimes appropriated to the used of particularly guided, or endowed for a series of masses for the repose of the founder. There, however, must not be confounded with the principal altar, called the high altar or maître autel, situated towards the east end of the choir or chancel. A few cases occur where there are two high altars, the second being placed near the west end of the church.

Altars are "vested" during service; that is, covered with cloths of various kinds. There is often a frontal, richly embroidered, whose color depends upon the ecclesiastical season of the particular festival; but in all cases the uppermost cloth on the top is of linen, to represent that in which the body of the Lord was wrapped in the sepulcher.

Since the age of Bede, portable altars have been used in the Latin Church; but the East has never adopted them. And they quite put out of sight the symbolism of the form of an altar. They consist simply of a small slab of stone, large enough to support the chalice and paten. This must bear the incised crosses and must have been consecrated by the bishop or priest in a heathen or heretical country, as now it is not allowed to say mass except on a duly consecrated altar, and they are also used in oratories attached to private houses.

Those who wish to investigate the matter further may be referred to the standard works on church ritual and ecclesiastical architecture. For the altars of the Israelites, much information will be found in Lightfoot’s two treatises on the Temple Service, and in Carpzov’s notes to his translation of Godwin’s Moses and Aaron. Christian altars are described by Bona, Martene, and Bingham; but the standard work on the subject is probably that by the Lutheran Voigt, published after his death by J. A. Fabricius. Nearly twenty years ago an Essay on Christian Altars, by Laib and Schwarts, appeared at Rottenburg; while for France the Abbe Thiers’ Dissertation on the subject is full of curious information, like all this works. Drawings of mediaeval altars which have been preserved will be found in many works on architecture. Parker’s Glossary gives the most noticeable preserved in England ; but the Dictionnaire de l’Architecture of Viollet le Duc is much superior, and, with its beautiful illustrations and careful descriptions, has nearly exhausted the subject so far as regards French examples, to which it is almost exclusively confined. (G. H. F.)

The above article was written by the Rev. George Hay Forbes (1821-1875), Episcopal minister of Burntisland, Fife, Scotland; endowed Pitsligo Press in that town; author of The Goodness of God and Doctrinal Errors of the English Prayer Book.

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