Church Altars - Information about Church Altars

A universal feature of nearly any Christian church is the altar. Centrally located, the altar is the point from which services are performed, rites are given and graces are dispensed. It is a functional and meaningful piece of furniture with a history that is deeply rooted in the Bible. In most churches, the altar is positioned in a way that it is meant to be the focus of attention. Altars may range in size, shape and style, but most resemble a table with a smooth top and varying degrees of decoration on the edges.

Catholic Altars

In the Catholic Church, the altar is particularly important. It is the structure from which the Eucharist is celebrated, and it is an item that is designed to be revered. During Mass, the priest may even kiss the altar before taking his place in the front of the church and beginning services. During certain events, he may even remain at the altar during the entire service.

When a Catholic Church is first opened, the altar of the church is dedicated along with the building. The altar will often remain with the church through generations. During the dedication ceremony of a new church, Mass is celebrated on the new altar as part of the rite. It is believed that the altar is a holy object, worthy of reverence. The Eucharist must always take place on the altar when it is performed within the walls of the church.

Position of the Altar

Positioning of the altar within a church is not random. In fact, there are guidelines in Christianity that describe where the altar should be placed. When a church is designed and built, the orientation of the church, along with the position of the altar, are planned out ahead of time to abide by set religious standards.

When a church is being designed, the orientation is structured so the main point of interest in the interior is always to the east. The altar is also placed at the east end of the church, often with an apse. The main entrance and facade should be directly opposite of the altar and central focal point to the west of the building. If these positions are reversed with the altar on the west side and the entrance on the east, it is called occidentation.

In the event that a church cannot be built in a way to accommodate these positions, the words "east end", "west door" and "north aisle" are commonly used in the church. The end that houses the altar is treated as the liturgical east, though it may not be the cardinal east. This has become more common in modern times with limited space in cities and strict building codes forcing changes to the way that churches are built and positioned.

History of Altar Position

The first Christians faced east when praying. While there are various explanations as to why this was the case, the tradition was already well established by the time of Christ. Because this was already the norm, early Christians preferred to place the altar in the east part of the church to allow them to continue what many felt was a vital part of prayer.

One of the most common explanations regarding the east-facing prayer ritual is that Jews in diaspora would orient themselves facing Jerusalem during prayer. That meant that they would pray facing east. Most Jews living in the Roman Empire would also face east in order to face Jerusalem. Over the years, this evolved into the tradition of facing east for prayer. Another popular explanation is that Christ's Second Coming is foretold to be from the east.

Altar Materials

While the position of the altar is important, so is the material that it is made from. Early altars were made from wood and were similar in structure and appearance to ordinary house tables. They were much like the shape and style of the table described in the telling of the Last Supper. There are also various Biblical references to wooden altars, including a mention that Saint Peter celebrated the Eucharist on wood and that the Donatists broke up wooden altars to use for firewood. Few ancient wooden altars still remain to this day and are preserved in large Basilicas and churches.

While wood was the original material of choice, St. Helena broke tradition and gave a golden altar adorned with precious stones to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Pulcheria also gifted a golden altar to the Basilica of Constantinople. Various Popes have also presented altars of silver and other precious metals to churches.

Over time, stone became the altar material of choice. Wooden altars were subject to decay, base metals were susceptible to corrosion and precious metals were prohibitively expensive. Thus, stone became a popular choice for building altars. It is strong, long-lasting, readily available and easily affordable. It can be cut, sculpted and decorated in many different ways, resulting in an altar that's perfectly suited to the church that it will reside in.

It is worth noting that in the Latin Church, the top or table of the altar should be made of stone and a natural stone is preferred. The base or supports of the altar may be made of any material that is solid and well-crafted. Movable altars may be constructed of any material that is suited to liturgical use. In Eastern Christianity, stone, metal or wood may be used to build the altar according to the individual church's preference and budget.

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