1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Altar

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ALTAR (Lat. altare, from altus, high; some ancient etymological guesses are recorded by St Isidore of Seville in Etymologiae xv. 4), strictly a base or pedestal used for supplication and sacrifice to gods or to deified heroes. The necessity for such sacrificial furniture has been felt in most religions, and consequently we find its use widespread among races and nations which have no mutual connexion.

Mesopotamia.—Altars are found from the earliest times in the remains of Babylonian cities; the oldest are square erections of sun-dried bricks. In Assyrian mounds limestone and alabaster are the chief material. They are of varying form; an altar shown in a relief at Khorsabad is ornamented with stepped battlements, which are the equivalent of the familiar “altar-horns” in Hebrew ritual. An altar also from Khorsabad (now in the British Museum) has a circular table and a solid base triangular on plan, with pilasters ornamented with animals' paws at the angles. A third variety, of which an 8th century B.C. example from Nimrud exists in the British Museum, is a rectangular block ornamented at the ends by cylindrical rolls. These altars are in height from 2 to 3 ft. According to Herodotus (i. 183) the great altars of Babylonia were made of gold.

Egypt.—In Egypt altars took the form of a truncated cone or of a cubical block of polished granite or of basalt, with one or more basin-like depressions in the upper surface for receiving fluid libations. These had channels whereby fluids poured into the receptacles could be drained off. The surface was plain, inscribed with dedicatory or other legends, or adorned with symbolical carving.

Palestine.—Recent excavations, especially at Gezer, have shown that the earliest altars, or rather sacrifice hearths, in Palestine were circular spaces marked out by small stones set on end. At Gezer a pre-Semitic place of worship was found in which three such hearths stood together, and drained into a cave which may reasonably be supposed to have been regarded as the residence of the divinity. These circular hearths persisted into the Canaanite period, but were ultimately superseded by the Semitic developments. To the primitive nomadic Semite the presence of the divinity was indicated by springs, shady trees, remarkable rocks and other landmarks; and from this earliest conception grew the theory that a numen might be induced to take up an abode in an artificial heap of stones, or a pillar set upright for the purpose. The blood of the victim was poured over the stone as an offering to the divinity dwelling within it; and from this conception of the stone arose the further and final view, that the stone was a table on which the victim was to be burned.

Very few specimens of early Palestinian altars remain. The megalithic structures common in the Hauran and Moab may be entirely sepulchral. At Gezer no definite altar was discovered in the great High Place; though it is possible that a bank of intensely hard compact earth, in which were embedded a large number of human skulls, took its place. A very remarkable altar, at present unique, was found at Taanach by the Austrian excavators. It is pyramidal in shape, and the surface is ornamented with human-headed animals in relief. This, like the earliest Babylonian altars, is of baked earth.

The Old Testament conception of the altar varies with the stage of religious development. In the pre-Deuteronomic period altars are erected in any place where there had appeared to be a manifestation of deity, or under any circumstance in which the aid of deity was invoked; not by heretical individuals, but by the acknowledged religious leaders, such as Noah at Ararat, Abraham at Shechem, Bethel &c., Isaac at Beersheba, Jacob at Bethel, Moses at Rephidim, Joshua at Ebal, Gideon at Ophrah, Samuel at Raman, Elijah at Carmel, and others. These primitive altars were of the simplest possible description—in fact they were required to be so by the regulation affecting them, preserved in Exodus xx. 24, which prescribes that in every place where Yahweh records his name an altar of earth or of unhewn stone, without steps or other extraneous ornamentation, shall be erected.

The priestly regulations affecting altars are of a very elaborate nature, and are framed with a single eye to the essential theory of later Hebrew worship—the centralization of all worship at one shrine. These recognize two altars, which by the authors of this portion of the Pentateuch are placed from the first in the tabernacle in the wilderness—a theory which is inconsistent with the other evidences of the nature of the earlier Hebrew worship, to which we have just alluded.

The first of these altars is that for burnt-offering. This altar was in the centre of the court of the tabernacle, of acacia wood, 3 cubits high and 5 square. It was covered with copper, was provided with “horns” at the corners (like those of Assyria), hollow in the middle, and with rings on the sides into which the staves for its transportation could be run (Ex. xxvii. 1-8). The altar of the Solomonic temple is on similar lines, but much larger. It is now generally recognized that the description of the tabernacle altar is intended to provide a precedent for this vast structure, which would otherwise be inconsistent with the traditional view of the simple Hebrew altars. In the second temple a new altar was built after the fashion of the former (1 Macc. iv. 47) of “whole stones from the mountain.” In Herod’s temple the altar was again built after the same model. It is described by Josephus (v. 5. 6) as 15 cubits high and 50 cubits square, with angle horns, and with an “insensible acclivity” leading up to it (a device to evade the pre-Deuteronomic regulation about steps). It was made without any use of iron, and no iron tool was ever allowed to touch it. The blood and refuse were discharged through a drain into the brook Kedron; this drain probably still remains, in the Bīr el-Arwah, under the “Dome of the Rock” in the mosque which covers the site of the temple.

The second altar was the altar of incense, which was in the holy place of the tabernacle. It was of similar construction to the altar of burnt-offering, but smaller, being 2 cubits high and 1 cubit square (Ex. xxx. 1-5). It was overlaid with gold. Solomon’s altar of incense (1 K. vi. 20) is referred to in a problematical passage from which it would appear to have been of cedar. But the authenticity of the passages describing the altar of incense in the tabernacle, and the historicity of the corresponding altar in Solomon’s temple, are matters of keen dispute among critics. The incense altar in the second temple was removed by Antiochus Epiphanes (1 Macc. i. 21) and restored by Judas Maccabaeus (1 Macc. iv. 49). That in the temple of Herod is referred to in Luke i. 11.

The ritual uses of these altars are sufficiently explained by their names. On the first was a fire continually burning, in which the burnt-offerings were consumed. On the second an offering of incense was made twice a day.

In the pre-Deuteronomic passage, Exodus xxi. 14, the use of the altar as an asylum is postulated, though denied to the wilful murderer. This is a survival of the ancient belief that the deity resided in the pillar or stone-heap, and that the fugitive was placing himself under the protection of the local numen by seeking sanctuary. From 1 Kings i. 50 it would appear that the suppliant caught hold of the altar-horns (compare 1 Kings ii. 28), as though special protective virtue resided in this important though obscure part of the structure.

Greece and Rome.—According to the difference in the service for which they were employed, altars fell into two classes. Those of the first class were pedestals, so small and low that the suppliant could kneel upon them; these stood inside the temples, in front of the sacred image. The second class consisted of larger tables destined for burnt sacrifice; these were placed in the open air, and, if connected with a temple, in front of the entrance. Possibly altars of the former class were in historical times substitutes for, and rendered the same service as, the bases of the sacred images within the temples in earlier ages. In this case the altar of Apollo at Delphi, upon which on the Greek vases Neoptolemus is frequently represented 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 Athene in Troy, towards which Cassandra fled from Ajax. The second class of altars, called βωμοί by the Greeks and altaria by the Romans, appears to have originated in temporary constructions such as heaps of earth, turf or stone, made for kindling a sacrificial fire as occasion required. But sacrifices to earth divinities were made on the earth itself, and those to the infernal deities in sunk hollows (Odyss. x. 25; Festus s. v. Altaria). The note of Eustathius (Odyss. xii. 252) perhaps indicates some customs reminiscent of a primitive antiquity in which the sacrifice was made without an altar at all. He says ἀποβώμιά τινα ἱερὰ ῶν οὐκ ἐπὶ βωμοῦ ὁ καθαγισ μὸς ἀλλ’ ἐπὶ ἑδάφους — “some holy places away from altars, whose offering is made not on an altar but on the floor.” Pausanias (vi. 20. 7) speaks of an altar at Olympia made of unbaked bricks. In some primitive holy shrines the bones and ashes of the victims sacrificed were allowed to accumulate, and upon this new fires were kindled. Altars so raised were, like most religious survivals, considered as endowed with particular sanctity; the most remarkable recorded instances of such are the altars of Hera at Samos, and of Pan at Olympia (Paus. v. 14. 6; v. 15. 5), of Heracles at Thebes (Paus. ix. 11. 7), and of Zeus at Olympia (Paus. v. 13. 5). The last-mentioned stood on a platform (πρόθυσις) measuring 125 ft. in circumference, and led up to by steps, the altar itself being 22 ft. high. Women were excluded from the platform. Where hecatombs were sacrificed, the πρόθυσις necessarily assumed colossal proportions, as in the case of the altar at Parion, where it measured on each side 600 ft. The altar of Apollo at Delos (ὁ κεράτινος βωμός) was made

EB1911 Altar, Fig. 1-Sant' Ambrogio, Milan.png
Photo, Brogi.
EB1911 Altar, Fig. 2-Santa Cecilia, Rome.png
Photo, Alinari.
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Photo, O. W. Wilson & Co.
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Photo, Brogi.
of the horns of goats believed to have been slain by Diana; while at Miletus was an altar composed of the blood of victims sacrificed (Paus. v. 13. 6). The altar at Phorae in Achaea was of unhewn stones (Paus. vii. 22. 3). The altar used at the festival in honour of Daedalus on Mt. Cithaeron was of wood, and was consumed along with the sacrifice (Paus. ix. 3. 4). Others of bronze are mentioned. But these were exceptional, the usual material of an altar was marble, and its form, both among the Greeks and Romans, was 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 which 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 names of the deities in whose service they were, or, if not the name, some obvious representation of the deity. Such, for example, is the purpose of the figures of the Muses on an altar dedicated to them, now to be seen 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 Artemis and Alpheus jointly, or that of Poseidon and Erechtheus in the Erechtheum at Athens. The most remarkable instance of multiple dedication was, however, at Oropus, where the altar was divided into five parts, one dedicated to Heracles, Zeus and Paean Apollo, a second to heroes and their wives, a third to Hestia, Hermes, Amphiaraus and the children of Amphilochus, a fourth to Aphrodite Panacea, Jason, Health, and Healing Athene, and the fifth to the Nymphs, Pan, and the rivers Archelous and Cephissus (Paus. i. 34. 2). Such deities were styled σύμβωμοι, each having a separate part of the altar (Paus. i. 34. 2). Other terms are ἀγώνιοι, or ὁμοβώμιοι. 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 (Paus. i. 1. 4; v. 14. 5; cf. Acts of Apostles, xvii. 18). An altar to all the gods is mentioned by Aeschylus (Suppl. 222). Among the exceptional classes of altars are also to be mentioned those on which fire could not be kindled (βωμοὶ ἄπυροι), and those which were kept free from blood (βωμοὶ ἀναίμακτοι), of which in both respects the altar of Zeus Hypatos at Athens was an example. The ἑστία was a round altar; the ἐσχάρα, one employed apparently for sacrifice to inferior deities or heroes (but ἐσχάρα Φοίβον, Aesch. Pers. 205). In Rome an altar erected in front of a statue of a god was always required to be lower than the statue itself (Vitruvius iv. 9). Altars were always places of refuge, and even criminals and slaves were there safe, violence offered to them being insults to the gods whose suppliants the refugees were for the time being. They were also taken hold of by the Greeks when making their most solemn oaths.

Ancient America.—As a single specimen of an altar, wholly unrelated to any of the foregoing, we may cite the ancient Mexican example described by W. Bullock (Six Months in Mexico, London, 1824, p. 335). This was cylindrical, 25 ft. in circumference, with sculpture representing the conquests of the national warriors in fifteen different groups round the side.[1]

Portable altars and tables of offerings were used in pre-Christian as well as in Christian ritual. One such was discovered in the Gezer excavations, dating about 200 b.c. It was a slab of polished limestone about 6 in. square with five cups in its upper surface. Another from the same place was a small cubical block of limestone bearing a dedication to Heracles. They have also been found in Assyria. Pocket altars are still used in some forms of worship in India. See the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1852, p. 71.

Altars in the Christian Church

I. The Early Church.—The altar is spoken of by the early Greek and Latin ecclesiastical writers under a variety of names:—τράπεζα, the principal name in the Greek fathers and the liturgies; θυσιαστήριον (rarer; used in the Septuagint for Hebrew altars); ἰλαστήριον; βωμός (usually avoided, as it is a word with heathen associations); mensa Domini; ara (avoided like βωμός, and for the same reason); and, most regularly, altare. After the 4th century other names or expressions come into use, such as mensa tremenda, sedes corporis et sanguinis Christi.

The earliest Christians had no altars, and were taunted by the pagans for this. It is admitted by Origen in his reply to Celsus (p. 389), who has charged the Christians with being a secret society “because they forbid to build temples, to raise altars.” “The altars,” says Origen, “are the heart of every Christian.” The same appears from a passage in Lactantius, De Origine Erroris, ii. 2. We gather from these passages that down to about a.d. 250, or perhaps a little later, the communion was administered on a movable wooden table. In the Catacombs, the arcosolia or bench-like tombs are said (though the statement is doubtful) to have been used to serve this purpose. The earliest church altars were certainly made of wood; and it would appear from a passage in William of Malmesbury (De Gest. Pontif. Angl. iii. 14) that English altars were of wood down to the middle of the 11th century, at least in the diocese of Worcester.

The cessation of persecution, and consequent gradual elaboration of church furniture and ritual, led to the employment of more costly materials for the altar as for the other fittings of ecclesiastical buildings. Already in the 4th century we find reference to stone altars in the writings of Gregory of Nyssa. In 517 the council of Epaone in Burgundy forbade any but stone pillars to be consecrated with chrism; but of course the decrees of this provincial council would not necessarily be received throughout the church.

Pope Felix I. (a.d. 269–274) decreed that “mass should be celebrated above the tombs of martyrs”—an observance probably suggested by the passage in Revelation vi. 9, “I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God.” This practice developed into the medieval rule that no altar can be consecrated unless it contain a relic or relics.

The form of the altar was originally table-shaped, consisting of a plane surface supported by columns. There were usually four, but examples with one, two and five columns are also recorded. But the development of the relic-custom led to the adoption of another form, the square box shape of an “altar- tomb.” Transitional examples, combining the box with the earlier table shape, are found dating about 450. Mention is made occasionally of silver and gold altaus in the 5th to the 8th centuries. This means no doubt that gold and silver were copiously used in its decoration. Such an altar still remains in Sant' Ambrogio at Milan, dating from the 9th century (see fig. 1).

II. The Medieval Church.—It will be convenient now to pass to the fully-developed altar of the Western Church with its accessories, though the rudiments of most of the additional details are traceable in the earlier period.

In the Roman Catholic Church, which preserves in this respect the tradition that had become established during the middle ages, the component parts of a fixed altar in the liturgical sense are the table (mensa), or super-altar, consisting of a stone slab; the support (stipes), consisting either of a solid mass or of four or more columns; the sepulchrum, or altar-cavity, a small chamber for the reception of the relics of martyrs. The support, in the technical sense, must be of stone solidly joined to the table; but, if this support consist of columns, the intervals may be filled with other materials, e.g. brick or cement. The altar-slab or “table” alone is consecrated, and in sign of this are cut in its upper surface five Greek crosses, one in the centre and one in each corner. These crosses must have been anointed by the bishop with chrism in the ritual of consecration before the altar can be used. Crosses appear on the portable altar buried with St Cuthbert (a.d. 687), but the history of the origin and development of this practice is not fully worked out.

According to the Caeromoniale (i. 12. 13) a canopy (baldachinum) should be suspended over the altar; this should be square, and of sufficient size to cover the altar and the predella on which the officiating priest stands. This baldachin, called liturgically the ciborium, is sometimes hung from the roof by chains in such a way that it can be lowered or raised; sometimes it is fixed to the wall or reredos; sometimes it is a solid structure of wood covered with metal or of marble supported on four columns. The latter form is, however, usual only in large churches, more especially of the basilica type, e.g. St Peter’s at Rome or the Roman Catholic cathedral at Westminster. The origin of the ciborium is not certain, but it is represented in a mosaic at Thessalonica of a date not later than a.d. 500. Even at the present day, in spite of a decree of the Congregation of Rites (27th of May 1697) ordering it to be placed over all altars, it is—even at Rome itself—usually only found over the high altar and the altar of the Blessed Sacrament.

Multiplication of altars is another medieval characteristic. This also is probably a result of the edict of Pope Felix already mentioned. In a vault where more than one martyr was buried an altar might be erected for each. It is in the 6th century that we begin to find traces of the multiplication of altars. In the church of St Gall, Switzerland, in the 9th century there were seventeen. In the modern Latin Church almost every large church contains several altars—dedicated to certain saints, in private side chapels, established for masses for the repose of the founder’s soul, &c. Archbishop Wulfred in 816 ordered that beside every altar there should be an inscription recording its dedication. This regulation fell into abeyance after the 12th century, and such inscriptions are very rare. One remains mutilated at Deerhurst (Archaeologia, vol. 1. p. 69).

Where there is in a cathedral or church more than one altar, the principal one is called a “high altar”. Where there is a second high altar, it is generally at the end of the choir or chancel. In monastic churches (e.g. formerly at St Albans) it sometimes stands at the end of the nave close to the choir screen.

Beside the altar was a drain (piscina) for pouring away the water in which the communion vessels were rinsed. This seems originally to have been under the altar, as it is still in the Eastern Church.

That the primitive communion table was covered with a communion-cloth is highly probable, and is mentioned by Optatus (c. a.d. 370), bishop of Milevis. This had developed by the 14th or 15th century into a cerecloth, or waxed cloth, on the table itself; and three linen coverings one above the other, two of about the size of the table and one rather wider than the altar, and long enough to hang down at each end. Five crosses are worked upon it, four in the corners and one in the middle, and there is an embroidered edging.[2] In front was often a hanging panel of embroidered cloth (the frontal; but frontals of wood, ornamented with carving or enamel, &c.; are also to be found). These embroidered frontals are changeable, so that the principal colour in the pattern can accord with the liturgical colour of the day. Speaking broadly, red is the colour for feasts of martyrs, white for virgins, violet for penitential seasons, &c.; no less than sixty-three different uses differing in details have been enumerated. A similar panel of needlework (the dossal) is suspended behind the altar.

Portable altars have been used on occasion since the time of Bede. They are small slabs of hard stone, just large enough for the chalice and paten. They are consecrated and marked with the five incised crosses in the same way as the fixed altar, but they may be placed upon a support of any suitable material, whether wood or stone. They are used on a journey in a heretical or heathen country, or in private chapels. In the inventory of the field apparel of Henry, earl of Northumberland, a.d. 1513, is included “A coffer wyth ij liddes to serue for an Awter and ned be” (Archaeologia, xxvi. 403).

On the altar are placed a cross and candlesticks—six in number, and seven when a bishop celebrates in his cathedral; and over it is suspended or fixed a tabernacle or receptacle for the reservation of the Sacrament.

III. Post-Reformation Altars.—At the Reformation the altars in churches were looked upon as symbols of the unreformed doctrine, especially where the struggle lay between the Catholics and the Calvinists, who on this point were much more radical revolutionaries than the Lutherans. In England the name “altar”[3] was retained in the Communion Office in English, printed in 1549, and in the complete English Prayer-book of the following year, known to students as the First Book of Edward VI. 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 “altar” was carefully expunged, “God’s Board” or “the table” being substituted. The short reign of Mary produced a temporary reaction, but the work of reformation was resumed on the accession of Elizabeth.

The name “altar” has been all along retained in the Coronation Office of the kings of England, where it occurs frequently. It was also recognized in the canons of 1640, but with the reservation that “it was an altar in the sense in which the primitive church called it an altar and in no other.” In the same canons the rule for the position of the communion tables, which has been since regularly followed throughout the Church of England, was formulated. In the primitive church the altars seem to have been so placed that, like those of the Hebrews, they could be surrounded on all sides by the worshippers. The chair of the bishop or celebrant was on their east 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 against a reredos erected at the east side of the altar, so as to prevent all access to the table from that side; the celebrant was thus brought round to the west side and caused to stand between the people and the altar. On the north and south sides there were often curtains. 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—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. Often there is a reredos behind it; it is also fenced in by rails to preserve it from profanation of various kinds.

In 1841 the ancient church of the Holy Sepulchre at Cambridge was robbed of most of its interest by a calamitous “restoration” carried out under the superintendence and partly at the charge of the Camden Society. On this occasion a stone altar, consisting of a flat slab resting upon three other upright slabs, was presented to the parish, and was set up in the church at the east wall of the chancel. This was brought to the notice of 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 carried about, and seeming to be a mass of solid masonry, was not a communion-table in the sense recognized by the Church of England.

Bibliography.—For altars in the ancient East see M. Jastrow, Religion of Assyria and Babylonia; Perrot and Chipiez, Art in Chaldea (i. 143, 255); Sir J. Gardiner Wilkinson, A Second Series of the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, ii. 387; Benzinger’s and Nowack’s works on Hebräische Archäologie. For classical altars, much information can be obtained from the notes in J. G. Frazer’s Pausanias. See also Schömann, Griechische Alterthümer, vol. ii.; the volume on “Gottesdienstliche Alterthumer” in Hermann’s Lehrbuch der griechischen Antiquitäten. On domestic altars and worship see Petersen, Hausgottesdienst der Griechen (Cassel, 1851). On plural dedications consult Maurer, De aribus graecorum pluribus deis in commune positis (Darmstadt, 1885). For Christian altars, reference is best made to the articles on the subject in the dictionaries of Christian and liturgical antiquities of Migne, Martigny, Smith and Cheetham, and Pugin, where practically all the available information is collected. See also Ciampinus, Vetera Monumenta (Rome, 1747), where numerous illustrations of altars are to be found; Martene, De antiquis Ecclesiae ritibus, iii. vi. (Rouen, 1700); Voigt, Thysiasteriologia sive de altaribus veterum Chrislianorum (Hamburg, 1709); and the liturgical works of Bona. Many articles on various sections of the subject have appeared in the journals of archaeological societies; we may mention Nesbitt on the churches of Rome earlier than 1150 (Archaeologia, xl. p. 210), Didron, “L’Autel chrétien” (Annales archéologiques, iv. p. 238), and a paper by Texier on enamelled altars in the same volume.  (R. A. S. M.) 


  1. Bullock also says (p. 354) that the altar in the church of the Indian village of S. Miguel de los Ranchos which he visited was “of the same nature as those in use before the introduction of Christianity.”
  2. In the Eastern Church four small pieces of cloth marked with the names of the Evangelists are placed on the four corners of the altar, and covered with three cloths, the uppermost (the corporal) being of smaller size.
  3. Except in one place where the term used is “God’s Board.”