Concerning the Christian Altar

How did Jesus’ table become an altar and how do we understand it today?


I wasn’t entirely surprised by the nature of the encounter I once had with an elderly laywoman in a Catholic parish that had sought my assistance with its church renovation project. Our exchange occurred one morning while I was collecting reference photographs of the parish’s altar, a marble appointment installed soon after the Second Vatican Council whose exceedingly long and narrow table surface was balanced on a squarish base. One could liken the object to a petrified teeter-tooter. The exaggerated dimensions of its cantilevered “arms” were presumably intended to accommodate concelebrations of the Eucharist by multiple members of the resident clergy — a more common occurrence in the mid-60s, when parish communities were flush with priests, than it is today.

“What are you up to?” the woman barked loudly enough to be heard throughout the echoey sanctuary where I stood. A space into which, I assumed, she seldom wandered but moved through effortlessly enough to confront me. “I hope you’re not thinking of getting rid of our beautiful altar,” she added, before pointing out for my benefit that it was “exactly like the one our Lord and his disciples used at the Last Supper.”

Figure 1: Bas relief Sculpture of Last Supper on Altar Panel
I didn’t have the heart, there and then, to challenge her familiarity with the details surrounding Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist, situated, as it was in a domestic “upper room,” arranged for dining in a style that required participants to “recline” at a common table (Luke 22:12-14). How many times in the course of her formation as a Catholic, I wondered, had she likely been exposed to a favored painting of the Last Supper by some master of the Italian Renaissance? Its sufficiently Italian-looking subjects seated at one side of an Italian-styled table of the period and frozen in anticipation of sharing in the yeasty morsels of pane rustica their divine — but outwardly Italianate — master raises heavenward? Indeed, how many altars themselves had she seen in the time since her youth that were adorned with a three-dimensional version of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous interpretation of the subject (fig. 1), virtually all its details at odds with the historical circumstances surrounding Christ’s Pasch? Instead, I assured her that no plans had yet been made for replacing any of the church’s current furnishings. I likewise emphasized that my habit was to treat every liturgical object I came across in my line of work with the utmost reverence and regarded the altar at which a parish worships — and the body of parishioners regularly gathering before it — to be the essential components of a Catholic place of worship. “The altar and its users are the real foundations of a church building,” I explained, “the reason why it stands in the first place.” “Isn’t it amazing,” I blurted out, attempting to encapsulate in a single phrase the reciprocity at work in each of the Church’s sacramental actions: “We make our churches sacred by what we do within their walls, and they return the favor!”

A look of both confusion and irritation came over the poor woman’s face, as if no one had previously spoken to her in such terms about the physical setting of the Church’s rites. She offered no indication of ever having been invited from the pulpit in her own parish, for example, to consider whether the sanctified state that she and her fellow parishioners acquired in baptism might somehow “rub off” on the place they considered their spiritual home. Indeed, Catholics of her age and religious formation with whom I’d crossed paths in the course of my work promoting liturgical renewal in parishes tended to treat the sanctity of their churches as something that emanated solely from the tabernacles housed there, dwelling places of the eucharistic Christ. To hear them explain it, the miracle that occurred at the altar on Sundays or other times throughout the week when Mass was celebrated had importance inasmuch as it guaranteed that Jesus would be available to receive them for “visits” at times when their churches were otherwise empty. In their minds, the Catholic church building was first and foremost a setting for prayer that was essentially devotional in nature, its purpose to contain, confine and preserve the Blessed Sacrament, tangible presence of Christ, as temples throughout the ancient world once housed all manner of divinities in the time of Jesus. This proved especially true among those whose religious formation occurred before Vatican II, when the eucharistic theology dispensed through catechetical materials did little to encourage the faithful to imagine themselves as God’s dwelling places (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20) as much as any polished, ritual vessel worthy of reverence. The interior furnishings of Catholic churches and their arrangement prior to the council likewise did much to skew the relationship in the popular imagination between liturgical and devotional piety and subordinate the laity to a body worthy only of beholding the drama of the Mass from afar.

“Isn’t it amazing,” I blurted out, attempting to encapsulate in a single phrase the reciprocity at work in each of the Church’s sacramental actions: “We make our churches sacred by what we do within their walls, and they return the favor!”

Figure 2: Neo-classical Retable Rising from Altar
To be sure, the natural object of focus from that part of an empty church where lay worshipers would normally assemble was the so-called “high altar.”1 Under practical circumstances, however, fixed deep within an apsidal precinct of some kind and screened from the laity by the figures of the priest-celebrant, deacon, subdeacon and others stationed before it, the altar proper — especially its mensa — was not especially easy to view. Consequently, the object on which lay participants in the Mass more often fixed their attention was the retable, or “reredos,” a tiered superstructure arrayed with candelabras, flowers and decorative sculpture that formed the backdrop of every altar, (fig. 2). Far from being intelligible as a free-standing object around which the faithful might gather in their solemn role as “circumstantes,”2 the altar itself functioned as a kind of dado or visual foundation for its much taller retable. Of even greater attraction to the average layperson, however, was the tabernacle usually fixed on-axis to the mensa and thus visible from most corners of the place of worship. If, in the popular imagination, liturgical and devotional treatment of the sacramental presence of Christ that came by way of the Eucharist were seen as one, it was partly because the altar and tabernacle were presented to them as one, the latter described in catechetical publications as the true “heart of the church.”3

The Christian Altar: A Complex History

Figure 3: Freestanding Altar – Mount Saint Benedict Monastery, Erie, PA
The expectations Catholic laypeople bring to weekend Mass today are altogether different from those of their predecessors before the 1960s. One need only note the location of both altar and tabernacle in the modern parish setting to appreciate the degree to which a fundamental shift has occurred in the Church’s understanding of sacred worship. The altar, of course, has been liberated from its preconciliar place in the remotest part of any church building, brought forward, outward — indeed peopleward — to be virtually within reach of the majority of those drawn to its promise of nourishment (fig. 3). Likewise, this essential component of liturgical prayer has regained its historical identity as the communal table for a divine banquet set by Christ to be shared by all those being made into members of his own Mystical Body. To be “tabular” requires simply that it have a top carried on legs. It is essentially skeletal in conception and form, an open frame comprised of stone, metal or wood members — which is to say it needn’t rely on mass to accomplish its task. It can be relatively small and square in shape, a little larger but no taller than a modern butcher block and similarly approachable from each of its sides. If it could speak as humans do, its words would be those of invitation. “Use me,” the modern altar might say, “ritual stand-in for Christ that I am, whose body you may anoint, dress, scent and festoon — even wound4 — as history has Christ’s own.”

The tabernacle today stands apart from the altar, either in a separate part of the sanctuary, clearly visible from the nave, or in a special chapel of reservation.5 Such spatial division of the two reflects the Church’s wish to better distinguish the practical difference between liturgical prayer, consisting of active and corporate participation in the sacrificial meal offered at the altar, and private worship directed toward the tabernacle, within which the sacrament-bound presence of Christ resides for adoration by the faithful or distribution to those unable for any reason to be present for the liturgy of the Eucharist.6 Not until the 17th century, we should remember, did it became customary for tabernacles to be attached to altars for Catholic use and that both appointments have undergone numerous changes in appearance and placement over time, each reflecting some corresponding change in the Church’s appreciation of its eucharistic inheritance. Even those priests and people today better informed on the circumstances surrounding Christian worship in an era immediately following the Emmaus event, however, have likely never pondered how it was that the table at the center of any “breaking of the bread” in the apostolic period evolved over time into an object resembling a sarcophagus. How, the question might be posed, did the wood or stone tablet that was the sacrificial surface for the earliest successors of Jesus become an object whose volume, dimensions and decorative treatment take on those of a tomb?

How, the question might be posed, did the wood or stone tablet that was the sacrificial surface for the earliest successors of Jesus become an object whose volume, dimensions and decorative treatment take on those of a tomb?

One key to answering this question can be found in the close connection between meal-related and funerial symbolism maintained by early Christian communities throughout the Mediterranean, a hold-over from the Greco-Roman culture from which the Church borrowed so liberally. In a real sense, from a time soon after the demise of the apostles until the 4th century, every altar was a tomb, the domestic tables at which Christians first celebrated their rites of praise and thanksgiving having given way to the gravesites of those whose martyrdom mirrored Christ’s own sacrificial death. The tomb-type that citizens of the Roman world would recognize as an heroum — literally a site at which libations were shared and holocausts offered in memory of the hero buried within — were the inspiration for eucharistic altars shaped like sepulchers and placed beneath a gabled canopy (canopeum). There was power to be acquired from such burial places or “trophies” (tropaia), the most famous of which, even, perhaps unknowingly, among pilgrims to Rome today, that preserved deep within the foundations of St. Peter Basilica and said to bear the remains of its namesake.

Fig. 4a [above] 19th-century Altar Tomb; and 4b [below] 20th-century Altar Tomb
Once admitted into the Christian imagination, the “sepulchral altar” exhibited tremendous longevity. A walk through any Christian cemetery of sufficient age, even in the United States, reveals the enduring hold of altars doubling as grave markers/memorials or conversely, burial vessels topped by mensas on which “sacrifices” might be laid as they would on an altar, even if they should be only flowers or bowls of incense (fig. 4a and 4b).

Fig 5a [above] 19th-century Altar; and 5b [below] 10th-century Tomb
The same holds true in liturgical settings too, of course, where altars with classic, tripartite elevations consisting of plinth, dado and top and subdivided into compartments horizontally by way of short pilasters assume a tomb-like appearance (fig. 5a and 5b).

Fig. 6: Plaster Figure of Christ “Entombed” in Altar
In some regional traditions throughout Europe and elsewhere, the fixed or portable altar incorporated into the drama of the Triduum is made to appear even more explicitly like a sepulcher when a sculpted figure of Christ is “entombed” for public veneration within an ordinarily concealed portion of its body. In this vein, a longstanding tradition in Poland still maintained by Polish Catholic immigrants and their successors in the United States requires parishes to devise some semblance of Grób Pański or “The Lord’s Grave,” close to which tokens of their Easter foods are arranged for blessing by a priest on Holy Saturday7 (fig. 6).

Fig. 7: Vietnamese Ngắm Mùa Chay Ceremony
For Catholics of Vietnamese descent, a Good Friday custom known as Ngắm Mùa Chay (Lenten lamentations) similarly involves processions around the interior of a church, in this case by parishioners bearing a representation of the crucified Christ within a translucent coffin, the latter of which is eventually placed on or near a minor altar for viewing by the faithful (fig. 7).

Fig. 8: Rectangular Altar Sepulcher Containing Two Reliquaries
More well-known to Catholics throughout the world, certainly, is the Church’s custom since earliest times of entombing the relics of saints and martyrs. For centuries prior to Vatican II, such bodily fragments of holy persons were preserved in the so-called “altar stones” inserted into the mensas of wood and stone altars alike. Carved into these, in turn, were shallow receptacles known as “sepulchers,” where the relics of one or more figures preserved in small reliquaries might be kept (fig. 8). The most recent edition of the Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar, however, stipulates that relics not be preserved in this manner but placed instead “beneath the table of the altar, as the design of the altar permits” (Chapter IV, 11c).

Fig. 9: Example of reliquary placed beneath altar mensa – St. Peter Cathedral, Erie, PA
One finds in many new or renovated churches, then, that a reliquary large enough to be visible from the seats of the laity is situated between the plinth of an altar and its top and wrapped in decorative grillwork or an open colonnade (fig. 9).

Conclusions: From Tomb Back to Sacrificial Table

Even as cursory a treatment of the subject as the one I offer here reveals that the Christian altar has undergone significant changes in form and symbolic purpose over the centuries and that, even today, it may legitimately mean several different but related things to its users simultaneously. In this, it embodies a principle operative throughout sacred liturgy, namely, that one thing may indeed become another — as bread and wine are both transformed into something wholly other than themselves — or, at least at the level of symbol, that a single object or elements may assume multiple meanings at the same time. One instantly thinks in this realm, say, of water, which the Church employs to convey the ideas of cleansing, rebirth, refreshment, regeneration, and so forth. In the same way, the Christian altar, whose life began as a table but which evolved into an object that could affirm at once “the sacrificial nature of the Mass, the ministerial priesthood, and the real and permanent presence of Christ under the Eucharistic species”8 has reassumed its original shape in many new and reconfigured churches without forfeiting any of its layers of meaning. It is a table enriched by time and use like a family heirloom, imbued with the stories of others previously gathered around it. For the Church, the altar truly is that and more, a thing inseparable from the message and meal of salvation passed through generations, beginning with the apostles, laid before them by their Upper Room master as meal, memorial, and sacrifice.


1 Multiple altars could be found in Catholic church buildings prior to Vatican II and could be used by priests presiding over so-called “private Masses” simultaneously in chapels throughout its interior. The altar located within the major apse and used for regular services was known as the “high altar.”

2 This is one of the earliest descriptions of the liturgical assembly, suggesting that it literally surrounds or “rings” an altar in the way a group of bystanders naturally “gather around” an event of importance in its midst.

3 Ravoire, Morrow. My Catholic Faith. My Mission House, 1949, 293.

4 Traditionally, the mensa of an altar was inscribed or engraved with five crosses representing the five wounds Christ received at his crucifixion. These serve as wells for grains of incense burned upon the altar during its consecration.

5 The General Instruction of the Roman Missal prescribes that the tabernacle be placed “either in the sanctuary, apart from the altar of celebration, in a form and place more appropriate” or “ in some chapel suitable for the faithful’s private adoration and prayer and organically connected to the church and readily visible to the Christian faithful” (315).

6 Over the centuries, the Church has proposed three reasons for reserving the sacrament : 1) so that it may be treated as an object of adoration; 2) so that it may be taken to those faithful too elderly, ill or infirm to participate in liturgical services; 3) so that it might be offered as viaticum—a supernatural gift literally to be “taken with you”—by believers preparing for death. Each of these is quite different from the full-blown experience of the Liturgy of the Eucharist that occurs at the sacrificial altar.

7 This popular ritual calls for families to carry portions of their Easter meals to churches, often in baskets. There, they are laid on a table at least symbolically, if not spatially, related to the main altar or shrine of entombment in a way that perpetuates the connection in the Catholic imagination between meal symbolism and funereal.

8 Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 7.

All photos: Michael E. DeSanctis


About Michael E. DeSanctis

Michael E. DeSanctis is Professor of Fine Arts and Theology at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania, as well as the director of its honors program. He serves as a design consultant to Catholic parishes involved in the construction or renovation of places of worship and has written for a number of publications, including Emmanuel.