Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Byzantine Altar

Many of you have no doubt seen some image of the altar, or "Holy Table", of the Byzantine East at some point, whether here, another blog, another Catholic source, or, all the better, in person.

No doubt many will have wondered about the particular elements that adorn these altars. In view of this, and being a firm believer that it is ideal as a part of any liturgical formation that one should strive to have at least some basic sense and familiarity for these variations (and the similarities for that matter) within our liturgical tradition, when I came across an illustration which existed to precisely show these component parts, I thought it would be good to share with our readership.

Some of the numbering will be difficult to read, so I would note that you can enlarge this image by clicking on it.

Corresponding with those numbers, descriptions are given and I would highlight these in particular:

1. The Tabernacle or Ciborium
2. Polycandil [a seven-branched candlestick]
5 & 6. The Fans [I would put NLM readers to mind here of the liturgical fans or flabellum we have shown before in the Dominican rite, as well as mentioned in relation to the Carmelite rite.]
7. The ciborium to take the Sacrament to the sick
8. The Testament [The Holy Gospels]
9. The Cross [a hand cross]
10. The Antimins [or "antimension"]

(Not shown in the diagram is the iconic cross that would sit behind the altar.)

The following description further accompanies this:

For those who perform divine service, the eastern part of the church is set aside...

Persons not consecrated to the service of the church are not permitted to enter this part of it. The sanctuary is divided from the worshippers by a curtain, and a partition or screen....

In the middle of the Sanctuary their stands a square table; it is the altar; also called Holy Throne, because the Lord is present on it, or Holy Table...

The altar, as being the place on which rests the Glory of the Lord, is vested with two coverings; the first is of white linen, the second or outer covering is of rich brocade. Upon the altar is laid a silken or linen cloth, on which is represented the Descent from the Cross and the preparation of Christ's body for interment. This cloth is called the Antimins, which means "what is instead of the altar." The origin of the Antimins is as follows: The law demands that a Christian church shall be consecrated by a bishop; as there was not always one on hand to do so, and besides, movable churches had to be organized for travelers, it became usual for bishops to consecreate only the upper boards of the altar, or even only linen or silken cloths, which, after signing them with their name, they sent to new-built churches, or gave to people who were starting on a journey. Later on, Antimins because a necessary feature of every altar, even in such churches as had been personally consecrated by bishops. Into every Antimins is sewed a particle of some holy relic... in memory of the fact that in early times Christians used to assemble for divine service on or by the tombs of martrys, and in token that the Saints, being near to God, intercede for us with their prayers. If the church is consecrated by a bishop, the relic is placed under the center of the altar, upon a stand and in a special small casket, to keep it from injury; it is wrapped in a silken cloth called pleiton, which means "a wrap."

Indispensable attributes of the altar are the Cross and the Testament. The Cross is laid there as a sign of Christ's victory over the Devil and of our deliverance, and the Testament, because it is the book which contains the Word of Christ, by following which we may obtain salvation...

The Testament which is kept on the altar always has a beautiful binding...

Besides the Cross and Testament there stands on the altar an ark or tabernacle, in which are preserved the Holy Gifts (the Body of Christ, saturated with His Blodd), reserved for giving communion to the sick, and to others at times when it is not lawful to celebrate the Liturgy. These tabernacles are sometimes made in the shape of a coffin, or a sepulchral cave, in which case they are called "Graves" -- at other times in the shape of a temple. A temple-shaped tabernacle, used, in old times, to be called "Zion" or "Jerusalem." All tabernacles alike are called "Ciboriums."


Sometimes a canopy is erected over the altar, one four columns, and beneath it hovers a dove with outspread wins, a symbol of the Holy Ghost.

Source: A Manual of the Orthodox Church's Divine Services

At this point, I would like to also make reference to a post made four years ago by Abbot Joseph of Holy Transfiguration Monastery here on the NLM on this same topic. I believe it will further round out what is noted in the quotation above.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Byzantine Altar

by Abbot Joseph

I’d like to share a few things about the Altar in a Byzantine church, since many may not be familiar with its setup. It is much more complex than a simple table but, as you have come to expect from the East, richly symbolic as well. There are variations in usages, but there are a number of standard elements. The picture here is of the Altar in our monastery church, so I’ll work with that.

First of all, to be technically correct, in the Byzantine tradition, what is called the “Altar” is what would be called the “Sanctuary” in the West, and what is called the Altar in the West is called the Holy Table in our tradition. That does do a bit of violence to the plain meaning of the term “Altar” in English, which denotes a thing and not a place or area. So for the sake of convenience I will use “Altar” and “Holy Table” interchangeably to mean that upon which the Holy Sacrifice is offered.

The Holy Table itself is traditionally cubic in structure, modeled on the heavenly Jerusalem: “its length and breadth and height are equal” (Rev. 21:16). In some churches (especially larger ones) this may be rather impractical, but for our little church a 3 x 3 x 3 foot Altar is just right. Also from the Book of Revelation comes the seven-branched candelabrum, reminiscent of the seven golden lampstands in the midst of which the Son of Man appeared (Rev. 1:12-13). Before that, God had commanded that in the original Tent of Meeting there should be a golden lampstand. “And you shall make seven lamps for it…” (Exodus 25:37).

Behind the Altar is, of course, a large crucifix, the significance of which is self-evident. On either side of it, however, is something not self-evident. Oftentimes we’ve been asked by people of the Latin tradition: “but why do you have two monstrances on the Altar?” The fact is we have none. Those are ceremonial fans called ripidia or hexapteryga (Greek for “six-winged”). On them are little icons of the six-winged Seraphim. They recall both the cherubic images placed around the original Ark of the Covenant (see Exodus 25) and the constant presence of the Seraphim at the throne of God in Heaven.

Front and center on the Holy Table is the Book of the Gospels (to the right of it is a hand-cross for blessing). The Gospel Book rests upon the antimension, which is unfolded during the Liturgy. Upon this the sacred vessels are placed when the gifts are brought to be consecrated. It usually has an icon of the burial of Christ in the center of it, and often has icons of the four evangelists and of SS. John Chrysostom and Basil the Great (authors of the two major sacrificial liturgies in the Byzantine Church), as well as inscriptions of liturgical texts. Relics are sewn into the antimension, and relics are contained within the Holy Table as well. On our Altar (though I know of no liturgical prescription about this) we also keep the Holy Chrism and a relic of the True Cross, since these are among the holiest treasures of the Church. Our Altar covering is bordered with traditional Ukrainian embroidery.

Ordinarily you will find a tabernacle on the Holy Table. (I prefer “tabernacle” to the Greek artophorion, simply because it is more meaningful. Artophorion literally means “bread-bearer,” while tabernacle means “dwelling place.” One means a holder for something, while the other means a place where some One resides—though of course the faith is the same in both traditions.) Usually the tabernacle is made in the form of a little church, but occasionally you will find (as you do in our monastery) a tabernacle in the form of a dove suspended over the Altar. This works from a practical standpoint by keeping clear the already limited space on the Holy Table, but more important is its symbolism. It reminds us that it is the Holy Spirit through whom the gift of the Holy Eucharist is given to us; by the power of the Spirit the miracle occurs. “…send down Your Holy Spirit upon us and upon the Gifts here present. And make this bread the precious Body of Your Christ. Amen. And that which is in this chalice the precious Blood of Your Christ. Amen. Changing them by Your Holy Spirit. Amen, amen, amen!” (from the epiclesis).

The icon in the apse is called Our Lady of the Sign (the sign being the prophecy of the Incarnation in Isaiah 7:14). She is an image of the Church, especially of the Church celebrating the Divine Liturgy: arms outstretched in prayer, bringing forth Christ from within her. The image in the apse varies from place to place. Often it is the patron saint or mystery of the church.

To the right (not visible in the picture) is a vesting table, and to the left (also not visible) is the proskomedy (or prothesis) table, upon which the liturgy of the preparation of the gifts to be consecrated is performed.

All in all, the setup of the Altar is meant to express the mystery of the sacrificial death of Christ, the proclamation of the Gospel, the continuity with (and hence fulfillment of) the Old Testament, and the ongoing participation in the heavenly and eternal liturgy described in the Book of Revelation.

Just before the Divine Liturgy, when the priest finishes vesting, he performs a ritual washing of the hands, saying (from Psalm 25/26): “I shall wash my hands in innocence and take my place around Your altar, singing a song of thanksgiving, proclaiming all Your wonders. O Lord, I love the house where You dwell, the place where Your glory abides…” And at the end of the Liturgy he says: “Now You may let Your servant go in peace, Master, according to Your word. For my eyes have seen Your salvation…”

* * *

Mentioned in the above historical post by Abbot Joseph was the proskomedy or prothesis table; the table of oblations. From the same source I originally quoted, the following image is found which shows this table.

(If any of our Eastern Christian readers would add anything to this, add any caveats, or so on, please do use the comments.)

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