Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Architect Dino Marcantonio Considers the Altar

The New York City based architect, and lecturer at the Yale School of Architecture, Dino Marcantonio, has been gradually pursuing a series of considerations of the parts of the church building using St. Germanus of Constantinople's treatise, Ecclesiastical History and Mystical Contemplation, as a guide.

Quite recently he pursued a consideration of the altar. Here is an excerpt:

The altar is the central focus of the Christian religion. So, naturally, it is the central focus of every church building. St. Germanus is marvelously succinct about it:

"The holy table corresponds to the spot in the tomb where Christ was placed. On it lies the true and heavenly bread, the mystical and unbloody sacrifice. Christ sacrifices his flesh and offers it to the faithful as food for eternal life.

"The holy table is also the throne of God, on which, borne by the Cherubim, He rested in the body. At that table, at His mystical supper, Christ sat among His disciples and, taking bread and wine, said to His Apostles and disciples: "Take, eat, and drink of it: this is my body and my blood" (cf Mt 26:26-28). This table was prefigured by the table of the Old Law upon which the manna, which was Christ, descended from heaven."

Of all the parts of the church building, the altar is the most ancient in provenance with roots stretching deep into the book of Genesis.


The earliest reference to an altar in Sacred Scripture is Genesis 8:20 when Noah offered sacrifice after the flood. Its form was simple: a collection of rough stones set upright to support a sacrifice over a fire. Other such Altars of Holocaust (from holos and cauma, meaning a thing wholly burnt) followed Noah's, those of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There was no church to surround these altars. They were built out in the open, usually in a high place.

After the Hebrews were liberated from bondage in Egypt, when they roamed the desert, God revealed to Moses a precise form for the Altar of Holocaust. It was essentially a portable framework to contain a fire and support a grille. In addition, Moses was commanded to build the much smaller and more precious Altar of Incense. Built of an extremely durable wood called setim-wood and covered in gold, no victims were burnt on it. Finally, for our purposes here, Moses was commanded to build the Ark of the Covenant, a chest of setim-wood and gold which contained the Tables of the Law, the Rod of Aaron, and a golden urn containing a bit of the miraculous manna which fed the Jews for forty years. On top of the chest were the images of two Cherubims whose wings sheltered the chest.

Continue reading the rest of the article over at his site: Parts of the Church Building: The Altar

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