Saturday, June 05, 2010

The Ciborium

Architect and Yale lecturer, Dino Marcantonio, continues his series on the "Parts of the Church Building" turning his attention now to an important and, I believe, under-utilized architectural feature, that of the ciborium.

When one thinks of the great basilica churches of Italy, be it St. Peter's, St. Paul's, San Clemente, or if we turn northward to the likes of the great Ambrosian basilica of St. Ambrose in Milan, while there are many elements that attract one's eye in these great churches, speaking personally, I find myself particularly drawn to their ciboria, and thus, to the very altar itself which it enshrines and upon which and around which solemn, liturgical worship is offered to God the Father, through Christ the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Aside from historical examples, we can also find many modern examples. Indeed, looking through journals like Liturgical Arts Quarterly, or through other like periodicals coming out of the bosom of the Liturgical Movement -- particularly in its earlier manifestations -- one notes an evident move toward the restored use of ciboria in a number of churches. Generally speaking, this was a most worthwhile and laudable initiative, though, sadly, we also discover a number of examples where this was quickly lost just a few decades later, either by their destruction or where the ciboria now sit as mere backdrops to altars which themselves sit uncovered, thus detached from their proper purpose; a rather unsatisfactory situation in either regard. (Watch for more on this subject in the coming days.)

I say this was a most worthwhile initiative because the ciborium, in its forms and in its substantiality, helps to emphasize the importance, substantiality and centrality of the altar within our churches; the altar which, as the catechism makes note, "is the center of the church" and on which "the sacrifice of the Cross is made present" (CCC, para. 1182).

Thankfully, through the architectural work of the like of Duncan Stroik and others, we continue to see at least some ciboria erected in new church building today. Indeed, some of the grandest examples of new church building today include ciboria -- the new chapel of the FSSP seminary in Denton, the chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas College, the Shrine in La Crosse, Wisconsin, all present themselves as contemporary examples. Occasionally as well, we see existing churches employ ciboria in their renovation projects -- a feature which could certainly be considered more by pastors and parishioners in such projects. There is much potential here; potential which also works well in accord with present liturgical law and which would be well suited to both forms of the Roman liturgy.

That preface aside, let us turn to Dino Marcantonio who takes us through a theological consideration of the ciboria. Here is an excerpt.

St. Germanus states regarding the ciborium:

"The ciborium represents here the place where Christ was crucified; for the place where he was buried was nearby and raised on a base. It is placed in the church in order to represent concisely the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Christ.

"It similarly corresponds to the ark of the covenant of the Lord in which, it is written, is His Holy of Holies and His holy place. Next to it God commanded that two wrought Cherubim be placed on either side (cf Ex 25:18)--for KIB is the ark, and OURIN is the effulgence, or the light, of God."

Think of the ciborium as a room, the ark of the covenant writ large. The church building, like the Temple at Jerusalem on which it is modeled, is a succession of rooms, each progressively more holy, and therefore, smaller: from forecourt, to nave, to schola cantorum, to apse (or sanctuary), to altar. If the apse represents Heaven, then the ciborium represents that which is above heaven. In fact, curtains used to hang between the columns so that, at the most sacred moments of the liturgy (i.e., the Canon), the curtains were drawn and the altar was entirely out of view, just as God is out of view.

The 13th C. ciborium at the Basilica of San Marco, Venice.
The oriental alabaster columns are covered in bas-relief
sculpture depicting scenes from the New Testament.
(Beyond is the exquisite retable, the Pala d'Oro.)

Most ciboria have four columns, coherent with the four corners of the altar. The square symbolizes the earth on which Christ was crucified and in which He was buried. And to symbolize the heavenward movement of the Resurrection, most ciboria are domed in some way. The dome can either be circular or eight-sided (as the Resurrection happened on the eighth day).

Read the rest of the article here: Parts of the Church Building: The Ciborium

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