Come and eat, come and drink; Be seated at the Table of the Lord!

May 19, 2009

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Come and eat, come and drink; Be seated at the Table of the Lord!

AltarNot surprisingly, the earliest altar tables were made of wood and were modeled after domestic tables. These simple artifacts served the liturgy on the Lord’s Day which was celebrated in the house Churches. In addition, the Eucharist was celebrated on the tombs of the saints. Because these tombs were made of stone and because wood was considered a lesser material, a slow but sure replacement of the wooden altar tables with stone altars evolved. This coincided with the legalization of the Church (313) and the use of worship spaces which were larger and more elaborate than the house churches. The first known official directive regarding the exclusive use of stone for the construction of altars is found in early 6th century council documents from Gaul. Nevertheless, wood and stone continued to be used for the construction of altars until the middle ages. Eventually, stone completely replaced wood and the more expensive the stone the better.

Altar at Cathedral in FranceIn the same way as the material for an altar evolved from more simple to more complex, so did its shape. The domestic shape of the altar gave way to a very complex and highly decorated creation which became more of a shrine to the Blessed Sacrament than a table on which the memorial of the Lord’s Sacrifice was celebrated. This change clearly followed the evolution of the Theology of the Eucharist from more simple and direct to more complex and removed from the Body of Christ.

Cathedral of St. Malo, FranceSince the second Vatican Council and its call for a return to a more authentic celebration of the liturgy, the directives for the creation of an altar have followed suit. Today we have altars in all sorts of shapes, forms, and materials as long as they are worthy of the weight of the mystery which is celebrated on them. They are to be free standing, fixed, accessible from all directions and one needs to exercise moderation when it comes to the decoration of the altars. Seasonal décor should not impede access to any side of the altar, nor should it vie for the importance which is to be given to the altar.

Altar in Cathedral of Brussels, BelgiumThe current directives of the Catholic Church regarding the construction and placement if altars allows for great creativity and invites artist to give their best imagination to the creation of altars. We have assembled a number of examples of altars. The current selection is not comprehensive. It is our intention to keep adding to the exhibit. We invite you to send us images and information on altars you have created or you may have seen during your travels.


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