The Tabernacle: Tradition of Purpose and Place of Eucharistic Reservation (Part 1: Historical Perspectives)

May 09, 2008

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Editor's Note: This essay is the first in a series of articles that will explore the history, purpose, design, and placement of the tabernacle in Roman Catholic churches, including present-day considerations for Catholic faith communities building or renovating worship spaces.


Early Church Experience

"When the president has given thanks and the people have all signified their assent, those whom we call deacons distribute the bread and the wine and water, over which the thanksgiving has been spoken, to each of those present; they also carry them to those who are absent." (1)

These instructions on the distribution of communion—instructions from the mid-second century—remind us of the duty to extend the fruits of the liturgy to those absent from the assembly. Christian worship has always incorporated the gesture of sharing the Eucharist with the sick and the dying as a genuine completion of the gathered community, the Body of Christ.

In the attempt to help architects, building committees, pastors, and parishioners best design and situate the tabernacle in newly-constructed or renovated worship spaces, it is beneficial to remember this traditional ideal: Eucharistic reservation is for the building up of the Body of Christ. In fact, early Christians were so convinced of this that they felt perfectly comfortable keeping the consecrated bread in their homes, feeding from it throughout the week.(2)

However, as the Church emerged from persecution and grew institutionally, the reserved Eucharist began to be used for purposes other than feeding. For example, as early as the second century, the fermentum (pieces of the consecrated bread transported from one community to the bishop of another community) became a symbol of ecclesial unity.(3)  Furthermore, like the relics of saints and martyrs, it became customary to use the Eucharist for veneration, to accompany the dead on their way to heaven, and even to sanctify newly consecrated altars!

Thus, as an aura of awesome fear, even superstition, developed around the Eucharistic species, it was a natural step to restrict reservation to the church building, a practice most likely begun after the Peace of Constantine in 313. Even then, however, convenience for distribution to the sick meant that reservation was usually in the sacristy. As one author has commented, “It was here (in the sacristy) that the elements were prepared for the Liturgy and hither it would be natural to return with any portions of the hallowed species that remained, whether by intention or by accident, unconsumed.”(4)  At this time, Church orders (rule books) were simply silent on the location and the design of the receptacle for reservation.

As universal regulations emerged, local communities were able to envision various methods and designs for Eucharistic reservation. Here are some of the more well-known types (see slideshow link at top of page for photos):

» hanging pyxes – The Lyber Pontificalis indicates that Roman basilicas of the fourth and fifth centuries may have used gold and silver vessels in the shape of doves that were suspended above the altar to house the consecrated bread.(5)

» towers/sacrament houses – In the northern region of the Church, small Eucharistic towers began to appear in the sixth century that replaced the pyx for transporting the Eucharist. These towers eventually increased in size to become magnificent sacrament houses, glorious chambers built as worthy monuments for the Lord’s crucified Body.(6)

» aumbries – Yet another innovation that spread through Gaul in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, likely influenced by the popularity of monastic architecture, was reservation in a wall aumbry. This type of repository, usually located on a side wall of the sanctuary, was not only practical but was also a means of perpetuating a “sepulchre” notion of reservation.(7)

The Medieval Period

In the medieval Church—with its dual development of scholastic theology and the birth of formal Eucharistic devotions (Exposition, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, and processions)—the purpose and placement of the “tabernacle” became more fixed. Because people increasingly felt unworthy of the Eucharist, there developed the practice of ocular communion in which it was believed that simply gazing upon the Eucharist would provide the same grace as receiving it.(8)  Consequently, as cultic practices continued to escalate during the Middle Ages and as the priest became the sole consumer of the Lord’s Body and Blood, it was but a natural and efficient “advancement” to reserve the Eucharist on the main altar.

While the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) offered the first official decree that the Blessed Sacrament should be housed in the church building and locked securely away, it was the Roman Ritual of 1614 that mandated that the tabernacle must be placed on the principal altar or some other prominent minor altar.(9)  As a result, the Baroque period witnessed the construction of altars designed to be elaborate thrones for the Blessed Sacrament. “In the Presence of the Divine King, a kind of heavenly grand opera could be performed, with all the display of lights, jewels (mostly false), exquisite polyphonic singing and pageantry which commonly accompany a royal reception.”(10)  And so the tabernacle became a permanent fixture of the altar, and from there commanded a major influence upon liturgical mechanics and popular piety. It was not until the reforms of the Second Vatican Council—which promoted a clear separation between the acts of liturgical participation and private devotion—that the tabernacle would be theologically (and consequently, architecturally and artistically) reinterpreted according to the dual purposes of distribution to the sick and private adoration.

Concluding Remarks

From this brief examination of the practice of Eucharistic reservation, it should be abundantly clear that humble origins of practicality (making the fruits of the Eucharist available for those absent from the community) expanded in elaborate ways as the use of the sacred species extended beyond the act of eating. It should also be clear that the lack of universal regulations allowed for the triumph of local custom with regard to placement and design of the vessel for reservation. For example, unmistakable is the influence of art and architecture on the conception of the medieval tabernacle as the Church’s Eucharistic theology swelled and as its liturgical practice withered. In fact, such tension between theology and practice is still being worked out in a Church that reveres and honors the Lord’s awesome presence in both tabernacle and assembly—the subject of Part Two of our series.


(1) Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 65, in Willi Rordorf, et al., The Eucharist of the Early Christians, Trans. Matthew J. O'Connell (New York: Pueblo Publishing Co., 1978) 72.

(2) For example, see The Treatise on the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome, Bishop and Martyr, xxxii, eds., Gregory Dix and Henry Chadwick (London: The Alban Press, 1991).  In this early Church document that describes the liturgical situation in Rome ca. 215, the disputed author offers this regulation on reserving the Eucharist in the homes of the faithful: "And let all take care that no unbaptised person taste of the eucharist nor a mouse or other animal, and that none of it at all fall and be lost.  For it is the Body of Christ to be eaten by them that believe and not to be thought lightly of" (59).

(3) See Archdale A. King, Eucharistic reservation in the Western Church (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1965) 8 - 10.

(4) W.H. Freestone, The Sacrament Reserved (Milwaukee, WI: The Young Churchman Co., 1917) 188.

(5) See S.J.P. Van Dijk and J. Hazeldon Walker, The myth of the aumbry: Notes on medieval reservation practice and Eucharistic devotion (London: Burns and Oates, 1957) 31.

(6) See King, Eucharistic reservation in the Western Church, 41.  He quotes Pseudo-Germanus' Explanation of the Mass: "The body of the Lord is carried in a tower because the tomb of the Lord was cut out of the rock in the shape of a tower, and within it the bed where rested the Lord's body, when also the king of glory rose triumphantly."

(7) For an informative study on this method of Eucharistic reservation, see Gregory Dix, A Detection of Aumbries: With Other Notes on the History of Reservation (London: The Camelot Press, Ltd., 1942).

(8) See Nathan Mitchell, Cult and Controversy: The Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass (Studies in the Reformed Rites of the Catholic Church, Vol 4) (New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1982) 119.

(9) See R. Kevin Seasoltz, The house of God;: Sacred art and church architecture (New York: Herder and Herder, 1963) 184.  See also Mitchell, Cult and Controversy: The Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass (Studies in the Reformed Rites of the Catholic Church, Vol 4), 167-68.  He quotes Canon 20 of the Fourth Lateran Council: "We decree that in all churches the chrism and the eucharist be kept in safe custody under lock and key: so that no bold hand may get ahold of them for horrible and shameless purposes."

(10) Louis Bouyer, Liturgical Piety (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1954) 7.

Rev. Stephen S. Wilbricht, CSC is a doctoral student at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.


The Tabernacle: Tradition of Purpose and Place of Eucharistic Reservation (Part 2: Modern Liturgical Principles)

The Tabernacle: Tradition of Purpose and Place of Eucharistic Reservation (Part 3: What's a Parish to Do?)

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