Built In Art



(Arat, Lat - autel, Fr.) An elevated table of either stone, marble, or wood, dedicated to particular ceremonies of religious worship. SEE MORE-->


The earliest authentic notice of altars occurs in Holy Writ, where it is said that " Noah built an altar to the Lord." In the patriarchal times it is evident that they were made in the simplest manner, and generally of single blocks of stone.

The principal altars, under the Judaic ritual, were those of incense, burnt-offering, and the table of skew-bread. The first was small, and of shittim-wood (the good of innocence") , overlaid with plates of gold; the table for the shew-bread was of the same materials, but of a more extended size; and that for the burnt-offerings was a large coffer of shittim-wood, covered with brass, within which, suspended from the horns of the four corners, was a grate of brass whereon the fire was made and sacrifices were laid.

After the Jews returned from captivity in Babylon, the altar was differently constructed; but, in general, it was a pyramidal pile of stones.

That erected by Joshua, at the command of Moses, was of unknown stone. Solomon's was of brass and unknown stones; and the altar built by Zerubbabel and the Macca-bees was of similar stones. All the nations of antiquity considered large, massive, unhewn stones, to be emblematic of dignity and power.

Antiquity Altars

The heathens made their primitive altars of turf: wood, stone, and marble, were afterwards used; and, at Delos, the altar of Apollo was of horn. Their form, as well as material, varied considerably, being round, square, triangular.

Matronae altar Bonn

They were commonly placed to face the east; stood lower than the statues of the divinities to whom they were consecrated; aud were frequently adorned with sculptured representations of the gods, or of their symbols. According to the superior character of the divinity were their height and name. Those to the celestial gods were placed on lofty substructures, whence called alt aria, from alta and ara, " a high or elevated altar." Those terrestrially consecrated were called ara, and were laid on the surface of the earth; whilst others, inscribed to the infernal deities, were placed in pits and excavations.

Altar of Hercules, Glanum, France

Before temples were generally constructed, altars were often placed in groves, and dedicated to certain gods; also by the sides of highways; and on the tops of mountains. In the great temples of ancient Rome, there were ordinarily three altars. The first, upon which incense was burnt, and libations offered, was raised in the sanctuary, at the foot of the statue of the divinity; the second stood before the gate of the temple, and on it were sacrificed the victims; and the third, upon which were placed the offerings and the sacred vessels, was portable.

Altar of ara pacis augustae
Altar of Augustan Peace,13-9 BC

In the Roman houses, small altars were dedicated to the lares, penates, and genii. In the camps they were stationed before the general's tent.

Among the Greeks and Romans, altars were resorted to as asylums, or places of refuge, by slaves who fled from the cruelty of their masters; also by debtors, and criminals of every description.

On many solemn occasions it was customary to swear by and upon altars. In the Celtic, or Druidical temples, there were altars; and it is generally agreed that a flat stone, near the western part of the interior area of Stonehenge, was used for that purpose. Cromlechs are considered to have been used as altars by some antiquaries.

Christian Altars

The Christian altar consists of an elevated surface, tabular in form, on which the Sacrifice of the Mass is offered. The earliest Scripture reference to the altar is in St. Paul (1 Corinthians 10:21); the Apostle contrasts the "table of the Lord" (trapeza Kyriou) on which the Eucharist is offered, with the "table of devils", or pagan altars.

altar capella greca 2th c.
7 people seated at a semi-circular table, Fractio Panis fresco, Capella Greca, 2d c.


In the Christian church the principal altar is almost invariably situated at the eastern end of the choir, or presbytery. In the early ages altars were made of wood, and were mostly small, plain, and portable; but, on the establishment of Christianity under Constantine, stone was used. Pope Sylvester, in the early part of the fourth century, decreed that stone altars should be generally adopted; but the wooden one in the Lateran church at Rome was left as a memorial of former usage. The sixth canon of the council of Hippo forbade the consecration of any altar unless made of stone; and the same prohibition was repeated by the Epauniensian council, in the beginning of the sixth century. Erasmus mentions a wooden altar as remaining in his time at Canterbury Cathedral.

Where wooden altars were retained, a marble, or stone, slab was always used to cover them. " Altare portabile consecrationem amittit, cum lapis aligno avellitur"

Notre Dame ofParis altar

Christian altars are generally in the form of small oblong tables, but they are sometimes made to resemble sarcophagi. The early Christians were accustomed to assemble for public worship at the tombs of saints and martyrs; and they afterwards raised altars at the places where the bodies of such persons had been interred. Hence, probably, originated the monumental shape, and the general usage of enclosing holy relics within them. These being inserted, the aperture was closed up with a small stone, termed sigillum altarin, and with mortar tempered with holy water.

The churches of the Greek Christians have but one altar to each; and it is generally admitted that the Latin churches did not contain more before the sixth century. From that time altars appear to have become very numerous. Bingham remarks that there are no fewer than twenty-five, besides the high altar, in St. Peter's Church, at Rome and Battely enumerates thirty-seven altars in Canterbury Cathedral prior to the Reformation. Their increase became so extensive in the time of Charles the Great, that he ordered the number to be reduced.

Saint Denis Basilica Altar
Saint Denis Basilica Altar

In some parish churches, there were various altars dedicated to different saints; that of Lambeth, in Surrey, had five, besides the high altar. The decorations of Roman Catholic altars were often very splendid, being richly adorned with carving or embossed work; they were also sometimes studded with precious stones and metals. The high altar in St. Augustin's Church, at Canterbury, was not only embellished in a costly manner, but was accompanied by eight shrines, containing relics: of this, an engraved representation is given in Somnert "Antiquities of Canterbury," copied from an ancient drawing in Trinity Hall, Cambridge. On great festivals, all the relics of a church were displayed on the high altar, which was illumined by numerous wax tapers.

In the cathedral church of York there were two altars covered with plates of gold and silver; one of which, ornamented with a profusion of gems, supported a lofty and splendid crucifix. Above it were three ranges of lamps in a pharos of very large dimensions. Bequests were often made to provide candlesticks, sconces, lamps, and oil, for the different altars.

altar of sylvanus

In some parts of the country a tax, called hot-shot, was levied to furnish wax for the same purpose. On the accession of Queen Elizabeth, injunctions were issued for taking down the altars in parish churches, and substituting in their stead the plain communion-tables.

Numerous entries on this subject appear in the church-wardens' books, which prove a strict compliance with the queen's order. In the " Accompts of the Parish of St. Helen's, Abingdon, Berks."

Sources & References

The Architectural History of the Christian Church By AG HILL

The House Of God: Church Architecture, Style And History By Edward R. Norman

Dictionary of the Architecture and Archeology of the Middle Ages by John Britton FSA

Dictionnaire Raisonné de l'Archictecture, Vol I, Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc

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