In the New Law the altar is the table on which the Eucharistic Sacrifice is offered. Mass may sometimes be celebrated outside a sacred place, but never without an altar, or at least an altar-stone. In ecclesiastical history we find only two exceptions: St. Lucian (312) is said to have celebrated Mass on his breast whilst in prison, and Theodore Bishop of Tyre on the hands of his deacons (Mabillon, Praef. in 3 saec., n. 79). According to Radulphus of Oxford (Prop. 25), St. Sixtus II (257-259) was the first to prescribe that Mass should be celebrated on an altar, and the rubric of the missal (XX) is merely a new promulgation of the law. It signifies, according to Amalarius (De Eccles. Officiis, I, xxiv) the Table of the Lord ( mensa Domini ), referring to the Last Supper, or the Cross (St. Bernard, De Coena Domini), or Christ (St. Ambrose, IV, De Sacram. xii; Abbot Rupert, V, xxx). The last meaning explains the honour paid to it by incensing it, and the five crosses engraved on it signify His five wounds .
In the ancient basilicas the priest, as he stood at the altar, faced the people. The basilicas of the Roman Empire were, as a rule, law courts or meeting places. They were generally spacious, and the interior area was separated by two, or, it might be, four rows of pillars, forming a central nave and side aisles. The end opposite the entrance had a semi-circular shape, called the apse, and in this portion, which was raised above the level of the floor, sat the judge and his assessors, while right before him stood an altar upon which sacrifice was offered before beginning any important public business.
When these public buildings were adapted for Christian assemblies, slight modifications were made. The apse was reserved for the bishop and his clergy ; the faithful occupied the centre and side aisles, while between the clergy and people stood the altar. Later on the altar was placed, in churches, in the apse against, or at least near, the wall, so that the priest when celebrating faced the east, and behind him the people were placed. In primitive times there was but one altar in each church. St. Ignatius the Martyr, Cyprian, Irenaeus, and Jerome, speak of only one altar ( Benedict XIV, De Sacr. Missae, no. 1, xvii). Some think that more than one altar existed in the Cathedral of Milan in the time of St. Ambrose, because he sometimes uses the word altaria , although others are of opinion that altaria in this place means an altar. Towards the end of the sixth century we find evidence of a plurality of altars, for St. Gregory the Great sent relics for four altars to Palladius, Bishop of Saintes, France, who had placed in a church thirteen altars, four of which remained unconsecrated for want of relics. Although there was only one altar in each church, minor altars were erected in side chapels, which were distinct buildings (as is the custom in the Greek, and some Oriental Churches even at the present day) in which Mass was celebrated only once on the same day in each church ( Benedict XIV, Ibidem). The fact that in the early ages of Christianity only the bishop celebrated Mass, assisted by his clergy, who received Holy Communion from the bishop's hands, is the reason that only one altar was erected in each church, but after the introduction of private Masses the necessity of several altars in each church arose.
Although no documents are extant to indicate the material of which altars were made in the first centuries of Christianity, it is probable that they were made of wood, like that used by Christ at the Last Supper. At Rome such a wooden table is still preserved in the Lateran Basilica, and fragments of another such table are preserved in the church of St. Pudentiana, on which St. Peter is said to have celebrated Mass. During the persecutions, when the Christians were forced to move from one place to another, and Mass was celebrated in crypts, private houses, the open air, and catacombs, except when the arcosolia were used (see below, FORM OF AN ALTAR), it is but natural to suppose that they were made of wood, probably wooden chests carried about by the bishops, on the lid of which the Eucharistic Sacrifice was celebrated. St. Optatus of Mileve ( De Schismate Donatistarum ) reproves the Donatists for breaking up and using for firewood the altars of the Catholic churches, and St. Augustine (Epist. clxxxv) reports that Bishop Maximianus was beaten with the wood of the altar under which he had taken refuge. We have every reason to suppose that in places in which the persecutions were not raging, altars of stone also were in use. St. Gregory Thaumaturgus in the third century built a vast basilica in Neo-Caesarea in which it is probable that more substantial altars were erected. St. Gregory of Nyssa speaks of the consecration of an altar made of stone ( De Christi Baptismate ). Pulcheria, sister of Theodosius II, presented an altar of gold to the Basilica of Constantinople; St. Helena gave golden altars ornamented with precious stones to the church which was erected on the site where the Cross had been concealed for three hundred years; the Popes St. Sixtus III (432-440) and St. Hilary (461-468) presented several altars of silver to the churches of Rome. Since wood is subject to decay, the baser metals to corrosion, and the more precious metals were too expensive, stone became in course of time the ordinary material for an altar. Besides, stone is durable and, according to St. Paul ( 1 Corinthians 10:4 ), symbolizes Christ -- "And the rock was Christ". The Roman Breviary (9 November) asserts that St. Sylvester (314-335) was the first to issue a decree that the altar should be of stone. But of such a decree there is no documentary evidence, and no mention is made of it in canon law, in which so many other decrees of this Pope are inserted. Moreover, it is certain that after that date altars of wood and of metal were erected. The earliest decree of a council which prescribed that an altar which is to be consecrated should be of stone is that of the provincial council of Epeaune (Pamiers), France, in 517 (Labbe, Concil. tom. V, col. 771). The present discipline of the Church requires that for the consecration of an altar it must be of stone.
In the primitive times there were two kinds of altars:
The Liber Pontificalis states that St. Felix I decreed that Mass should be celebrated on the tombs of martyrs. This no doubt brought about both a change of form, from that of a simple table to that of a chest or tomb, and the rule that every altar must contain the relics of martyrs. Usually the altar was raised on steps, from which the bishop sometimes preached (see ALTAR-STEPS). Originally it was made in the shape of an ordinary table, but gradually a step was introduced behind it and raised slightly above it (see ALTAR-LEDGE). When the tabernacle was introduced the number of these steps was increased. The altar is covered, at least in basilicas and also in large churches, by a canopy supported by columns, called the ciborium (see ALTAR- CANOPY), upon which were placed, or from which were suspended, vases, crowns, baskets of silver, as decorations. From the middle of the ciborium, formerly, a gold or silver dove was suspended to serve as a pyx in which the Blessed Sacrament was reserved. Veils or curtains were attached to the columns which supported the ciborium. (See ALTAR-CURTAIN) The altar was often encircled by railings of wood, or metal, called cancelli , or by low walls of marble slabs called tranennae. According to the present discipline of the Church , there are two kinds of altars, the fixed and the portable. Both these denominations have a twofold meaning, i.e. an altar may be fixed or portable either in a wider sense or in the liturgical meaning. A fixed altar, in a wider sense, is one that is attached to a wall, a floor, or a column whether it be consecrated or not; in the liturgical ; sense it is a permanent structure of stone, consisting of a consecrated table and support, which must be built on a solid foundation. A portable altar in a wider sense is one that may be carried from one place to another in the liturgical sense it is a consecrated altar-stone, sufficiently large to hold the Sacred Host and the greater part of the base of the chalice. It is inserted in the table of an altar which is not a consecrated fixed altar.
The component parts of a fixed altar in the liturgical sense are the table ( mensa ), the support ( stipes ) and the sepulchrum . (See ALTAR-CAVITY.) The table must be a single slab of stone firmly joined by cement to the support, so that the table and support together make one piece. The surface of this table should be perfectly smooth and polished. Five Greek crosses are engraved on its surface, one at each of the four corners, about six inches from both edges. but directly above the support, and one in the centre. The support may be either a solid mass or it may consist of four or more columns. These must be of natural stone, firmly joined to the table. The substructure need not, however, consist of one piece, but should in every case be built on a solid foundation so as to make the structure permanent. The support may have any of the following forms:
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