Revisiting the Ciborium Magnum

When one thinks of the great basilicas of Rome, while there are many artistic and architectural elements to attract one's eye, invariably one's eye is drawn to the ciborium magnum -- and, thus, to the very altar itself which it covers and enshrines.  The word "ciborium" may be confusing for some as in modern terms it is used especially in reference to the small chalice like vessel which contains the hosts that are distributed at Mass and kept in the tabernacle outside of Mass. However in paleo-Christian usage it also came with reference to the great altar canopy which covered the altar.  

The purpose of this architectural feature is in part practical, namely to cover and protect the altar, and it also served to lend dignity and prominence to the altar. 

This architectural feature is spoken of accordingly by St. Germanus of Constantinople in his Ecclesiastical History:
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.
Not all churches have this feature of course, though outside the ancient basilicas we can find many modern examples as well as it was one of the features revived by the earlier and more sound incarnations of the Liturgical Movement. Regrettably, these were not infrequently found to be as quickly lost as they had been gained as the fads and fashions of the more progressivist school of the Liturgical Movement took hold in the latter half of the 20th century.

St. Macartan's Cathedral, Ireland. Before and After.

This, however, is a topic for another day.

Those interested in learning more about the ciborium may wish to refer to an earlier article we published on LAJ on this subject,  The Altar and Its Canopy: The Ciborium Magnum or Baldachin.

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