The History and Forms of the Christian Altar: The Renaissance through Nineteenth Century

In the first two instalments of this series we considered the paleochristian form of the altar, cube-like and fashioned in either tomb form or table form, covered by an architectural canopy called the ciborium magnum. As we noted in those articles, by the eighth or ninth century we begin to see developments away from this ancient form as a direct result of the age or relics and the piety associated with displaying them on or near the altar. This transition would eventually lead toward altars becoming larger in size and, in some places (especially Northern Europe), toward the ciborium itself being replaced by riddle posts and curtains with a suspended canopy covering the altar. In other instances and places (especially Italy) the ciborium would persist even while the altar increased in its size, and temporary, decorative images might be placed behind the altar on certain liturgical occasions, functioning very much akin to a decorative altar screen -- though not quite in the same way we think of a reredos proper today. The evolution of the forms of the altar to that point of history looked something akin to this:  

The ancient predella typically featured in all of these forms and while candlesticks weren't originally placed on the altar itself -- instead around it or near it -- by the eleventh century this would begin to change such that candlesticks might be placed on the mensa at least during the liturgy proper.  With the increasing size of the altar, the tomb form also began to become the more common expression of altar design as they were better suited to structurally support the weight of these larger altars, however the tabernacle was still not yet on the altar, being reserved elsewhere in the church, sometimes in a hanging pyx, sometimes in an aumbry in the wall, or other times a Sacrament Tower. With this, we finally arrive at our present era of consideration: the age of the great reredoses and tabernacles.  

If the age of relics nudged us toward larger altars and pious displays in connection with it, it was the age of late medieval and counter-reformation Eucharistic piety that fully pushed it into what many now would popularly consider to be the 'traditional' altar. What had to date been relatively modest retables, relic shrines, or temporary decorative images placed behind the altar, would now start to increase in their scale and ornamentation, turning into what we would now term a reredos.  This would continue to develop throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods in a way that was consonant with the elaborate ornamentation and scale of the churches overall during these periods of history. 

By the sixteenth century, i.e. the counter-reformation period, gradines would also begin to multiply in size and number and the tabernacle would now come to take its (now familiar) place on the centre of the main altar of the church -- reflecting the Eucharistic piety of the time as well as the post-Tridentine emphasis on the doctrine of the Real Presence in response to protestant objections to the same. It was also during this period that we see the permanent placement of altar candlesticks and crosses on the altar or its gradines, their numbers now becoming more standardized. 

Evidently there are regional and stylistic variations that need to be accounted for here, for not every altar has a reredos attached, or an immense tabernacle -- while some had both. The following are indicative of some of the design variations that might be found throughout our present period of consideration:

It should also be noted that as the decades and centuries passed and Eucharistic exposition became an ever more popular expression of piety, so too do we begin to see the advent of permanent exposition thrones attached to these altars. This was particularly so during the eighteenth and nineteenth century and this development would result in a form of tabernacle that was even larger and more ornamental (see above right), the altar cross often coming to be placed where the monstrance would be when not in use.

As one might gather from what we've described, there were various forms that we might come across during this period. In the north of Europe we tended to see an emphasis on elaborate reredoses or altarpieces while in the south things tended more toward large gradines and tabernacles. The following presents a survey of some of the different types of altar that might be seen during this period of history.

The Triptych Reredos (popular especially in Northern Europe) with central tabernacle:

The model of large gradines with an even larger tabernacle (popular especially in Italy, the south of France, etc.):

The sculptural reredos:

The exposition throne:

A good example of the exposition throne model combined with a reredos, in this case a combined painted and sculptural altarpiece, a form common in the baroque and rococo ages

During the late nineteenth and especially twentieth century, these forms would begin to fall out of favour with liturgists under the premise that the altar had come to be secondary to these great reredoses and tabernacles and so in our next and final installment, we'll consider where things went during the twentieth century until the present day: the age of paloechristian revivalism and archeologism. 


Other Parts in this Series:

The Paleochristian and Early Medieval Forms

The Later Medieval Forms

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