The Function of the Ciborium Magnum

The ciborium, ciborium magnum, or baldachin, is an item of liturgical art that serves to cover over the altar. In terms of the why, on the one hand there seems to be a natural human imperative to cover over that which is of importance in part as a form of protection of the object from the elements. In a liturgical and architectural perspective, the ciborium also serves to draw attention to that which is at the centre of the church and the liturgy: namely the altar.  This becomes even more important the more grandiose and elaborate a space is, for within such contexts the altar can truly become 'lost' or even anti-climactic. 

To demonstrate the point, I thought we'd take a look at what is assuredly the most famous ciborium of all, that of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. One can find few more grandiose and large liturgical spaces than it. So then, what would happen is we removed the ciborium that sits over top the high altar of St. Peter's?

A closer look;

The function of the ciborium is aptly shown in this example. Effectively, the high altar disappears into the architecture. Our focus and attention shifts away from the altar itself and instead we start to focus our attention on the alabaster window with its gilt sculptural details surrounding it. We look at the golden coloured apse with its sculptural details and also at the statuary depicting the four Doctors of the Church. 

Finally, after taking all of that in, we might finally notice that there is an altar there.

By contrast, when the ciborium is present, it becomes a flag, drawing our attention to what it covers, the altar. From a visual, hierarchical point of view, it very quickly becomes obvious what the centre of attention is. 

This function was also accomplished by other elements, such as the reredos, in later forms of liturgical architecture, but in an age of freestanding altars, the ciborium (along with the predella) is an absolutely critical part of ensuring that our liturgical architecture appropriately presents to people the proper focus and hierarchy of a church's components. 

Do you like Liturgical Arts Journal's original content? You can help support LAJ in its mission and vision to promote beauty in Catholic worship either by: 

You choose the amount! Your support makes all the difference.

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.