The Elements of the Altar or Holy Table in the Byzantine Tradition

While we have covered off considerations of the altar in the Latin rite, we have yet to ever provide any description of the adornment of the altar -- or "holy table" -- in the Byzantine East.  Many of you have no doubt seen images of such altars at some point and no doubt many will have wondered about the particular elements found on them. In view of this, and being a firm believer that it is ideal as a part of any liturgical formation to strive to have at least some basic familiarity of these variations, I thought it would be good to touch on this subject for our readers.

An illustration taken from the book, A Manual of the Orthodox Church's Divine Services, will help us to explore this.

First it is worth noting that the form of a typical Byzantine altar approximates something closer to the earlier, cube shaped form of the Christian altar -- though tit is not strictly a cube as you will see. Found on these altars you will see the tabernacle, a seven branched candlestick called a "polycandil," the liturgical flabellae (fans), the Book of the Gospels, a hand held cross and the antimension or "antimins" (something akin to a corporal in the Latin rite). 

The following description taken from the aforementioned book helps to explain further both in relation to the altar proper and the sanctuary generally in the Byzantine East:

For those who perform divine service, the Eastern part of the church is set aside... Persons not consecrated to the service of the church are not permitted to enter this part of it. The sanctuary is divided from the worshippers by a curtain, and a partition or screen.... 
In the middle of the Sanctuary their stands a square table; it is the altar; also called Holy Throne, because the Lord is present on it, or Holy Table... The altar, as being the place on which rests the Glory of the Lord, is vested with two coverings; the first is of white linen, the second or outer covering is of rich brocade. Upon the altar is laid a silken or linen cloth, on which is represented the Descent from the Cross and the preparation of Christ's body for interment. This cloth is called the Antimins, which means "what is instead of the altar." The origin of the Antimins is as follows: The law demands that a Christian church shall be consecrated by a bishop; as there was not always one on hand to do so, and besides, movable churches had to be organized for travellers, it became usual for bishops to consecrate only the upper boards of the altar, or even only linen or silken cloths, which, after signing them with their name, they sent to new-built churches, or gave to people who were starting on a journey. Later on, Antimins because a necessary feature of every altar, even in such churches as had been personally consecrated by bishops. Into every Antimins is sewed a particle of some holy relic... in memory of the fact that in early times Christians used to assemble for divine service on or by the tombs of martyrs, and in token that the Saints, being near to God, intercede for us with their prayers. If the church is consecrated by a bishop, the relic is placed under the center of the altar, upon a stand and in a special small casket, to keep it from injury; it is wrapped in a silken cloth called pleiton, which means "a wrap." 
Indispensable attributes of the altar are the Cross and the Testament. The Cross is laid there as a sign of Christ's victory over the Devil and of our deliverance, and the Testament, because it is the book which contains the Word of Christ, by following which we may obtain salvation... 
The Testament which is kept on the altar always has a beautiful binding... 
Besides the Cross and Testament there stands on the altar an ark or tabernacle, in which are preserved the Holy Gifts (the Body of Christ, saturated with His Blood), reserved for giving communion to the sick, and to others at times when it is not lawful to celebrate the Liturgy. These tabernacles are sometimes made in the shape of a coffin, or a sepulchral cave, in which case they are called "Graves" -- at other times in the shape of a temple. A temple-shaped tabernacle, used, in old times, to be called "Zion" or "Jerusalem." All tabernacles alike are called "Ciboriums." [...] 
Sometimes a canopy is erected over the altar, one four columns, and beneath it hovers a dove with outspread wins, a symbol of the Holy Ghost.
As you see, while there are distinctive differences between this and the Latin rite, in all its essentials and fundamentals we can find more similarities than differences, once again showing forth the common roots of the Christian East and West.

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