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The Origins and Symbolism of the Ciborium

September 1st, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

(left) Ciborium, St. Mary's Church Canandaigua; (right) Baldachin, St. Peter's Basilica, Rome

The photograph of the chancel area of St. Mary’s in Canandaigua reminded me of a subject I’ve been wanting to post about: the altar ciborium.

An architectural monument over the altar originated with the earliest Christian churches. Such a memorial is normally called a ciborium but if the design looks more like a canopy partially constructed in imitation of fabric type materials it is called a baldachin (or baldacchino, in Italian). The memorial over the altar of St. Mary’s in Canandaigua is a ciborium; the canopy over the high altar of St. Peter’s in Rome is a baldachin.

(left) Original Ciborium over St. Peter's Grave, St. Peter's Basilica, 4th c. , Rome; (right) The Aedicula of the Church of the Holy Selpuchre, Jerusalem

Two churches in particular established the tradition of constructing altars with a ciborium: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Both, of course, were (at least) begun under the reign of Constantine the Great and were of the type called martyria, or churches built over the graves of saints (martyrs). The Church of the Holy Sepulchre memorializes the tomb of Christ with an aedicula (shrine) and the original St. Peter’s marked the grave of the first pope with a ciborium. The ciborium was actually in imitation of a rather rarely used funerary

A Cross-road Tetraphylon, Turkey

structure called a tetrapylon, a stone or marble memorial consisting of four arches supporting a vaulted canopy sometimes used to memorialize the grave of a notable. The tetrapylon was normally an monumental fourway gate that spanned the intersection of two major roads. On rare occasions, however, a version of the form became a more pretentious type of mausoleum. It was usd mostly in the Eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. Such a tetraphylon, for example, stood over the grave of St. John the Evangelist at Ephesus perhaps as early as 300.1

Related, obviously, are the tables or mensae found at grave sites, sometimes over the grave or next to it, sometimes in the open air and sometimes in a mausoleum. The mensa was used for celebratory meals by family and friends in memory of the deceased. Mensae at the tombs of the martyrs became the altars at which the Mass was celebrated in martyria.

The two structures, then, the tetrapylon and mensa came together at the churches of the Holy Sepulchre and St. Peter’s, the two most important grave sites to Christians. Not surprisingly, those two churches –among the first Christian churches built– influenced the design and layout of subsequent churches. In fact, other than St. John Lateran, all the churches initiated by Constantine near Rome were martyria basilicas and not normal parish churches. They all had the tetrapylon (ciborium) structure over the altar. During the fifth century and onward, the relics of saints/martyrs buried outside the cities were gradually transferred to the parish churches within the cities and with them the tradition of memorializing the saint with the tetrapylon or ciborium. Since the saint had died “in Christ” the ciborium also symbolized the tomb of the Holy Sepulchre from which Christ had resurrected. What a symbol of hope for the faithful!

Ciborium with closed curtain; from a mosaic in the church of St. George in Thessalonika, Greece

As Old Testament analogies to the Eucharistic sacrifice and hierarchic priesthood developed in the third and fourth century, the ciborium began to also symbolize, along with the chancel area in general, the Holy of Holies of the Old Testament Temple.2 Curtains were hung between the columns of the ciborium and kept closed except for Mass; opened for Mass to symbolize the rending of the Temple’s curtain and subsequent, unobstructed accessibility to God. The sense of the doctrine of transubstantiation (actually making its first appearance in the East in the fourth century, several centuries earlier than in the West)3 contributed yet another layer of meaning to the ciborium: as designating the presence of the Body and Blood of Christ, upon the altar.

There are other Old Testament analogies we could cite and more history as to its usage but for this post I just wanted to explain its origins and early symbolic references. Much contemporary church architecture has lost the focus that used to be on the altar,  diffusing it throughout the interior space (supposedly to those assembled there). The addition of a ciborium over the altar would be an excellent way to return our primary –and traditional– attention to the altar and recapture the sense of sacred space.  This would be a relatively simple project in many churches with free-standing altars.  Our renovated Sacred Heart Cathedral would benefit by the addition of a ciborium over the altar.

There are other, abbreviated or derivative versions (dossal and tester) of the ciborium that could be used in situations where a full scale ciborium would not be possible.4

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1 Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, Richard Krautheimer, revised with Slobodan Curcic, (New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 1986) p. 36

2The Orthodox Liturgy, Hugh Wybrew, (Crestwood, St. Vladimir’s Press, 1990), p. 33

3 Wybrew 34-35

4 see “Eucharistic Reductionism” and Avoiding Past Mistakes, Matthew Alderman, New Liturgical Movement, Friday, August 27, 2010

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7 Responses to “The Origins and Symbolism of the Ciborium”

  1. avatar RochChaCha says:

    Bernie,

    Interesting. Thanks for sharing. I looked at the photos of St. Mary’s ‘Ciborium’ and St. Peter’s ‘Baldachino’ but I am not sure why St. Peter’s would not also be a Ciborium. Does the St. Peter’s one actually use a fabric on top? It’s hard to tell from the pics.

  2. avatar Bernie says:

    RochChaCha:
    Look between the columns and hanging from the architrave/entablature are repeated shield shapes from which hang tassels. All of that is made of bronze but it imitates the heavily brocaded canopies used over the monstrance/Blessed Sacrament when carried in procession (not much used anymore). The baldachin also utilizes the architrave/entablature architectural form that sets on top of the columns. Resting on that, in turn, is often a pyramidal or conical form similar to what you see in St. Peter’s baldachin. Sometimes a baldachin over the altar is made of actual fabric.

  3. avatar Mike says:

    Bernie,

    You have my vote to lead the restoration of Sacred Heart Cathedral beginning, God willing, on July 16, 2012.

  4. avatar Bernie says:

    Mike,

    Thanks. Much damage has been done to Sacred Heart.

    One problem with the current arrangement is the inappropriate emphasis on the organ and organist/pianist and choir and their movements. A gothic style ciborium with brightly colored painted or sculpted figures and patterns in imitation of the ceiling beams would return the visual emphasis to the altar as well as help focus the necessary Catholic sense of hierarchic sacred space.

  5. avatar Mike says:

    I have yet to attend Mass at Sacred Heart but I was there one evening last fall for the diocesan St. Cecelia awards. Not too surprisingly for DOR, the focus of attention was on various adult musicians instead of the kids who were supposed to be the evening’s honorees. And, of course, there were the obligatory “liturgical dancers” (I’ve heard they’re called “liturgical movers” now).

    But my biggest objection was that organ: It is simply too overpowering – both physically and acoustically – for the space.

  6. Thank you for this post. Found it really useful. Are you in England. Do you know the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield, West Yorkshire England? By your explanation, is it correct to say that what they have is a baldachin and not a ciborium?

  7. avatar Bernie says:

    Kensington Gallery:

    We’ve been to England a few times but we’ve not been there. I briefly stopped by the Community’s website but didn’t see a picture with the baldachin in it.

    Generally, if the area of the architrave/entablature looks anything like it is meant to imitate fabric or drapery then you probably have a baldachin. In some cases it actually is fabric. Another indication is the presence of a pyramidal top of sorts. I don’t really think that in common parlance it makes much difference which term you use. I find that most people -even scholars at times- use the terms interchangeably.

    We are located in a suburb of Rochester, New York.


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