What’s in an Altar?
Since I’m starting a series on studying the history of the Christian church within its artistic, theological, historical context, I knew there was no better place to begin than a study of the altar. This is no foreign concept for most Christians, albeit it is becoming more of an antiquated word as more Christians are leaving their liturgical roots. I hope to attempt to shed what little light I know on this topic, in the hopes of someone coming to a greater appreciation of this aspect liturgy if they do worship liturgically, or perhaps a peaked interest in liturgical worship if they don’t.
The altar (from the Latin alti “high” and arere “to burn”) has been viewed historically as central and prominent location within worship where communion with God took place. Within almost every area of Christendom, there is an altar. For Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Jews, and the Reformed all have had an altar present as one of the key pieces necessary for worship, for both practical and symbolical reasons. For Roman Catholics, it is where Christ’s body and blood is re-sacrificed for the people. For the Reformed, it is where we, the body of Christ, partake of the Lord’s Supper, broken for us.
From the Old Testament perspective, the altar was where sacrifices and offerings took place, oaths were sealed, and covenants created (see Noah’s altar (Gen. 8:20-21), Abraham’s three separate altars (Gen. 12:7, 13:14-18, 26:24-25), and Jacob’s altar (Genesis 22:10-22)).
Several of the first altars were wooden, have been adorned with crosses and candles, as you can see in the painting by Simone Martini, Scenes from the Life of Saint Martin: The Miracle at Mass, 1312-17. If one looks closely as well, one can also see preparatory cloths on this altar, one longer and one shorter. This Catholic painting dates back to the late 1200’s, but paintings of altars date back far earlier.
One painting that I know of stuck out to me in particular on this topic of altar is not one of just an altar, but of a table as well. We see in Dirk Bout’s Last Supper, which is the central panel of several paintings in St. Peter’s in Louvain, Belgium. Bouts was a master artist, and was talented above the artistic boundaries of his time. Aside from his artistic skills, the theological implications of his Last Supper in particular are edifying for any Christian alike.
I know, I know, it’s an image of Christ. But bear with me.
Within this painting we can spot several important things that enlighten us about what an altar is, or rather what an altar. First, Bout places Christ as the central figure within the painting — not Judas, or John, which was who was typically highlighted in paintings depicting the Supper. We see here the notable role of Christ as a priest figure to the disciples.
Here (The Communion of the Apostles) is another notable example of paintings of the Supper that show these points as well.
Note here the prominence (by color alone) of Christ and also the altar/table behind him. We see Christ here breaking the bread for his disciples, a chalice of wine on the table, Judas lurking in the back, and the order in the painting of all the figures centered around Christ and the table. The presence of the holy permeates the painting — you can see it in every face of the disciples, and even those present who are not disciples.
Within Christianity, and for the Christian personally, there’s a theological shift from the OT to the NT — where once was known as simply an altar within the OT, through Christ, the altar has become both an altar and a table. Where once just impersonal sacrifices were made, now offerings can be shared. Even within the Old Testament we begin to see these images of feasting (Psalm 23). Within the New Testament, Christ’s entrance into this world was in a feeding trough, shared by the animals, and in His final days, the first Lord Supper’s was broken and shared.
The altar in the Old Testament for us should always point forward — forward to Christ, forward to his body broken and blood shed, and forward to reconciliation with the Father through Christ’s sacrifice. What we see is the Old Testament altar has now becoming a place where family under one Lord as one body. The Supper is the fulcrum and highlight of the worship service, so where it takes place is obviously of the top level of importance from a liturgical standpoint.