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Liturgical altar

Serpentine liturgical altar of the Chalard abbey 12th centuries

Romanesque Altar - crypt of the Soubrebost church

The liturgical enamel altar


In the medieval hierarchy of spaces the altar represents the summit. It is obviously the place where the body of the Christ is devoted. It is also the place where the body is lying: the converted elements (bread and water) during the mass and also the original rituals of consecration. The OrdoRomanys XLII dated from the first part of the 8th century envisaged the introduction in the sepulcher three pieces of host mixed with the saints’ relics before its solemn closing. The same ordo had brought the bones on a paten, specific support of the Eucharistic bread. These prescriptions link in an exemplary way the body of the Christ and the holly bodies, so Eucharist and relics. It seems undeniable that the cult of the relics in all its medieval harmonic wealth would have been impossible without the dogmatic development which valorized the Eucharist. There are “real bodies” of saints like there is the real body of the Christ and the natural place of this connection is the altar. The altar is more than a table and a confection phenomenon as we just talked. His rapport with the Christ might be until the assimilation (but not a systematic movement). For every branch of the monastic hierarchy, the altar is the body of the Christ itself.


(Source - Les espaces de la liturgie au Moyen Âge latin)


In the Roman case, most of churches were « occidental » that means the apse was turned to the west : for example it is the case for the basilica of Latran, the church of the bishop of Rome funded by Constantin whose entrance is located to the east and the apse with the altar to the west. This phenomenon is not unique, especially in the high Antiquity but it lasted in the City and became in the Middle Age a true “roman motif” like the liturgical texts proved but which had a short and punctual influence elsewhere. It has for consequence that the celebrant behind the altar looked to the east and so in front of the faithful, and that required to adapt the roman ritual where the “orientalization” of the apse dominated. In Latran or in St Peter, the pope “according to the Roman customs” was in charge “the face turned toward the people”. At the end of the Middle Age however, especially from the 13th century the question of the orientation east-west had to dissociate architectural orientation and liturgical orientation, even if this orientation still subsisted in architecture. Associated to a painted or sculpted altarpiece, these lateral altars orientated again the liturgical celebration like this one operated face to the representation and so turned back on the people: “in consequence the celebration versus populum was adopted after considerations quite stranger of the east or the west orientation” like it is the case in the Sixtin chapel. Later, from the 16th century, the deletion of the former link between architecture, liturgy and symbolism rendered obsolete the principle of orientation to the east.


(Source - Art médiéval. Les voies de l’espace liturgique, éd. Paolo Piva)


If we find again in Limousin granite altars, some like the one of the abbey of Chalard are made of serpentine, the « limousine marble ». For prestigious abbeys the materials could be from further. The chronicle of Geoffroy of Vigeois told the transport of the altar table coming from Narbonne and brought back by the monk Simplicius (throughout Albi, Figeac and Tulle) for the abbey of Saint-Martial of Limoges. The chronicles told that the entrance of the Castrum of Capdenac had to be increased by knocking down a piece of wall to let the cart get out.



They played a major role in the definition of the sacred space in the Antiquity and in the Middle Age. The portable altars constitute a liturgical object essential and necessary to the proceedings of rituals such as the celebration of the Eucharist in the context of pilgrimages, or on a battlefield in the context of war or in missions of evangelization.


Beside the liturgical functions, the portable altars enabled all along the Antiquity and the Middle Age a deep theological reflection about the Christian sacred space and the notion of “ritual place”. More than a book about the objects, this book proposes a wide exploration of the Christian sacred space from a theological but also liturgical and exegetic and iconographic speech about the portable altars.


The production of the Work of Limoges in enamels from the 13th century gave some realizations of alters covered with enameled plaques and tabernacles.


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