Altars and Alterations (Part II)

Further to recent discussions of the proper form of layout for Maronite churches, I chanced across the splendidly illustrated and recent book by Nicholas N. Patricios, The Sacred Architecture of Byzantium: Art, Liturgy and Symbolism in Early Christian Churches, I.B. Tauris, London (2014). Despite it beauty, it has the significant drawback of not referencing many of his assertions. Further, there is a tendency to present the development of Christian art, liturgy and symbolism as being rather neat.

Still, much of it seems accurate to me, and his views are worth considering. Although some of them pertain not directly to early Maronite but rather to early Christian practice, they often touch important topics, and we can see from them principles which are applicable to us. For instance, speaking of the early Church, he says:

“The focus of the liturgy is the consecration of the Eucharist on the Holy Table. The absence of examples from the early centuries is due to the use of perishable wooden tables. They were ordinary, of no particular size or shape. In some catacomb frescoes a three-legged table seemed popular. The Holy Table is usually free-standing to allow the priest, and deacons if present, to circulate around it during certain portions of the liturgy. Holy Tables were initially modest and of limited size but over time they came to be made of stone or marble, or even precious metals … with rich coverings, usually heavy brocade. In the larger churches from the fourth century onward a structure was placed over the Holy Table to emphasize it architecturally. In the East the structure took the form of a cupola carried on four pillars, known as a ciborium … whereas in the West it was more usual to find a baldachin, a canopy with a conical or pyramidal roof.” (78)

This is important, not only because it shows how wrong is the idea that ancient altars were like early modern structures for the Tridentine Mass, but also that there has been significant development. This should be remembered before we start to become fixated on restoring something which was ancient because it was ancient. We have to consider what is needed, and what is appropriate, what conduces to the aim of the liturgy (the worship of God), and to the sense that this is the house of God (as opposed to a yoga room). We should take serious account of what has been done, and that is enough to show that something is possible. But we also need to ask, why did people stop doing this? Is there a reason for doing something different? Can we adopt this, even a little, to achieve the same divine end?

Moving on, Patricios states that: “In the early churches a synthronon (‘with throne’ …), a semi-circular bench for the clergy to sit on when the scriptures were read during the Divine Liturgy, lined the back wall of the apse in basilican type churches. … There was a functional reason for the bishop’s throne to be at the top of the synthronon. It was so that he could both be seen and see above the Holy Table during the service. From his throne the bishop would preach, seated flanked on either side by clergy.” (79)

So once more, at least in these churches, the altar was not at the wall. The area behind the altar (the apse) was, as I have said in my book it now is for the Maronite Church, the area of the Father. That this is not an innovation is shown, Patricios points out, by the fact that this is the arrangement is the Book of Revelation 4:2-10 (79-80). Incidentally, the Book of Revelation (the Apocalypse) is of the first importance for understanding the faith: it is the bookend to the Book of Genesis. It is also a profoundly liturgical book. I shall go into that in more detail, in future articles.

Patricios continues: “Initially the bishop delivered the sermon while seated on the throne following the Jewish custom. When this position at the back of the apse was found inconvenient it is likely that a portable chair, most likely of wood, would be placed in front of the bema.” (80). He also notes that the pilgrim, Egeria notes that at Jerusalem, a throne was placed for the bishop in the apse, behind the altar (81). Egeria was a pilgrim to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in the 380s, whose diary is a remarkable source for the development of the liturgy (Gregory Dix believed that Jerusalem had been a powerhouse of liturgical development in the fourth century, and he may well have been correct).

Apart from being further evidence that the altar was free-standing, this is of special relevance to Maronites as so much of our liturgy was taken from Jerusalem. It also lends the authority of antiquity to making sensible practical changes and even innovations where needed.

Now we come to one of the more interesting developments, one which I personally think could be brought back into more churches in order to accentuate that the sanctuary is the earthly shadow of the court of heaven: “A screen in the form of templon in early churches or an iconostasis in later churches separated the naos from the bema. The templon was at first a low wood rail or screen that eventually came to consist of short stone columns or colonnettes supporting a decorative beam (architrave) on top of them” (81). Patricios notes that the congregation therefore had a clear view of the bema and the action. The iconostasis, which so many like, began to develop in the mid-fifth century, but found its present form only in the end of eleventh century. Personally, I think that the iconostasis is too far: the people should be able to see the Eucharistic action. (The “naos” is the “nave,” where the congregation are.)

The final aspect from this book to note, partly because it is so pertinent to the Maronite situation, and because it makes such a difference in our churches, is the assertion that in early churches the doors opened to the East, and the apse was oriented west. He specifically notes that the church at Tyre was like that (85-86). Only in the fifth century, this was changed to the opposite (86).

So what do we take from this? First, the fact that the liturgical architecture of the Church can and has legitimately developed.

Second, that the difficult task is to balance the practical requirement of allowing the people to hear and see the Divine Liturgy with the spiritual requirement of having a sanctuary which truly reflects the fact that typologically it is the court of God, while the church is his house. Third, the orientation to the sun has at all times been important: and only two orientations come up to the mark – East and West!

Joseph Azize, 2 October 2017



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