Altars (in the Greek Churches)

Author: Catholic Encyclopedia

Altars (in the Greek Churches)

The word altar (sometimes spelled oltar) is used in the Old Slavonic and Russian languages to denote the entire space surrounding what we know as the altar, which is included behind the iconostasis, and is the equivalent of the Greek word bema. Thus it corresponds in a measure to the sanctuary of the Roman churches. Hence the altar of the Russian Orthodox or the Ruthenian Greek Catholic churches means the sanctuary, and not merely the altar known to Latin churches. The altar itself is called in Old Slavonic and Russian prestol, "the throne", in allusion to Our Lord Who reigns there as living. The altar of the Greeks, using the Old Slavonic as their liturgical language, includes not only the altar (prestol) but also the little side altar, or prothesis, where the proskomide (or preparation of the bread and wine for the Liturgy) takes place, and also the seats for the clergy and the throne or cathedra for the bishop. In the Greek Churches these seats and the bishop's throne are usually placed behind the altar and on a step or elevation so that the occupants may see over the altar.

The altar in the Greek Churches (he hagia trapeza) has remained practically unchanged and unadorned. The Greeks, unlike the Latins, have placed their wealth of decoration upon the iconostasis in front of the altar. In churches of the Latin Rite the altar itself has been added to by reredos and altar-pieces and the like, yet altars of the older form may still he seen in Rome, in St. Peter's, Santa Maria Maggiore, St. John Lateran, St. Paul's, and other churches. Beside this the Western Rite has usually placed the altar against the wall of the church; the Greek Rite keeps it apart and isolated so that the officiating clergy may pass around it. The Roman altar, while rectangular, is usually longer in one direction than the other; but the Greek altar is made square so that every measurement is equal. The top portion of a Greek altar should be of wood, one board at least. Herein it differs from the Roman Rite which requires that even a wooden altar should have a stone slab or "sepulchre" wherein are enclosed the relics of the saints. Upon the altar are the candles which are lighted during the Liturgy, the cross, or more often the crucifix, which in Orthodox churches is usually made only in low relief, and also the book of the Gospels, containing the various Gospels arranged for reading in the Liturgy for the various Sundays and feast days during the Greek ecclesiastical year. The book of the Gospels is usually laid flat on the altar until the time when the sacred elements are brought for consecration; then it is stood up on edge in front of, and almost covering the tabernacle. Besides the Gospels, the missal, or euchologion, is also upon the altar, from which the priests read and intone the unchangeable parts of the Liturgy. The tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament, reserved according to the Greek Rite, does not always rest upon the altar. Often these tabernacles, beautifully built, rest upon a pillar or other foundation about a foot or so behind the altar. The altar in the Greek Churches, as being the place on which the glory of the Lord rests, is vested with two coverings. The first is of white linen next to the altar itself, and the second or outer covering is made of rich brocade or embroidery and is called the endyton. Besides this there is the antimension which is usually placed on every altar and which contains the relics of some saint. A church and its altar should be consecrated by a bishop, but sometimes it is found impossible or inconvenient to accomplish this, and so a priest may perform the consecration, but he must use the antimension which has been duly consecrated by the bishop in almost the same manner as an altar is consecrated.

The Greek consecration service, after the singing of hymns and psalms, and the consecration of the holy water used in the service, begins by the bishop sprinkling the altar with holy water. He then pours into the nail holes of the altar-board a mixture of incense and wax, and the priests then nail down the top board to the solid part of the altar. The bishop then kneels and prays that the Holy Ghost may descend and sanctify the temple and altar. Then begins the ablution of the altar. While psalms are being sung the bishop lightly rubs the top board of the altar with soap in the form of a cross and pours water on it, and the priests take cloths and rub the altar dry. Then the bishop takes red wine mixed with a drop or so of rose- water and pours the mixture on the altar in the shape of a cross and rubs it into the wood. With some drops of the same wine he sprinkles the antimension destined for the new altar. Then the bishop anoints the top board and the sides of the altar with holy chrism and also anoints the antimension. In the Byzantine Catholic Churches the altar is washed three times while the psalms are being sung. Then begins the vesting of the altar. First a white linen covering is placed over the altar crosswise, and over this first cover a second one of brilliant and embroidered material is placed, called the endyton. There is then placed on the altar a fine large wrap or cloth called the heileton (eileton) which is somewhat analogous to the burse of the Latin Rite, and in it the antimension is enfolded. All these are put in place after having been blessed and sprinkled with holy water while the appropriate Psalms are being chanted. After this the church is then consecrated, or it is ready for consecration. Among the Greeks the altar is always consecrated on Holy Thursday or on a Thursday between Easter and the Feast ot the Ascension.

ANDREW J. SHIPMAN Transcribed by Michael C. Tinkler

From the Catholic Encyclopedia, copyright © 1913 by the Encyclopedia Press, Inc. Electronic version copyright © 1996 by New Advent, Inc., P.O. Box 281096, Denver, Colorado, USA, 80228. ( Taken from the New Advent Web Page (

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