Church Buildings

The History and Symbolism of Church Buildings:

How a Church Came to Be

Called to be God’s People

Church buildings have been so much a part of our landscape we barely notice them. For some Christians, the church building they have been worshipping in for years or decades is so familiar they may give little thought or reflection as to their meaning. Churches vary greatly in size, shape and architectural style. Church buildings also uniquely express their own traditions within the spectrum of Christian traditions (e.g. Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Protestant). Despite this diversity, most churches share a similar intentional interior plan. In this article, I’d like to explore how church buildings came to be and the meanings and symbols of our sacred space.

Before I start describing narthexes, chancels and reredoses and other such odd churchy words, it is always good to start with some basic definitions as a foundation. What does “church” mean and where did the word come from?

Our English word “church” evolved from the Saxon cirice or cyrice, and the later Middle English chirche. Related to the German word Kirche, or the Lowland Scots “Kirk” our word “church” comes from the Greek word “kyriakon” meaning “the Lord’s” and would appear to mean the Lord’s people and not necessarily a building.

Prior to the word “church”, the Greek word “ekklesia” (ecclesia in Latin form) was the most commonly used word to describe the Christian community. Ecclesia comes from a Greek word meaning those “who are called out”. Christians are “called out” by God to form the community of God. Again, the word ecclesia does not imply being called into a building per se. Ecclesia (church) has found its way into many Latin languages such as French’s eglise and the Italian chiesa.

Long before Christians gathered in buildings such as ours today, ecclesia or church meant people, the community of seekers and the baptised. Then, as now, the church is ultimately not built and held together by bricks and mortar, but rather by people called by Christ to build his Kingdom among us. In a letter ascribed to St. Peter, we come together so we can be “living stones to be built into a spiritual house” (I Peter 2:5) with Christ being the “corner stone” and foundation of all that we do.

The spiritual house we call a church is above all intended to be reflection of heaven arrayed before our eyes in space, signs and symbols. A church is intended to be a map of God’s Kingdom – a symbolic guide to our journey to God. The church building is also a metaphor in brick and wood of a people’s own spiritual journey as we make our pilgrimage from isolated individuals into community, travelling together to be home with God.

The great Alcuin of York (AD c. 735-804) so beautifully described a church as “…the gate of heaven, the door of eternal life: it leads the traveller towards the stars. On entering, a person may penetrate the heavenly mountain, if he takes with him faith and hope as his companions. Here forgiveness may be sought, if the pilgrim enters with a devout heart, and on foot. Here also a sinner may shed his evil acts and with tears wash this sacred threshold. Then purged by tears of repentance and adorned with humility, he is worthy to enter the holy places of God. I believe that Jesus in his mercy forgives their sins, so that whoever enters sad will emerge more joyful.”

The Judeo-Christian Community

Jesus and his disciples worshiped, prayed and taught in the courtyards of the great Temple in Jerusalem, the spiritual heart of the Judaism, in synagogues, and in the open air spaces wherever people have always gathered to hear a story or share local news. This should come as no surprise as Jesus was a born, lived and died a Jew. His disciples and early followers were drawn from the diverse traditions and languages of the greater Jewish world. The only Bible they knew was the Jewish scriptures in either Hebrew or Greek (The Septuagent) and small portions in Aramaic. They partook in the prayers and rituals of the Temple and festivals and customs of the Jewish household. When St. Paul wrote his letters to such cities as Corinth or Ephesus he is writing to the Jewish Christian communities who gathered in those cities’ synagogues. The Synagogue (a Greek word meaning the “coming together” or “assembly”) in the first century acted as a community gathering place, for prayer and study hall. Although the religious heart of the Jewish world was the Temple in Jerusalem, synagogues may have played greater roles as houses of prayer and worship for those farther away from the Temple. It was only after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 that synagogues developed unique architectural features and liturgical traditions.

As of yet, no archeological evidence has been found of the synagogue in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. A small peasant farming village like Nazareth would likely have met in a simple building or even a courtyard of a larger house and a Nazarean synagogue would be indistinguishable from any of the other houses in the archeological record. Synagogues in varying sizes existed throughout the Mediterranean wherever there was a Jewish community; however, during the first century there was nothing to identify these buildings as being uniquely Jewish or religious (e.g. no Jewish symbols such as the menorah). Their one common feature was the placing of benches around the walls which confirm early Jewish sources (Josephus, Philo) that the synagogue in Jesus’ day was primarily a meeting place for the community and for prayer and the study of the Torah.

The great watershed in Jewish and Jewish Christian life began in the latter half of the first century during the Jewish Wars for independence from the Roman Empire. At the end of a brutal and bloody war, Jerusalem fell and the Temple was destroyed by the Roman army in AD 70. Following the destruction of the Temple, Jewish faith and identity was under a cultural and military siege struggling for its very existence. Judaism needed to clearly define and salvage what was essential to the Jewish faith and tradition now that it did not have the Temple. Throughout this period, the church was increasingly becoming dominated by non-Jews who did not follow Jewish customs and the church itself was discovering its own unique Christian identity and traditions. Eventually, these tensions led to a break between Jewish and the early Christian communities. Despite this rift, the early church inherited much from its Jewish spiritual heritage. The Church retained many elements of Temple and the later synagogue traditions that would be adopted into early Christian architecture and worship. Such things as the centrality of teaching, reciting and chanting from Jewish scripture, the placement of lights and candles, ritual cleansing and baptism, the bema or pulpit and the tradition of facing east when praying. The Church Fathers and the Orthodox often refer to their churches as temples. Vestiges of this shared spiritual heritage can still be heard in churches today. The first part of the Eucharist, called the Liturgy of the Word, was adopted from the synagogue service and our churches still echo with the Hebrew words “amen”, “alleluia”, “messiah” and “hosanna”. As well, the Hebrew word for Passover is Pesach. Almost all languages, except English and German, use a variation of the word Pesach for Easter (e.g. French Paque, Italian Pascua, Greek/Slavonic Paska). Pesach is found in the English Easter vocabulary as in Pascal Candle, The Pascal Mystery, Pascal Feast and so on.

The Catacombs – Myth and Reality

Contrary to popular myth, Christians did not go down into the catacombs, the underground burial vaults of the Roman world, to worship during times of persecution. This image of Christians huddled in prayer in the catacombs is a romantic fiction. The catacombs were the public burial grounds of Roman cities located right beside the busiest highways, such as the Appian Way. The catacombs were highly organized and regulated by the Roman civic bureaucracy and hardly a good place for a subversive sect like Christianity to hide out in during the sporadic persecutions of the Roman Emperors. As well, the darkness, the cramped lack of space, and the putrid air hardly made the catacombs a place for groups to gather for prayer, community feasts and the Eucharistic Meal.

Christians did visit the catacombs regularly, however. They came there to remember. There they prayed for their departed loved ones. In prayer they enjoined the holy apostles, martyrs and saints, many they knew personally, to continue to pray with and for their Christian community. In time, small chapels and shrines would be built over these sites and later large churches and great basilicas would arise to mark these original simple graves.

Martyria – Praying with the Saints

It is these small mortuary chapels of the martyrs and saints, called “martyria”, that are likely the earliest and overt forms of Christian architecture. Martyria were usually circular buildings based on the Roman mausoleum. These small chapels were places of pilgrimage and prayer for early Christians who left votive lamps and inscriptions of prayers and graffiti to mark their pilgrimages. Martyria were too small and too far outside the city for the ease and access of communal worship as Roman law required burials grounds to be outside city limits. So where did Christians gather to pray, hear scripture, break bread and build their community?

The Early Church House

Both Christian and Roman sources tell us that the church welcomed people from every social, economic, racial and linguistic group, both slave and free alike. For these groups to be bound together in a common creed and text, a common meal (the agape meal and Eucharist) and under the same church house roof was a radical departure from the hierarchical Roman class structure. The Christian community would have had a wide appeal to a very broad spectrum of Roman society. By the second century, the church was growing in numbers and required larger spaces.

Christian texts and archaeology clearly show that Christians gathered in people’s houses. These houses were often the villas of richer members of the Christian community. These church houses appear to have undergone significant renovations to meet the needs of the Christian community. These facts shed some interesting light into an often murky period in early Church history.

Many of these villas were owned and managed by married couples and women which hint at the important and often forgotten role of the laity and women in the early church as leaders, patrons and central figures in their Christian communities. One such church house that has survived is in the ancient city of Doura-Europos in modern-day Syria. An inscription on a wall indicates that this villa was converted into a church around the year AD 232, but it was likely used as a church house long before that time.

The traditional Roman dining room, known as triclinium, was the showcase of the well-to-do Roman home. The triclineum was decorated with the most beautiful frescoes and mosaic floors. The triclineum at Douras-Europa was converted into the main body of the church with an altar at one end of the room on a raised platform. Its walls are resplendent with colourful frescoes of various biblical themes. This room could hold about 100 people.

The “House of St. Peter” in Capernaum may be the earliest house to be transformed into a place of worship. St. Peter’s house is also a very rare example of where archeology and Christian oral tradition appear to support each other as an authentic Biblical site during the life of Jesus and his disciples.

Another extraordinary example from the mid fourth century is that of a highly decorated family chapel or church house in Lullingstone, Kent England. That such a refined church house existed at such an early date and in a remote area of the Roman Empire hints at the highly developed sense of church art and decoration that must have been more common throughout the Christian culture at earlier dates than once realized.

Over time, many house churches became larger complexes and served a variety of ministries within the community similar to the church-run community centres of today. In addition to a house of worship, they could also house the bishop and his clergy, administrative rooms, food and clothing banks, communal kitchens, orphanages and communities of consecrated widows and virgins, the predecessors of womens’ monastic communities.

The Basilica Church

The other great watershed in the evolution of a church’s sacred space occurred when the Emperor Constantine issued a series of edicts and letters (“The Edicts of Milan”) from AD 306-311 declaring toleration for all religions throughout the Empire including Christianity. In the year AD 312 Constantine converted to Christianity and with his support the once persecuted church received enormous imperial grants of land and money to build churches throughout the Empire. It should be noted that the common misconception that Constantine made Christianity the “official” religion of the Roman Empire is erroneous – that did not occur until AD 380 under the Emperor Theodosius I and the ancient religions of the Greco-Roman world continued well into the centuries to come.

Now that the church could gather freely, what sort of building would be appropriate to house the Christian community? The Church had no uniquely Christian architectural precedents. Eventually the basilica form was chosen. A basilica is a long rectangular hall with a high, pitched roof, supported by a series of columns, with aisles down both sides of its length. Basilica comes from the Greek word for “king” and in the Roman era the basilica acted as a city hall, legal courts, and for commerce. As the name suggests, the basilica was also the court hall of the emperor. At the far end of a basilica was an apse, or semi-circular niche where governors, magistrates or the emperor sat and held court. In the apses, a large statue of the emperor was erected as a reminder of the presence of Roman imperial might.

From the 4th century onward, the basilica was the model for churches in Christendom. The basilica model was chosen to house Christian communities as they were the largest buildings of their type and could hold the numbers of Christians and converts coming into the Church at this time. Moreover, basilicas provided open space for all to see and participate in the Liturgy which by its nature is very visual. The Liturgy of the early Church was a liturgy on the move filled with processions and various ritual actions and the large space of the basilica provided an excellent place for this sacred drama. The choice of the basilica was also a powerfully symbolic choice. The basilica, as the king’s court, was the place from which the power of the Roman Empire emanated. In the apse of the basilica, the Emperor reigned and sat enthroned surrounded by his generals and senators, ruling the lives of millions by the armed might of his legions. By adopting and adapting the basilica, the Church was making a bold statement. The Church proclaimed that power and glory did not belong to those who had wealth and the armies of empire. Rather, by adopting the basilica, the Church was saying that there was a higher power of a heavenly Kingdom at work in our world. Where once the “divine” Caesars sat enthroned, now stood a simple stone altar, a symbol of Christ, surrounded by a bishop, a shepherd to his people, and the presbyters and deacons who served, not ruled, God’s people. By adopting and adapting the basilica, the church transformed an earthly court into a mirror of a heavenly court here on earth.

The Church also turned the Roman basilica inside out. Roman basilicas were built to outwardly impress people by their richly decorated exteriors of statuary, colour, gilding, and marble. Christian basilicas on the other hand had rather dull exteriors of common red brick. They reserved the richest, rarest and most beautiful materials and decorations for the inside of the church. This was done to inspire a sense of awe and wonder and to give those who entered a foretaste of the splendour and the glory of heaven. This interior, inward, attention to beautification was also a metaphor for an inward beatification, an inward sanctification, of a believer’s heart and soul to God.

Spiritual Orientation

“Orientation” literally means to “face east”. Churches have almost always been universally built facing the east. East is where the sun rises out of the darkness and was a powerful symbol of Christ’s resurrection. The west by contrast is where the sun goes down into darkness, a symbol of death. During the rite of baptism in the early church when the catechumens were making their baptismal promises they faced west to reject the darkness of this world and then turned around to the east to accept Christ as their light and saviour. It is with this symbolism in mind that the early Church and the Orthodox still refer to Baptism as The Illumination – to be filled with the light of Christ.

Whenever we enter a church from the west and progress to the altar in the east we renew our journey from darkness to the light of Christ.

In the Narthex

Following the legalization of Christianity, thousands began to join the church. Some scholars have estimated that one third of the city of Rome was Christian by the end of the 300s.You wouldn’t think people joining the church would create a problem. Yet it did. Where and how do the unbaptized fit into the community? What should the church do with those who denied their faith during the persecutions of the Church? Despite countless martyrs, the majority of Christians under threat of torture and death renounced their faith and offered sacrifices to the divine Caesar and the Roman gods. How could those who recanted be reincorporated into the worship and life of those who remained faithful? Some Church Fathers said they should be expelled from the community. Most agreed they could be readmitted to the community after a time of repentance and penance. Catechumens (those learning the new faith and preparing for baptism) and the penitents seeking readmittance into the Church were not in full communion with the Church. As their position did not yet admit them to full participation in the Church’s liturgy, the Church Fathers decided that they should be separated until full inclusion could happen. Catechumens and penitents would remain separated at the back of the church in the narthex (Greek for “small box” or “chamber”) where they could join in the Liturgy up to the point that the Gospel was read. However, just before the Nicene Creed was said the narthex doors would be shut and the catechumens and the penitents would go to another area to learn the Christian faith. A remnant of this custom still survives in the Orthodox Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Just prior to the recitation of the Nicene Creed the non-baptized are asked to depart and the deacon intones to “guard the doors!” from those deemed unworthy to share in the sacred mysteries of the faith.

When we enter a church through the narthex, we should always remind ourselves that we still fall short of our callings as Christians and our need to continually renew our commitment to Christ.

At the Baptismal Font

We traditionally find the baptismal fonts at the back of the church near the church’s doors. This symbolically represents that it is through the doors of baptism that we enter into the household of faith and our life in Christ. The early custom of the church preferred a full immersion or dunking baptism with “living water”, that is baptisms at a river or spring. When this was impractical, fonts and fountains (living/moving water) were placed in the courtyards and the narthex. Fonts were also used by Christians to ritually wash and purify themselves before entering into God’s house and as a reminder of their own baptismal promises. St. Augustine (AD 354-430) reminded Christians to “not only wash their hands in the fonts, but to cleanse their hearts also” before entering the church.

Fonts varied in shape, material and size over time and from place to place. The earliest baptismal fonts, like the baptismal font in the house church at Dura-Europos, were in the shape of a sepulchre. This striking and unnerving shape emphasizes baptism as spiritual death and rebirth in Christ. Many baptismal fonts echoed this death and rebirth imagery by being cut into the ground like a grave pit. The baptismal candidate would have to walk into this watery grave as a symbol of the death of the old self rising from the waters of new life reborn as a Christian. Even into the medieval periods fonts were the size of hot tubs to accommodate full immersion baptisms for adults.

Starting sometime in the 5th century, many baptismal fonts took on the octagonal or eight-sided basin shape. The number eight was a highly symbolic number. For the ancient world of the Church Fathers, the number eight symbolized the “eighth day”. The “eighth day” was the day following God’s completion of his new creation and the eighth day was the day following Christ’s resurrection, the day of new life and new beginnings. As the eighth day was a day outside human time, an eight-sided font symbolized that the baptized had been recreated, born again and had begun their journey into the timelessness of God.

The Nave – The New Ark

Let us now make our journey from the font into the main assembly area of the Christian community called the Nave. Nave comes from the Latin word “navis” meaning ship. Fishing and nautical imagery abound in early Christian tradition. From the earliest times the Church has portrayed itself in art as a boat – a metaphor signifying that the church is on the move. It is on a mission. It is on a spiritual journey. The Church Fathers referred to the Church as a second Noah’s ark. Like Noah’s ark, the Church saves and carries new life and hope to a deluged world.

While Peter was fishing, Jesus said to him that he would make him a “fisher of people”, and so too the Church seeks to draw all people to God.

The earliest symbol of Jesus was the fish. Fish in Greek is “ixthyos” and each letter being a hidden acronym for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour”.

A ship’s mast and crossbeam reminded Christians of the cross and a ship’s ropes and rigging reminded them of a ladder to heaven. Frequently the image of a ship’s anchor appears in early Christian art and graffiti as a stylized cross, as a symbol that our faith is anchored and held firm in Christ. The arched and gabled roof of many churches look like the hull or ship’s bottom pointing toward the heavens.

Prior to the 16th century, churches did not have seating as the usual posture for worship was standing and kneeling. The wealthy often brought their own chairs, cushions or small benches to the Mass. Some of these seating arrangements became permanent, but only for the privileged elite. As the Protestant reformation dawned, reformed churches installed benches or pews to accommodate the nature of the Protestant services which emphasized the sitting postures of listening to scripture and sermons, and psalm and hymn singing. The benches and pews of a church were thought of as resembling the rowing benches of a ship where the faithful would sit and pull the oars together to work for the Kingdom.

The centre aisle leading straight from the back to the front of the church and on to the Sanctuary is said to represent the straight and narrow path we must follow that leads to salvation. The central aisle again emphasizes the church as a metaphor of a spiritual path and journey as we carry on from our baptism.

Roman Catholic and many Anglican churches have the Stations of the Cross around the walls of the church. Station comes from the Latin “to pause” and at each station the devout pause, pray and meditate on Christ’s passion. These fourteen stations portray Christ’s suffering from his judgment by Pilate to his entombment and blend both scripture and ancient oral tradition in the telling of Christ’s passion. The Stations of the Cross mirror the original places of Christ’s suffering as he carried the cross through the streets of Jerusalem. Beginning in the early fourth century, pilgrims journeyed to the Holy Land to walk in the steps of Jesus. Today’s stations originated in the 14th century as a devotional way for people to make a pilgrimage in heart and spirit and walk with Jesus as he carried his cross. Artistic representations of the Stations of the Cross only began in the late 16th century.

Most churches within the catholic tradition (Orthodox, Anglican, Roman Catholic) have a variety of images, chapels, stained glass, banners, statuary, paintings or icons dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the saints to varying degrees. Memorial plaques commemorating the departed local “saints” of a Christian community adorn many a place within a parish church. All these images remind us that our journey to God is not made alone. We follow and share in the life of Christ with Christians of all time in our fellowship with them in the Communion of Saints. As we gaze around the church and see memorials of the departed – stained glass, figures or icons of the saints, we are reminded that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” and that we worship together “with the whole company of heaven.”

As we travel a little further to the front of a church, there will be a pulpit (Latin for platform) where the Gospel can be proclaimed and a sermon preached. A cross or crucifix customarily is on or above the pulpit to fulfill St. Paul’s words that we may only “preach not of ourselves but Christ Jesus as the Lord, and him crucified.” (2 Corinthians 4:5)

A lectern (from Latin “to read”) is also usually at the front to read prayers and scripture. In the ancient churches, lecterns were often placed on a stepped raised platform. This platform was called an “ambo” from the Latin “to go up”. As the deacon or reader climbed the stairs he was “going up” as on a mount to proclaim the Gospel as Jesus did. A chant called a “gradual” hymn (from the Latin “gradis” or stairs) was sung as the reader climbed the stairs of the ambo to the lectern.

The Chancel

As we journey a little upward we come to the raised platform called the Chancel. The word chancel may refer to a lattice screen that separated the nave from the Altar and Sanctuary. Chancel may also come from the Latin word “to sing or chant”, as it is here that the choir and cantors lead the people in singing God’s praises. This raised platform symbolizes the realm of heaven of the saints and the angels. As the nave represents the church on earth, the chancel represents the church in heaven. Together as one church we worship the Holy Trinity with one voice of song and praise.

The Sanctuary of the Altar

Travelling through the “heavenly realms” of the choir chancel we finally arrive at our pilgrimage’s destination. We arrive at a place called the Sanctuary, the holy place and time where we come into the Divine presence. Sanctuary comes from the Latin word “sanctus” meaning “holy” and this is considered the Holy of Holies in the Christian church and symbolically represents the place where we meet God. The Sanctuary contains the most sacred objects in the church – the Sacrament and the Altar.

“Altar” comes from the Latin word meaning “a high place” and alludes to the high mountain tops where in the Jewish tradition people encountered God (Abraham, Moses, Elijah, The Temple on Mt. Zion, Jesus transfigured on Mt. Tabor.) Sacred high places were thought of as being a little closer to God in the heavens and a place where heaven and earth could meet. Church Altars are often elevated as a continuity of this ancient biblical symbol. When the altar is closer or in the centre of the worshipping community it reminds us that the Kingdom of God is among us.

For Christians the ultimate meeting place between God and humanity was not a place, but a person – Jesus. We see the face of God in the humanity of Christ’s love. The Altar represents Jesus who united earth and heaven in himself. As a symbol of Jesus the Altar is shown signs of reverence. A new altar is consecrated (made holy) by marking it with the five wounds of Jesus’ body. We bow towards the Altar to honour and adore Jesus who is symbolically represented by it. Priests and Eucharistic ministers may kiss the Altar as a sign of devotion at the beginning and end of the Eucharist. The Altar can be incensed. In both the Jerusalem Temple and Byzantine royal court God and the emperor were honoured with incense. An Altar can be incensed to honour and pay homage to Christ our God and King. Altars are also censed to recall Christ as our High Priest who offered himself on the altar of the cross. On Maundy Thursday in Holy Week we strip the Altar as the soldiers stripped Jesus’ body before his crucifixion. The Altar is then washed in vinegar and water as a foreshadowing of the gall of the cross and the preparation of Jesus’ body.

When an Altar it is made of stone or is a solid square or rectangular shape, the Altar reminds us of the place of sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple. As a place of offering we recall Christ’s sacrifice on the “altar” of the cross at each Eucharist. It is around the Altar that the Church brings its sacrifice of prayer and thanksgiving. The four corners of the Altar are called the “four horns of the Altar” alluding to the four points on the altar of sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem. At the church’s Offertory, incense may also be offered here as a symbol of our prayers and offerings rising “as incense” (Psalm 141:2) and of the prayers of the saints ascending with our prayers to God (Rev.:3,4). The solid rectangular-shaped altar also reminds us of Jesus’ resting stone in the Holy Sepulchre and the sarcophaguses of the martyrs. By associating and celebrating the Holy Eucharist on these images of death, the Church proclaims that Christ brings life out of death. That new life is imparted to us in the Bread and Wine of the Holy Eucharist.

The Altar is also known as the Holy Table or the Lord’s Table and can be made of a variety of materials. The Holy Table reminds us of a table in any home where a family celebrates and shares a meal together. At the Holy Table the family of the Church gathers around its Lord and celebrates being in the Lord’s presence. The wooden table-style Altar reminds us that the Divine Presence can work among the most simplest of things – a table, a loaf of bread, a cup of wine and where two or three are gathered together.

In the early church, Altars were free-standing in the sanctuary. That is, they were not attached to the back wall of the church. The bishop or priest celebrated the Eucharist with deacons and cantors encircling the Altar, all facing the people. This positioning emphasized that the whole Church, both lay and ordained, gathered around the centrality of the Altar to celebrate the Holy Mysteries. In recent years the Church has rediscovered this ancient Altar arrangement. By the Middle Ages in the western church the Altar eventually was placed at the far end of the sanctuary wall with the priest celebrating the Eucharist with his back to the people (“eastward celebration”.) This position of the Altar and priest was to emphasize a sense of transcendence in worship, that is, both the priest and people not only focused their worship towards the Altar, but above and beyond it to the God of mystery and awe. With the focus of worship at the east end of the church, the wall behind the Altar, called the Reredos (from Latin “behind and back of”), became highly decorated with paintings, carvings and sculpture depicting various biblical and saints’ scenes. In the Orthodox Church, the Altar has always been free-standing within the sanctuary with the priest officiating from a variety of positions as the Liturgy requires.

To emphasize the Sanctuary and Altar’s sacred otherworldliness, the early church would often veil the holy place of the Sanctuary with curtains as was done in the Jerusalem Temple. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, this evolved into an ornate icon-covered wall called an Iconostasis. In the Western Church, the curtain wall evolved into a wooden or stone wall called a Rood Screen. “Rood” is an Old English word for a cross or crucifix. A cross, crucifix, saints and candles were mounted on top of these screens. Few Rood Screens survived in parish churches during the Reformation in England with cathedral Rood Screens being the exception. Rood Screens were restored or reappeared in the 19th century during the Gothic style and Anglo Catholic revival.

In the Western Church, Altar rails were added in the Middle Ages for two reasons. Rails were built to further mark out the sacred space of the Sanctuary and Altar. It was also during the early Middle Ages in the Western Church that the custom of receiving Holy Communion kneeling evolved and the Altar rail helped in an orderly distribution of the Sacrament.

The Bread of Life

From the earliest days of the church, the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist was reserved in a small container and taken to the homes of the sick and those unable to attend worship. Over time this movable box, called a pyx (Greek for “box”) or tabernacle, became attached onto a wall or placed in a cupboard. Tabernacle means “tent” or “dwelling place” in Hebrew and refers to the shrine or temple of the ancient Jews where it was believed the Divine Presence of God (The Shekinah) chose to dwell. It is in the church Tabernacle that we reserve the Sacramental Presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist. This box is sometimes erroneously called an “ambry” or “aumbry”. However, an ambry (armoire shares the same word origin) is a cupboard for storing vestments and sacred vessels.

Above or around the Tabernacle burns a candle called the Presence Lamp. The Presence Lamp recalls the eternal flame that burned before the presence of the Lord in the Jerusalem Temple and reminds us that Christ is always in our midst. The other lamps and candles that burn in the Sanctuary and throughout the church remind us that Christ is the Light of the World.

The Cross

Usually above or behind the Altar a cross or crucifix will be present. However, this was not always the case. Early Christians were all too familiar with the horrifying and humiliating reality of crucifixion. You can imagine how popular a hangman’s noose or an electric chair would be as a symbol of a new religious movement today. Possibly the first known image of the crucifixion appears as anti-Christian graffiti scratched into a plaster wall of a first century Roman building. After the fourth century, simple or stylized crosses (without Christ’s body) became more frequent decorative elements on all things pertaining to the Christian community including fabrics, clothing and jewellery.

Before the Middle Ages, it was more common to see a mosaic, frescoes or icons of Christ, his apostles, The Virgin and Child, various saints and symbols or the patron saint of the church above the Altar. It was in the 6-8th century and afterwards that we begin to see the cross with the body of Christ on it. By the early Middle Ages in the Western Church, the crucifix behind, on or above the Altar had become common as was statuary of Christ and his saints. In the Eastern Church, icons were and remain the only sacred and devotional art of the Orthodox Church.

It is ironic that at one time the central focus of a Roman basilica was the image of Caesar. Caesar, a man who was exalted enough to be called a god was eventually replaced with the image of God who humbled himself to become a man.


In the year AD 987, Prince Vladamir of Kiev in the Ukraine sent out emissaries to seek the wisest religion for him and his people to embrace. Two emissaries arrived in the great Byzantine city of Constantinople where they visited one of Christendom’s most magnificent church – the Hagia Sophia or Church of the Holy Wisdom. Commenced on the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, Hagia Sophia was completed in AD 537. So, struck with awe at the overwhelming sense of the beauty of holiness and the splendour of the church’s liturgy, they reported back to their prince, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.”

Like the Hagia Sophia, every church, whether grand or simple, in its own way is hopefully a little piece of heaven on earth. The church building is a metaphor laid out in brick, wood, iconography and stained glass of the Christian cosmos. Hidden within the layout and design of church is an allegorical map to heaven.

In the End is Our Beginning

Symbolically we are called from the outside to enter and journey on a narrow path that leads to sanctuary – “holy ground”. We enter through the doors by the waters of baptism. We board a ship with our fellow travellers – saints, sinners, the wise and the befuddled alike join us as we travel seeking God. Together, with the Spirit’s help, we try to keep the ship afloat and on course. We rejoice and sing with the angels and saints along our way until we reach our safe harbour and our final home in the sanctuary of God’s presence.

But we cannot rest there. We are ecclesia, a people “called out” to go into the world. Nourished by Word, Sacrament and Community we go from the Altar to the doors of the church and then back out into the world to be the Presence of Christ to the world.

Article by Dean Rose.

Permission is granted to use and replicate this or parts of this article with the following ascription;

From an article by Dean Rose, St. Peter’s Church, Oshawa, Diocese of Toronto.