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Partial reconstruction of the Pergamon Altar

An altar (from late Latin altar [e] , to Latin altaria "[essay on the] offering table, fire altar" from alta ara "high altar", "fire top") is a place of sacrifice or an offering table as a place of worship for deities.

Offerings can be made on altars . But the erection of the altar itself and its possibly rich decoration are already considered acts of veneration.


The oldest altar is the plate altar: a relatively flat stone slab with an irregular outline that lay on the floor in the sanctuary or, as in Lepenski Vir , was embedded in the floor screed. As a result, bank altars developed that run around a building or an artificial cave (wall altars) or, as in Maltese temples, are part of the exedra . Sometimes they are, if and liquids were sacrificed with Bothroi provided (the victims holes). From the Southeast European Early Neolithic ( Starčevo - Körös , Karanovo ), small clay altars are known that usually have four feet. In the Neolithic temples on Malta from 3800 BC Monolithic table altars erected. The forms of prehistoric altars vary (horned altar from Be'er Scheva ) and their precise determinations later led to ever different patterns from religion to religion. There are fire and fire altars or altar mountains ( Megiddo , Monte d'Accoddi ). However, the interpretation of many prehistoric altars is based on conclusions by analogy.


The size of some ancient altars (e.g. 198 × 23 m in Syracuse ) was hardly reached later. It also distinguishes them from Christian altars when they are set up outdoors, which made it possible to carry out larger burnt offerings. The Pergamon Altar (2nd century BC), decorated in relief and with a base area of ​​approx. 36 × 34 m, is well known. The partial reconstruction of the altar is in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin . On the other hand, there were also very small altars, even when used for fire sacrifices. Corresponding representations, on which a god, the emperor or another member of the imperial family are depicted sacrificing at a small altar, can occasionally be found on the back of Roman coins. In the late Roman Empire, this motif was replaced by a globe above an altar, mostly with a rectangular floor plan.

Jupiter sacrifices at a small fire altar, back of a denarius under Emperor Titus

In the Etruscan-Roman custom of the dead, memorial altars (cippi) were erected for the deceased or their manes (personal gods of the dead), usually with an honoring inscription, of which many thousands have been preserved. In the vicinity of more important cities of the Roman Empire, tombs and altars lined the arterial roads.

The city sanctuary of Jerusalem was originally the Temple of Solomon . The expansive building was a concise building with about 50 by 25 meters, which must have made a great impression on mankind at that time. An important part were some cult devices made of metal such as the “bronze sea” and “the ten kettle scales ” or the incense and burnt offering altars . The exact meaning of all cult devices has not been passed down. The incense altar and the burnt offering altar were the most important places of sacrifice. Incense and other spices were placed on the altar of incense . In times of increasing economic prosperity, whole or disassembled sacrificial animals were burned at the burnt offering altar. In the case of a sacrifice, they were boiled and then consumed. The fat was burned. In addition, prayers were offered in honor of the gods and psalms were sung. Cult music on cymbals , string music on lyre and harp and the shofar or ram horn also played .


Function and symbolism

Preparation of gifts on the altar
Altar stone with reliquary grave ("sepulchrum")
Iconostasis that hides the altar in the
Curtea Arges Orthodox Cathedral

In Christianity , the altar is also referred to as the mensa domini (table of the Lord) based on the Last Supper , which Jesus Christ celebrated with his disciples on the evening before his passion . The Latin mensa domini corresponds to the Greek name for the Lord's table , τράπεζα κυρίου trápeza kyríou ( 1 Cor 10.21  EU ), as it was used in the ancient Church for the celebration of the Eucharist in Christian worship.

The Christian altar is used to celebrate the Eucharist. Here the gifts are offered : bread and wine , which are given to the congregation in communion and in the Lord's Supper .

Up until the 4th century it was customary in Rome to have this table altar brought in and set up by the deacons before the service or at the beginning of the actual Eucharistic celebration . The portable altar was placed in a raised place, in basilicas on the front edge of the apse or in the middle of the nave .

The erection of fixed altars in the 4th and 5th centuries meant that they were made of stone. Initially the shape of a table was retained, but in the 7th and 8th centuries the altar looked more and more like a cube or block, based on the rock on which Christ built his church ( 1 Cor 10.4  EU ) or the Cornerstone, to which Christ himself became ( 1 Petr 2,6-8  EU ).

The veneration of martyrs , which began in the 2nd to 3rd centuries , also influenced the design of the altar. At first it became customary to celebrate the Eucharist over the grave of a martyr or in its immediate vicinity. Later, memorial churches - so-called martyrs - and altars were built over these graves. Since there were not such graves of martyrs everywhere, relics were buried under the base of the altar or the altar plate. This custom ultimately led to the requirement to wall a separate (partial) relic into the altar plate (canteen) of each altar. In the Renaissance , therefore, altars also had the shape of a sarcophagus .

Before the stone altars were erected, the place of the altar, the sanctuary, was in some places separated from the nave by barriers . Most concluded that the sanctuary and the place of the cantor , the Chair of the Bishop and the sedilia (seats of the priests and elders on). From the choir barriers , which in the old church consisted of wood or stone pillars, to which pictures or illustrated draperies could be attached, the iconostasis developed in the Eastern Church , in the Latin Church the rood screen , from this in turn the Communion bench in the Baroque era .

The position of the priest at the altar was initially in front of the (free-standing) altar and thus in line with the believers present; this location resulted from the sosts of prayer , which was already a fixed rule in AD 200. The position “versus populum” resulted from the alignment of the altar with the relics of the martyrs, and only in Rome because the relics were made accessible for veneration via a confessio under the altar. In these exceptional cases, the celebrant stood both in the direction of the relics of the martyrs and in the east, because this church was at the entrance. The entry east was adapted in North Africa.

As a result of these developments, the location of the main altar moved more and more to the wall of the apse, the altar became the high altar , sometimes also referred to as the choir altar . The altar was no longer free in the room and was often provided with structures - reliefs or altar pictures , so-called retables - on the back. This is how the richly artistically designed reredos and winged altars of the Gothic and Baroque periods were created. A decorative panel, the antependium , could be attached to the front of the altar .

Since the main altar was now further away from the place of the faithful, there was often another altar between the main nave and the choir, which was consecrated to the holy cross and which is known as a cross altar, lay altar, mass altar, people's or community altar .

Medieval churches in particular have a large number of side altars in addition to the main altar, depending on the size, importance and wealth of the church. Many famous relics made the importance of a local church. The number of relics was increasingly found in several altars, which were spatially separated from each other and were considered an independent sanctuary, which had to be honored by a mass . As a result, the number of masses in a church, which were celebrated by monk priests or altarists , multiplied . For example, Holy Mass was held every day at several altars at the same time in the form of a private mass (that is, only with an altar boy as assistant). The development of mass grants in the Middle Ages was another factor in the frequent celebrations in a church.

to form

The main components of the altar are the canteen (altar plate) and the stipes (substructure). The following types of altars are common: 1. the table altar as a plate with supports; 2. the box altar as a hollow body with openings to the inner cavity; 3. The block altar as a closed form on all sides, often with a cantilever canteen . These three types were common in the Middle Ages.

The sarcophagus altar was 4. built during the Renaissance . Its shape indicates the reliquary grave in the altar. It is the main type of baroque altar. An architectural altar canopy occasionally serves as a decoration for the altar, it is also called the ciborium (not to be confused with the ciborium as a liturgical vessel). Since the higher clergy were often on the move and had to fulfill their liturgical duties (daily mass) while traveling, small travel altars or portable altars became widespread . In art, an “altar” is often only referred to as the painted altarpiece or the architectural altar structure, and small devotional panels are called “private altars”, even though they are not consecrated altars per se. As a processional altar (also Altarbildstock ) are known altars that are on processional paths.

Altar in Roman Catholic churches

When an altar is consecrated , the bishop lights incense on it.

In Roman Catholic churches , the altar is the place of the Eucharist . The altar standing in the choir of a church is called the main altar . Two aspects of the same mystery are expressed in the altar : the sacrificial altar and the “table of the Lord”. Around the altar the members of the body of Christ and their rulers gather in the image of Christ, the head of the Church. At the same time it is a symbol of the body of Christ, as can already be found in the writings of the church fathers Eusebius and Ambrosius : “What is the altar but an image for the body of Christ?” “The altar is an image of the body, and the body Christ is on the altar. ”The altar is therefore honored by the celebrants with the altar kiss when entering and before exiting each Holy Mass . The incense of the altar with incense is also an expression of veneration .

According to the provisions of the liturgical reform after the Second Vatican Council , the altar of a church should be fixed and "wherever possible" should be erected free-standing so that it can be easily walked around. Its basic shape is the table, the mensa Domini ; at the same time the altar should be the place "which Jesus Christ, the living stone ( 1 Petr 2,4  EU cf. Eph 2,20  EU ), describes more clearly and permanently". Side and side altars have been dispensed with since the liturgical reform, and the tabernacle as the place where the holy of holies is kept is again separated from the altar.

In the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church , the altar consecration takes place as part of a solemn pontifical mass. The consecration includes a. the litany of All Saints , the burial of relics , the consecration prayer and the anointing of the altar with chrism . The consecration of the altar, a sacramental , is described in the Roman Pontificale and reserved for the bishop .

“The altar, on which the sacrifice of the cross is presented under sacramental signs, is also the table of the Lord, at which the people of God are called together at Mass. It is at the same time the center of thanksgiving, which is perfected in the Eucharist. "

The celebration of the Eucharist is always to be performed in a sacred space on a consecrated altar. Outside of a sacred room, it can also be kept on a suitable table, whereby an altar cloth, the corporal , cross and candlestick must always be retained. The CIC of 1917 provided for traveling priests, such as field chaplains , the use of an altar stone (Altare portatile) , which was consecrated like a solid altar by the bishop and was embedded in the relics .

The basic order of the Roman missal also stipulates what may be placed or placed on the altar - namely the gospel , the chalice with the paten or the host bowl, the ciborium , the corporal , the chalice , the palla and the missal - and in what way the floral decoration of the altar should be done in the marked times of the church year . During Lent, the altar may not be adorned with flowers, except on high feasts and the Laetare Sunday .

Altar in old Catholic churches

The altar in old Catholic churches is the central place of the Eucharistic celebration and symbol of Christ. Therefore he is worshiped with a kiss and incense in the solemn service ( high mass ). In the course of the liturgical reform in the 1970s, the altar arrangement in most old Catholic churches was changed so that it can be walked around freely and the priest can stand behind the altar during the Eucharist . The altar is generally consecrated by the bishop .

Altar in Lutheran churches

The altar occupies a central position in Lutheran churches, since it is there that Holy Communion is celebrated and, according to the Lutheran view, communicants receive Christ's true body and blood for the forgiveness of sins . In contrast to Reformed churches, the pre-Reformation, mostly stone altar was retained in Lutheran churches and was often provided with ornate essays until the 19th century , the central image of which is usually a depiction of the crucified, while the predella usually depicts the last Last Supper is located. The central importance of the sacrament of the altar is made clear by the fact that there is often a communion bench around the altar (or at least knee pillows on the steps of the altar), where the Lord's Supper can be received while kneeling. In congregations of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church , the congregation also sings the Agnus Dei while kneeling and asks once more for the mercy of Christ who sacrificed himself on the cross.

The altar, on which the altar Bible usually lies and often candles and a cross or crucifix stand, becomes a place where the presence of God is particularly clear. This is particularly evident in the celebration of the Lord's Supper, when the Lord's Supper implements (host plate with hosts, the chalice and the wine jug) are on the altar. In Lutheran churches, the altar is usually the place where the worship prayer is said, i.e. the collection prayer and the intercessions . It is from him that the congregation receives the blessing at the end of the service.

Since the secondary and private masses were abolished with the Reformation , there is usually only one altar in larger churches , which together with the pulpit and the baptismal font forms the center of the church space. Martin Luther had demanded the celebration of the divine service versus populum . However, this was prevented in the following period by equipping many Protestant churches with reredos.

Pulpit altar

Pulpit altar in the village church Schönwalde-Glien (1737)

In the Lutheran churches, the interpretation of the word of God (the sermon in the church) has equal rights with the sacrament of the altar (Lord's Supper). This finds meaningful expression in the special form of the pulpit altar , which sometimes also includes the organ .

The first pulpit altar still preserved today is in the palace chapel of Wilhelmsburg Palace in Schmalkalden (today Thuringia), which was built under the Hessian landgrave Wilhelm IV. 1585–90. The most important pulpit altar landscape, however, are the Saxon duchies of today's Thuringia. The earliest proven example of a pulpit altar for this region is in the castle chapel of Callenberg Castle in Coburg (today Bavaria), built under Duke Johann Casimir von Sachsen-Coburg and inaugurated in 1618 .

Especially in the 19th century, a dispute arose in the Protestant churches about the correct shape and position of the altar. The Eisenach regulation of 1861 rejected the pulpit altar and called for a free-standing arrangement of the altar in a sanctuary, which brought the design closer to medieval Catholic use. The Wiesbaden program of 1891, which returned to the unity of pulpit, altar and organ, turned away from this attitude .

Reformed and Free Churches

In the Reformed Church , the Baptists and Mennonites as well as in some other Evangelical Free Churches there is no fixed altar, since, according to their understanding of the Lord's Supper, no sacrifice is made at the “table of the Lord”. The preaching of the word of God is at the center of the service. In many cases, the pulpit is therefore centered in these churches. A simple communion table is used for the celebration of the Lord's Supper .

Altar in New Apostolic churches

Chancel of the New Apostolic Church in Groebenzell

In the New Apostolic Church the altar is used both for sermons and for preparing gifts . The altar is usually on a slightly raised pedestal. In the middle of the altar is the Bible . During the service, the ministers stand behind the altar and preach from there. During the service there are communion chalices filled with hosts on the altar . The altars are usually decorated with arrangements or other floral decorations.

See also


  • Joseph Braun: The Christian Altar , Munich 1924 (standard work).
  • Karl Bernhard Ritter : The Altar , Kassel 1930.
  • Karl Heimann: The Christian. Overview of his career over time. Arensberg 1954.
  • Stefan Heid : table or altar? Scientific hypotheses with far-reaching consequences. In: Stefan Heid (Ed.): Operation on a living object. Rome's liturgical reforms from Trent to Vatican II. Bebra, Berlin 2014, pp. 352–374.
  • Stefan Heid: The early Christian altar as a sacred object. In: Andrea Beck u. a. (Ed.): Holy and hallowed things. Forms and functions. (Contributions to hagiography, vol. 20), Franz Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart 2017, 43–63. on-line
  • Stefan Heid: Altar and Church. Principles of Christian liturgy. Schnell & Steiner, Regensburg 2019, ISBN 978-3-7954-3425-0 .
Art history
  • Christian Beutler : The Beginnings of the Medieval Altars . In: Studies on European Sculpture in the 12./13. Century , Frankfurt / M. 1994, pp. 457-467.
  • Max Hasse : The winged altar , Dresden 1941.
  • Walter Grundmann : The language of the altar. On the statement of faith in the German winged and shrine altar. Evangelische Verlags-Anstalt, Berlin 1966.
  • Herbert Schindler : The carved altar - masterpieces in southern Germany, Austria. and Südtirol , Recklinghausen 1982.
  • Albert Knoepfli : The Altar of the 18th Century , Munich 1978.
  • A. Seifert: Westphalian Altars , dissertation Munich, Bonn 1983.
Pulpit altar
  • GL Aronge: The Thuringian pulpit altar from 1700–1850 , Diss. Jena 1921.
  • G. Stade: Mecklenburg pulpit altar , dissertation Braunschweig 1930.
  • H. Schönberg: The baroque pulpit altars from Hildesheim masters in the district of Marienburg i. H. In: Alt Hildesheim 20 , 1942.
  • Helmuth Meissner: pulpit altars in Upper Franconia . In: Colloquium historicum Wirsbergense . In: Geschichte am Obermain , Vol. 5, 1968/1969.
  • Hartmut Mai: The Protestant pulpit altar. History and meaning , Halle 1969.
  • Helmuth Meissner: Churches with pulpit altars in Bavaria , Munich 1987.

Web links

Commons : Altar  album with pictures, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Altar  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Entry Altar on
  2. ^ Friedrich Kluge , Alfred Götze : Etymological dictionary of the German language . 20th ed., Ed. by Walther Mitzka , De Gruyter, Berlin / New York 1967; Reprint (“21st unchanged edition”) ibid 1975, ISBN 3-11-005709-3 , p. 17.
  3. Four-Horned Altar . Website (English, with a picture of a reconstruction). Retrieved December 7, 2014.
  4. As an example for many: Ursula Kampmann: The coins of the Roman Empire, no.136.120 (bronze coin of Constantinus I)
  5. Wolfgang Zwickel: The world of the Old and New Testaments . Calwer, Stuttgart, 1997, pp. 73ff. ISBN 3-7668-3412-6 .
  6. Stefan Heid: Altar and Church. Principles of Christian liturgy . Schnell & Steiner, Regensburg 2019, p. 275-351 .
  7. ^ PW Hartmann: lay altar. In: The large art dictionary by P. W. Hartmann . Accessed May 29, 2010.
  8. ^ Justin EA Kroesen: Side altars in medieval churches. Location - space - liturgy . Schnell & Steiner, Regensburg 2010.
  9. ^ Karl Rahner and Angelus Häußling: The many masses and the one sacrifice (Quaestiones disputatae 31). 2nd Edition. Freiburg / Basel / Vienna 1966, pp. 119–120, note 14.
  10. ^ Josef Braun SJ: Altar , in: Reallexikon zur Deutschen Kunstgeschichte, Vol. 1, Stuttgart 1934, Sp. 515 ff.
  11. a b KKK No. 1383.
  12. ^ The celebration of the consecration of the church and the altar , 1991 study edition, chap. 4: The consecration of the altar .
  13. ^ Basic Order of the Roman Missal, 299.
  14. ^ Basic Order of the Roman Missal, 298.
  15. ^ Albert Gerhards , Benedikt Kranemann : Introduction to liturgical science. 2nd Edition. Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 2008, p. 107.
  16. ^ University of Salzburg, Department of Practical Theology: The celebration of the consecration of the altar.
  17. a b Basic Order of the Roman Missal, 296.
  18. ^ Rainer Volp: Art. Altar. d) Modern times. Altar . In: Religion Past and Present (RGG). 4th edition. Volume 1, Mohr-Siebeck, Tübingen 1998, Sp. 340.
  19. Hartmut Mai: The Protestant pulpit altar, history and meaning , Halle 1969, p. 35.