Primitive altars?

Wow. It's strangely quiet over here. Am I the first person to open a discussion title?

Is there a really knowledgeable Ecclesianticist who either knows or has experience of this and can answer any of my questions, or advise on anything else?

I've heard somewhere, and can't remember where, that in some places in early centuries, the altar was at the liturgical west end of the church. The congregation was to the liturgical east of it. So the priest celebrated facing east across the altar. So, my questions are these.

1. Does anyone know whether this is correct?

2. Is there anywhere that still does this?

3. Did the congregation also face east, i.e. the same way as the priest with the priest leading the celebration from behind them? Or did they face the priest in the west?

4. Where was the sermon preached from?

5. With space often being used flexibly and altars often being more moveable now than they used to be, has anyone tried this in modern times, and has any shipmate experienced this?

6. Did it work?
«1

Comments

  • Best I know, churches have long faced east, with the people and the priest both facing east. I have never heard of ancient churches that faced west.
  • Same here.

    Of course, topography might mean that a church cannot be oriented (sp?) correctly, so that the liturgical east end might face south, for example, but that doesn't detract from the principle of the ancient practice referred to by mousethief.

    Having the priest celebrating at an altar behind the congregation sounds eccentric, to say the least!

    :astonished:

    IJ
  • mousethief wrote: »
    Best I know, churches have long faced east, with the people and the priest both facing east. I have never heard of ancient churches that faced west.

    I seem to remember hearing that St Peter's in Rome is reverse orientated, with the priest facing both east and the people.
    My seminary's chapel is set up the same too...
  • Hi Max *waves*

    Do you mean that, at St. Peter's, the priest is in fact standing, facing the people, with his back to what is geographically the west end? That's the sort of thing I was referring to above. I think.

    :confused:

    IJ
  • Hi Bishops Finger (IJ) *Waves* :smiley:

    Yes, the presider faces towards the East in St Peters.... with his back to the West.
    The reason for this is because St Peters is built on a rather difficult terrain, but it's not the only church in Rome to have this configuration!

    Max.
  • There are other churches that don't face east historically. Remember reading about it in Early Church History and Patristics but can't remember where or why now. Anybody know?
    Of course non-conformist and reformed churches don't always face east
  • Indeed they don't, and a lot of the earlier chapels, at any rate, were sometimes shoehorned into rather awkward sites. No matter, of course, as long as the minister could be seen and heard.

    I suspect that any oddities of orientation in older churches built for a Eucharist-based liturgy will be due to geographical reasons, rather than theological.

    Now someone will come on board to prove me completely wrong!

    IJ
  • EnochEnoch Shipmate
    The allegation wasn't that any church faced west. It was that the church faced east, but the altar was at what we'd regard as the back with the priest celebrating facing east, with the congregation to his east, between him and the east end of the church. I assume the altar would have been open and visible, not screened behind an iconostasis or a curtain.
  • Yes, I thought that's what you were getting at, but it sounds very peculiar indeed!

    Forgive me for being a bit thick today (blame The Beast From The East), but would the congregation be facing the priest, or looking away from him, towards the east?

    IJ
  • EnochEnoch Shipmate
    ... Forgive me for being a bit thick today (blame The Beast From The East), but would the congregation be facing the priest, or looking away from him, towards the east? ...
    That's exactly the question to which I'm hoping someone knows the answer. Did/do the congregation also face east, with the priest praying (presumably loudly) from behind them, a bit like a west-gallery orchestra, or do they turn west to face the priest (facing the music)?
  • Either way, it would rather bizarre, to say the least.

    IJ
  • I have seen several romanesque Spanish churches (e.g. San Miguel de Escalada (c 950), San Juan de la Pena (c920), San Isidro in Leon) where the altar is a squarish block away from the wall. The layout makes it clear that there was space in the apse for a medium-sized chancel party (5-10)-- it cannot be but that the congregation was facing east. My guess is that, as with the Byzantine use, under the Mozarabic use, the priest faced west (toward the congregation) for some prayers, and east for others, and that there was some circling around the altar. I am told that this pattern can also be seen in some North African and Sicilian churches. Sadly, we have few pre-millennial rubrics or instructional videos around...
  • EnochEnoch Shipmate

    I seem to remember hearing that St Peter's in Rome is reverse orientated, with the priest facing both east and the people.
    My seminary's chapel is set up the same too...

    How do St Peter's and your seminary chapel work? Are they both set out and used the usual way, except that they don't geographically point in the right direction, so liturgical east isn't actually geographical east? Or is either of them used the way I've described, with the priest celebrating from what to the congregation would be the back of the church with the congregation in front of the celebrant?

    And in your seminary chapel, does the celebrant celebrate 'across the altar' or liturgically ad orientem with his back to the congregation?
  • CyprianCyprian Shipmate
    I have read in a number of places about churches that were reverse-oriented in the way that Enoch describes. One source that comes to mind is The Spirit of the Liturgy by then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. I think it is also mentioned in Turning Towards the Lord by Fr Uwe Michael Lang. However, it has been some years since I read either of these.

    From memory, I recall that this stemmed from the ancient practice of offering the Eucharist on the tombs of the martyrs. (A remnant of this practice that continues to our own day is the form of the embedding of relics of a saint in the altar or in an antimins that is then placed on the altar).

    As martyrs were often buried at or near the place of their martyrdom, and the place was not chosen with the building of a church in mind, these sites were not always conducive to the construction of a church in the usual arrangement. If there were a river, mountain, or some other topographical hindrance nearby, it might preclude the building of the church in such a way that the altar could be at the east end, resulting in some churches that had the altar in unusual places.
  • None of our altars are affixed to the east wall, but the priest never stands behind the alter and faces west. There are processions that go around the altar, and in some churches a "throne" for the bish is in the east end of the apse. But the alter being away from the wall is no indication that the priest ever presides from its east, or prays there, or anything else.
  • I have never heard of a church set up in such a way that the priest and people face east, but the altar is at the west end of the church. Not to say it doesn't exist, but it's quite outside of my experience or reading.
  • Gramps49Gramps49 Shipmate
    Interesting thought. At the permanent station at the South Pole, assuming there is a chapel, which way is east?
  • Wherever you want it to be, but preferably away from draughts!

    IJ
  • Gramps49 wrote: »
    Interesting thought. At the permanent station at the South Pole, assuming there is a chapel, which way is east?

    I suppose whichever way you face would be facing North, (the long way round). Though if one assumes the Greenwich Meridian could be used as a datum, then East would be Longitudinally at 090º, theoretically, but you would need a gyro compass or GPS to determine the bearing since magnetic North would be somewhere between your feet.
  • I believe that this is the church you seek, but it is north of the pole, so this problem does not generally arise. However, should a priest at the pole itself wish to say mass, then I would let their discretion rule. Still, I wonder if this would give a wonderful opportunity to any militant north-ender in the area.
  • Wow. Beautiful indeed, but so cold........

    IJ
  • I'm sure your worship space would not be at the pole itself, but some distance away in the compound. As such the problem would not arise.
  • RdrEmCofE wrote: »
    Gramps49 wrote: »
    Interesting thought. At the permanent station at the South Pole, assuming there is a chapel, which way is east?

    I suppose whichever way you face would be facing North, (the long way round). Though if one assumes the Greenwich Meridian could be used as a datum, then East would be Longitudinally at 090º, theoretically, but you would need a gyro compass or GPS to determine the bearing since magnetic North would be somewhere between your feet.

    I find it really strange this is asked. Churches face 'East' to face Jerusalem. I think there is no problem with determining which direction is 'East' is from that perspective.

    Jengie
  • angloidangloid Shipmate
    I don't think Jerusalem is the reason for orientation of churches. I understand it's because we face the rising sun. Interesting to know what happens with churches situated east of Jerusalem.
  • CyprianCyprian Shipmate
    angloid wrote: »
    I don't think Jerusalem is the reason for orientation of churches. I understand it's because we face the rising sun. Interesting to know what happens with churches situated east of Jerusalem.

    They still face east.

    As you say, it isn't about the earthly Jerusalem, but rather the looking out into the cosmos, into the rising sun, signifies the eschatological nature of our worship. Therefore, if anything, it's the New Jerusalem that we look towards. The corona in many Byzantine churches highlights this.
  • That makes sense.

    IJ
  • The story we tell is that it's east because Jesus is the Orient From On High, and will return from the east. Which is why older graveyards had the headstones on the west side -- when Jesus returns, your feet are on the east and your head and body pivot up to face east. Of course!
  • Gee DGee D Shipmate
    angloid wrote: »
    I don't think Jerusalem is the reason for orientation of churches. I understand it's because we face the rising sun. Interesting to know what happens with churches situated east of Jerusalem.

    The strongly liturgical churches face east generally - usual exceptions for lie of the land and so forth. I know of one Baptist church which does, one which doesn't and can't speak of others. The only Church of Christ I know of faces north and I don't know about Meeting Halls.
  • mousethief wrote: »
    The story we tell is that it's east because Jesus is the Orient From On High, and will return from the east. Which is why older graveyards had the headstones on the west side -- when Jesus returns, your feet are on the east and your head and body pivot up to face east. Of course!
    The old Moravian cemetery in Winston-Salem (NC) is similarly oriented, with the bodies all “facing” east.

    The Easter sunrise service in Old Salem is quite an event. It begins in the square in front of Home Moravian Church well before sunrise. Then after the first part of the liturgy, the thousands in attendance walk the quarter mile to the cemetery as brass bands play chorales—one band plays one line, then another down the street plays the next line, and so on. Through experience, the whole thing is timed so that the crowd arrives at the cemetery and, facing east (I did get back to that) resumes the liturgy right about the time the sun rises.

  • Nick Tamen, that sounds lovely.
  • EnochEnoch Shipmate
    Somewhere, I seem to remember being told that clergy were traditionally buried the opposite way round, so that on the Last Day, they would be raised facing their flock. But I can't remember where I heard that or whether it's true. I've also heard somewhere that clergy are supposed to be buried in their robes.
  • I know some clergy I'd like to see buried in their robes.

    Before they die.

    I'll get me cassock....

    :naughty:

    But yes, I have heard about them being buried as Enoch describes. Perhaps it's so that they can see and appreciate the looks of surprise on the faces of their flock, and say, 'There! I told you it was True!'...

    IJ
  • BasilicaBasilica Shipmate
    Yes, the catholic tradition is that clergy are buried in vestments, with priests and bishops normally facing west.

    The joke I've heard is that they tend to be heading in a different direction from their flock...
  • Perhaps it's a throw-back to mediaeval times, when village communities were much more settled. The priest, especially if he'd been there for many years, would have had quite a close relationship (in the best sense of the word!) with his flock.
  • Orthodox clergy are buried vested.
  • I've been to the funerals of lay readers in the CofE and they too were buried robed
  • Enoch wrote: »
    Somewhere, I seem to remember being told that clergy were traditionally buried the opposite way round, so that on the Last Day, they would be raised facing their flock. But I can't remember where I heard that or whether it's true. I've also heard somewhere that clergy are supposed to be buried in their robes.

    Yes I've heard that too, it would be interesting to see how it worked in a modern churchyard and its neat rows of headstones, then with one out of step...
  • EnochEnoch Shipmate
    Zacchaeus wrote: »
    I've been to the funerals of lay readers in the CofE and they too were buried robed
    How did you know? Were you somewhere that does funerals with the lid off?
  • Gee DGee D Shipmate
    Zacchaeus wrote: »
    Enoch wrote: »
    Somewhere, I seem to remember being told that clergy were traditionally buried the opposite way round, so that on the Last Day, they would be raised facing their flock. But I can't remember where I heard that or whether it's true. I've also heard somewhere that clergy are supposed to be buried in their robes.

    Yes I've heard that too, it would be interesting to see how it worked in a modern churchyard and its neat rows of headstones, then with one out of step...

    Headstones most of the row, and then a footstone neatly aligned with all the others.

    There are very few burials here these days, very few indeed. No doubt there are proper statistics available somewhere, but I'd say that at least 75% of funeral services precede cremation and in capital cities it would be rather higher. I'm only going from the death notices, these days almost invariably combined with the funeral notice. And most in a chapel at the cemetery.
  • BasilicaBasilica Shipmate
    Gee D wrote: »
    There are very few burials here these days, very few indeed. No doubt there are proper statistics available somewhere, but I'd say that at least 75% of funeral services precede cremation and in capital cities it would be rather higher. I'm only going from the death notices, these days almost invariably combined with the funeral notice. And most in a chapel at the cemetery.

    About half the funerals I take are burials. This may be partly because it's an area with a strong cultural catholic heritage, but also perhaps because land is cheaper here than in other places! But quite often the funeral is in the crematorium chapel, before a burial in the cemetery.
  • mousethief wrote: »
    Nick Tamen, that sounds lovely.
    It is, mousethief. People start arriving as early as 3:00 to get a good spot to stand and wait. For me, the brass bands are the best part.

    The other aspect I like is that families will have spent Holy Saturday in the cemetery cleaning the headstones and tidying up the graves to prepare them for Easter.

  • Enoch wrote: »
    Zacchaeus wrote: »
    I've been to the funerals of lay readers in the CofE and they too were buried robed
    How did you know? Were you somewhere that does funerals with the lid off?

    I know only by being told - one of them for instance died very suddenly and I know her family asked for her robes which were kept in her church, to be given to them for this purpose
  • When asking about primitive altars it surely depends how far back one wants to go. We know,for example that early meeting centres for Christians in Rome were in private houses' domus ecclesiae'. As Christianity became more publicly recognized and publicly practiced private house churches became more open as meeting places for the community
    following the divisions of Roman houses with the atrium and tablinum used for preaching and the triclinium which would be used for the sacred meal. As more space was needed the 'altar' would normally be covered over with a canopy or baldacchino. One could always move right round the altar just as in a typical Orthodox church of today.
    Ecclesia was sometimes used simply as a place where people could speak to one another,as we see also in the word 'basilica' for a royal hall. These buildings were eventually taken over by the Christians and then we have the beginning of aisles which are common in Western churches,coming from the columns in the early basilicas which divided the whole building into a central aisle with two side aisles. It is perhaps in these side aisles that the practice of putting side altars against the wall would grow up. The early public Christian churches would, as Orthodox churches today, have only one altar.

    There are any amount of old churches in Rome and elsewhere which have a central altar covered with a canopy. San Clemente is one of the best examples , but so also is San Lorenzo al Verano, San Crisogono and Santa Maria in Cosmedin. The three best known churches of Rome, no doubt refashioned over the centuries and in one case completely rebuilt all feature the central altar covered with a canopy, Santa Maria maggiore, San Giovanni in Laterano and ,of course ,San Pietro al Vaticano

    There is ,I think, a fine Anglican church,designed by Comper,somewhere near Portsmouth,along these lines.
  • CyprianCyprian Shipmate
    Here is the excerpted relevant chapter of one of the books I cited above which makes reference to the reverse-oriented Roman basilicas.
  • St. Philip, Cosham, is the Comper church you refer to, I think.

    stphilipscosham.org.uk/

    IJ
  • Many of the most prominent churches of the Constantinian era have or had their apse in at the west. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem still does, I believe. As far as I know, there is no consensus as to which direction the priest faced. Certainly patristic texts (e.g. Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria) make reference to facing east, although one shouldn't assume too much uniformity.

    If churches want to avoid the impression of the priest "turning his back on the people," then they should at least consider moving the altar to a central location and have the priest face east with the people gathered around.
  • If churches want to avoid the impression of the priest "turning his back on the people,"
    Why should they want that?
  • mousethief wrote: »
    If churches want to avoid the impression of the priest "turning his back on the people,"
    Why should they want that?

    Well, it doesn't bother me (I actually rather prefer it and it was the custom in two of my last three parishes), but most Roman Catholics and Anglican aren't keen on it.
  • EnochEnoch Shipmate
    mousethief wrote: »
    If churches want to avoid the impression of the priest "turning his back on the people,"
    Why should they want that?


    Well, it doesn't bother me (I actually rather prefer it and it was the custom in two of my last three parishes), but most Roman Catholics and Anglican aren't keen on it.
    Well one pretty fundamental reason, to my way of thinking, is that it's a lot harder to hear someone who has their back to you - and a lot of churches are acoustically pretty dire anyway even with sound systems.

    For another, personally, I find it easier to engage with what's happening, if I can see it.
  • This may be a churchmanship thing. Most of what the priest does with his back turned (and the door closed!) is his look-out, and we've got stuff to sing while he's fiddling with the bread and wine and stuffs. My current parish, a Greek church, has body mikes on the clergy, so we have to hear him anyway, and thus most of the "silent" prayers end up being read out loud (and disrupting the flow of the choir and needlessly dragging out the service).
Sign In or Register to comment.