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You are here: Art & Architecture > Architecture Features > Baldachinum of the Altar  Back one page.

Baldachinum of the Altar

San Lorenzo, Rome A dome-like canopy in wood, stone, or metal, erected over the high altar of larger churches, generally supported on four columns, though sometimes suspended by chains from the roof. Other forms will be noted in tracing the cause of its history. The name is late medieval, baldacchino, from Baldocco, Italian form of Bagdad whence came the precious cloths of which in their later development these canopies were made. It was called earlier ciborium, from the St. Paul Outside the Walls, Rome Greek kiborion (the globular seed-pod of the lotus, used as a drinking-cup) because of the similarity of its dome top to an inverted cup. The early history of the baldachinum is obscure, but it probably originated in the desire to give to the primitive altar table a more dignified and beautiful architectural setting. The arcosolium altars of the catacombs perhaps foreshadow this tendency. With the construction or adaptation of the larger church edifices of the fourth century, the baldachinum became their architectural centre, emphasizing the importance of the sacrificial table as the centre of Christian worship. Thus, while the altar retained its primitive simplicity of form and proportions, the baldachinum gave it the architectural importance which its surroundings demanded. By its dais-like effect, it designated the altar as a throne of honour. It served also the practical purpose of supporting, between San Prassede its columns, the altar-curtains, while from its roof were suspended lamps, vases, richly ornamented crowns, and other altar decorations. The summit was surmounted by the altar-cross. The earliest reference to the baldachinum is found in the "Liber Pontificalis" (ed. Duchesne, I, 172, 191, 233, 235) which described the Fastidium argenteum given by Constantine to the Lateran basilica during the pontificate of Sylvester I (314-335) and replaced, after the ravages of Alaric's Gothic hordes, by another erected during the Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome pontificate of Sixtus III (432- 440). The oldest representation in art is the early sixth-century mosaic in the church of St. George in Thessalonica; while the oldest actual specimen is that in the church of St. Apollinare in Classe at Ravenna (c. 810). The use of the baldachinum was general up to the twelfth century, when it yielded to the growing importance of the reliquary as an adjunct to the altar, sometimes disappearing altogether, sometimes taking the form of a canopy over the relic-casket. With the placing of the altar against the wall, the baldachinum took the form of a projecting dais canopy (v. Altar-Canopy under ALTAR: IN LITURGY) or became the ciborium-like superstructure of the tabernacle or central tower of the altar. Italy was less affected by this evolution than were the centres of Gothic art, and the use of the older form is common there to-day. The most magnificent baldachinum in the world is that in St. Peter's in Rome designed by Bernini for Pope Urban VIII.

JOHN B. PETERSON

Transcribed by Michael C. Tinkler

The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume II
Copyright © 1907 by Robert Appleton Company
Online Edition Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Knight
Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York

This article is part of the Catholic Encyclopedia Project, an effort aimed at placing the entire Catholic Encyclopedia 1913 edition on the World Wide Web. The coordinator is Kevin Knight, editor of the New Advent Catholic Website. If you would like to contribute to this worthwhile project, you can contact him by e- mail at (knight.org/advent).


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You are here: Art & Architecture > Architecture Features > Baldachinum of the Altar  Back one page.

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All contents © copyright, 1998-2014
The Catholic Liturgical Library
http://www.catholicliturgy.com