Reflecting Heaven Part 17: Baldachinum of the Altar

08-18-2021Reflecting HeavenFr. Don Kline, V.F.

Baldachinum of the Altar, a dome-like canopy above our current altar, has a very long and esteemed history in church sanctuaries. These massive structures can be fashioned out of wood, stone, or metal, and are usually erected over the high altar of larger churches. The baldacchino is usually supported on four columns, though sometimes suspended by chains from the roof.

It has been suggested that the name “baldacchino” comes from Baldocco, Italian form of Bagdad where the precious cloth canopies were made as part of the structure. The same structure was previously called ciborium, from the 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.

Another historical note comes from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who wrote this about the baldacchino: “The church of the first millennium knew nothing of tabernacles. Instead, first the shrine of the Word and, then, even more so the altar served as sacred “tent”. Approached by steps, it was sheltered, and its sacredness underscored, by a “ciborium”, or marble baldacchino, with burning lamps hanging from it. A curtain was hung between the columns of the ciborium. The tabernacle as sacred tent, as place of the Shekinah, the presence of the living Lord, developed only in the second millennium. It was the fruit of passionate theological struggles and their resulting clarifications, in which the permanent presence of Christ in the consecrated Host emerged with greater clarity” (Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal; Guardini, Romano. The Spirit of the Liturgy).

While the early history of the baldachinum may be a bit obscure, 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 center, emphasizing the importance of the sacrificial table as the center 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.

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).

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 centers of Gothic art, and the use of the older form is common there today. The most magnificent baldachinum in the world is that in St. Peter’s in Rome designed by Bernini for Pope Urban VIII (Catholic Encyclopedia).

The baldacchino located in our sanctuary is very prominent with its ruby colored marble columns and Corinthian style caps all located just beneath the gold dome. This structure remains true to the original intent of underscoring the sacredness of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Latin inscription on the front of the dome reads, Et Verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis. This familiar and appropriate phrase translates as: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”

The collect (opening prayer) from the “Mass during the Night” on Christmas Eve beautifully illustrates the reason that we gather on that holy night and the significance of this glorious moment:

“O God, who have made this most sacred night radiant with the splendor of the true light, grant, we pray, that we, who have known the mysteries of his light on earth, may also delight in his gladness in heaven” (Collect, Midnight Mass).

God’s light came to earth as an infant over two thousand years ago. At Christmas and at every Holy Mass, we are reminded of that the Incarnation of God becoming man is a miracle and pure gift, and a sign of God’s love for us. “Et Verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis—And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Word, Christ himself, was, as the Nicene Creed says, “incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.”

In his Midnight Mass homily, Pope Francis said, “The grace which was revealed in our world is Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, true man and true God. He has entered our history; he has shared our journey.” Emmanuel, God with us, was born in a manger fully human and fully God. Jesus Christ is not some distant, historical figure. He experienced the joys and sorrows of daily living just as we do today, and is as alive today as he was in Bethlehem two thousand years ago and truly present on our altar as the Bread of Life.

God becoming flesh in the person of Jesus Christ and then Christ becoming truly present in the Eucharist at every Holy Mass comes about by the power of the Holy Spirit. Again we can look to Sacred Scripture from the Gospel of St. Luke:

“In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.”

The power and presence of the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is evident in Salvation history and therefore it is appropriate that the Holy Spirit is prominently located beneath the baldacchino and above the altar.

May all be impressed by an unmistakable sense of the otherworldly, the Sacred, that which is set apart for God. Over the next couple weeks, we’ll explore in detail the finishing touches in the Sancturary that so beautifully complete the renovation we started just a few months ago.