The casing of the Eucharist
The tabernacle and its history. An article by the President of the Pontifical Commission for Cultural Property
by Mauro Piacenza
Ab assuetis non fit passio, an ancient proverb says: “No attention is paid to habitual things”; and it is a well-established sight for us to see the tabernacle set in the middle of the altar. That wasn’t always its place and again today, after Vatican Council II, one sometimes sees the tabernacle back in a chapel away from the main body of the church or, in any case, off the high altar.
Eucharistic dove, 12th-13th century, Abbey of Frassinoro (Monza)
It seems to me worthwhile to go back over liturgical history to examine the stages in an evolution always correlated to the history of the altar.
That there was one altar in churches is documented from the 4th century, later they increased in number, but absolute respect remained for the mensa dominica that excluded anything extraneous to the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice. Toward the end of the 9th century a new, highly expressive element began to appear on the altar table in a lasting way: the relics of the saints. Very soon other elements were added, so many that at the beginnings of the 10th century an important document, of Gallican origin, known by the name of Admonitio Synodalis, that became general law for all the Churches of West, prescribed that the altar must hold only «the urns of the saints (capsae), the missal and the pyx with the Body of the Lord for the sick; every other thing should be kept in a fitting place».
It wasn’t till the 16th century that the tabernacle came to be fixed on the high altar and, later still, for it to be set in the center of the table, the last phase in the historical development of the altar. In dutiful homage to the recent encyclical and to the consequent instruction on the Eucharist, I propose to describe – even if in rapid summary - the history of the casing of the Eucharist, both in terms of the location, and in terms of the sacred vessel used to contain the Eucharist.
of the catacombs
We know with certainty, from the unanimous testimony of the Fathers of the early centuries, that during the persecutions the Christians kept the Eucharist in their homes with worshipful love. When the Eucharistic celebration finished the consecrated bread was distributed and safeguarded in small jars or boxes by the faithful, to be taken when they felt the need of it. The archaeologist G. B. de Rossi, basing himself on a text of Saint Cyprian and on the Acts of the martyrs of Nicomedia, under Diocletian, calls these small jars arca or arcula. Cardinal Bona, in his Rerum liturgicarum, at n. 17, cites the text of the dispositions imparted by a bishop of Corinth, that inform us of the rite of a domestic communion. «If your house is endowed with an oratory, you will set the vase containing the Eucharist on the altar, if there is no oratory, on a decent table. You will spread a small cloth on the table and you will there deposit the sacred fragments; you will burn some grains of incense and you will sing the trisagion [our Sanctus, ed.] and the symbol; then, after having made three genuflexions, in sign of adoration, you will take the Body of Jesus Christ religiously». Saint Eusebius informs us that priests kept the Eucharist in their homes so as to take communion to the sick.
From ancient documents we also know that the Eucharist was worn hanging from the neck, both inside the wrappings that Saint Ambrose calls oraria, and in containers of gold, silver, ivory, wood, and even clay, commonly called encolpia. The encolpium was a small box containing relics and also the book of the Gospels that believers wore round their necks out of devotion. We know some examples found in the tombs of the Vatican cemetery, cubed-shaped, with hanger and decorated on the front with the monogram of Christ between the alpha and the omega.
Period of the basilicas
When after the peace of Constantine Christians could celebrate in all liberty the sacred rites and build places of worship, the Fathers tell us that very soon the practice was established of safeguarding the Eucharist in the churches themselves even if, according to Baronius, the custom of keeping the Eucharist in private homes stopped definitely at the beginning of the 4th century. Saint John Chrysostom informs us that sometimes the Eucharist was kept under the two species and we know from Saint Ambrose that, in Milan, the precious Blood was kept in a gold, barrel-shaped container called dolium. Sacredness and the preciousness are a constant. And it is the logic of faith and love.
The container of the Eucharist took two forms in the early basilicas: the tower and the dove. Scholars are divided on which form came first but, in all probability, the tower served as case for the dove which contained the Eucharistic bread. Evidence for the hypothesis is the material used in manufacture: in fact the towers were of silver and the doves of gold. The librarian Anastasius wrote in his De vita Pontificum that Constantine gave the basilica of Saint Peter a tower and a dove of pure gold, embellished with two hundred and fifty white pearls; Innocent I had a tower of silver and a dove of gold made for the church of Saints Gervasius and Protasius and Pope Hilary gave the Lateran basilica a tower of silver and a dove of gold. There is also debate about the location of the towers and the doves. Citing a passage in the Apostolic Constitutions, dating from the 4th century, there are those who claim they were kept in the pastophorium, that is in the more secluded and inaccessible place in the church: «After everyone has communicated, the deacons take leftovers to the pastophorium». There is some who identify the sacrarium as the place of safekeeping. A passage in Saint Jerome makes clear that they are two names for the same place: «Quare “sacrariu”, in quo iacet Christi corpus, qui verus est Ecclesiae et animarum nostrarum sponsus, proprie thalamus seu “pastophorium” appellatur». It is a matter of a place nobly reserved, away from the central body of the church.
The Eucharistic species was inserted in the dove through a small opening in the back and carefully closed with a lid with a clasp. The towers and the doves were suspended on fine chains over the center of the ciborium that covered the altar. It should be pointed out here that ciborium (later tegurium and tiburium) indicated the foursquare canopy that, from the time of Constantine, rose above the altar, rising from the four sides, to endow it with elegance and sumptuousness. Sometimes under the ciborium there was another canopy, smaller in size, that took the name of peristerium (dovecot) as it safeguarded the Eucharistic dove. The four curtains shaping the ciborium, called for that reason tetravela, remained in use up to the last years of the 9th century. The ciborium has its own particular history in Christian art that cannot be dealt with here. One cannot, however, fail to mention as the triumph of Baroque art the ciborium by Lorenzo Bernini that soars majestically to twenty-nine meters high in the air of Michelangelo’s dome. The Eucharistic faith becomes art and the art illustrates the Eucharistic faith. How much we have to learn! But this lesson is not learned only in the course of the indispensable lessons of architecture and of the varied arts that follow on from it. Essential is the cathedra of great theology and that of the prayer stool, of prayer, of the life of grace, of pietas, of the impassioned immersion in the paschal vitality of the liturgical year, in the great sense of the perennial traditio Ecclesiae. One needs to be habituated to the horizon of eternity against which everything that is transitory is measured.
In the Romanesque period, the two forms already in use – tower and dove – were increased in number by the pyx. The name generically designates the sacred vessel, of any shape or size, that contains the Eucharist. The Greek noun, however, has the precise meaning of box, so removing any ambiguity from the generic term of “case”, decidedly differentiating this vessel from the tower and the dove. The Romanesque doves, as compared to the ancient exemplars, are furnished with a pedestal that sometimes has the edge turned up lightly. It should be said of the use of the dove as container of the Eucharistic reserve that if it was common in France in the Middle Ages, it was not so in Italy where, from the 11th to the 16th century, the preference was for cabinets set in the wall or for the secretarium, a fitting sacristy.
It is not said that the use of the pyx displaced that of the tower and of the dove – for that matter the pyx is no more than a tower of medium size. It usually consists of a round box, sometimes square, closed by a lid mostly conical but also flat. Precisely because of these features it was very practical in use and also inexpensive. The pyx was sometimes attached to the beak of the dove as an evident sign of the presence of the Eucharistic species inside. There are also examples of pyxes supported by a pedestal, especially from the 12th century, hence the term pyx pediculata.
The Eucharistic cases – towers, doves and pyxes – were hung over the altar in the Romanesque period but, the ancient ciborium having disappeared, the method of suspension was also altered. Generally a cross-shaped pendant was fixed to the altarpiece and the case was hung from its scroll. There is no lack of examples of other solutions, even of a certain artistic value, but it would take too long to describe.
In the Romanesque period gold and silver were the usual materials for the manufacture of Eucharistic containers, whatever their form. Precious stones were also used to embellish pyxes. Gilded and enamelled brass was also used, ivory, and even wood.
Tabernacle on the high altar of Siena cathedral, 15th century
Durung this period the way of conserving the Blessed Sacrament offered various solutions. The case – tower, dove or pyx – was suspended above the altar wrapped in a veil. Sometimes the case was placed under the altar, as appears from the Synodal Statutes of Liege of 1287: «Corpus Domini in honesto loco, sub altari vel in armariolo sub clave custodiant». Normally, however, the case was kept in a cabinet or aedicule, dug out of the wall, to the right or left of the altar.
Care was taken, especially in churches of a certain importance, to embellish the door of the cabinet with elegant tracery and also with painted images, all framed by a pointed arch supported by small pillars topped again by arches and surmounted by pinnacles. At all events care went into painting both the interior and the door of the cabinet. A circular opening or one in the shape of a three- or four-leaved clover, closed by a grille, made in the wall in alignment with the interior of the closet, allowed the faithful to worship the Blessed Sacrament at any time from outside. A lamp lit in front of the opening indicated from a distance the place where the transubstantiated bread was kept. With the coming of the 16th century people were no longer satisfied with this decorated, significant but always modest closet, even if of a certain artistic interest. The first aedicules of the Sacrament began to appear. At first – a section of the 14th century – they were a characteristic almost exclusive to the churches of northern Europe.
The origin of these aedicules shows us how the Holy Spirit guides the faithful and they are owed to the widespread popular piety that in the Middle Ages led to the desire to contemplate the consecrated Host both during holy mass, at the moment of the elevation, and outside of the celebration. The cult of the Eucharist centered on the so-called monstrances that multiplied the display of the Eucharist, almost through a multiplication of a faith as heartfelt and simple as it was deep and precious.
The monstrance was nothing other than the public worship of the Body of the Lord with the Host exposed to adoration inside an ostensory. The practice of the monstrances was so ingrained in the people that certain restrictive measures formulated by some Synods were unable to limit them. One can, however, point to the first feast of Corpus Christi as celebrated by the canons of Liege in 1247. Pope Urban IV, in 1264, extended it to the whole Church, but only in 1316 was it definitely and providentially approved by Pope John XXII.
The Eucharistic aedicules were the intersection of popular devotion and synodal dispositions, in that they achieved a kind of permanent exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in front of the faithful. They are monumental constructions, in the form of a tower the height of which sometimes almost reaches the ceiling, mainly in ogival style, inside which the consecrated Host was kept in a transparent case behind a wide metallic grille, in such a way as to enable the faithful to contemplate the Sacrament, even if in a somewhat hazy fashion.
on the altar table
The latest historical phase in the evolution of the tabernacle, as Eucharistic container, that was to have its place on the altar table, began in the early 16th century. The pioneer of this solution in Italy was the pious bishop of Verona, Monsignor Matteo Giberti, who decided on it for the churches of his diocese. To be historically precise this arrangement is already mentioned in the Ordinationes of the Hermits of Saint Augustine, compiled under Alexander IV (1254-1261): «We want that in all our churches the Body of Christ be kept in a ciborium set above the high altar, inside pyxes of ivory or other precious material, in moderate quantity, covered by the cleanest of veils».
The disposition of Monsignor Giberti was particularly welcomed in northern Italy and soon spread to other dioceses, first Milan through the work of Saint Charles Borromeo who decided on the transfer of the location of the Blessed Sacrament from the sacristy to an altar in the cathedral. In Rome this initiative was warmly backed by Pope Paul IV. In 1614 the Ritual of Paul V imposed it on the churches of his diocese, recommending its adoption in others. Outside Italy various Councils left free choice in the placing of the container of the Blessed Sacrament; in general, wall tabernacles were preferred and, where they existed, Eucharistic aedicules.
As we know, those were the years of the application of the norms of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) that, in this case, reacted to the Protestant doctrine denying the permanence of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species. The need to affirm Catholic doctrine led to the spread of the placing of the tabernacle so that it was highly visible on the high altar. The more usual form was that of small house, embedded in the shelf of the altar, flanked by steps (normally arranged in three orders) on which candlesticks were set to take lighted candles, sometimes many, especially when there was solemn exposition of the Eucharist. In this way the table became, visually, almost a minor part of the altar that was ever more monumental and on which large artistic development was given to crosses, candlesticks, reliquary-busts or statues of saints and angels, large altarpieces, etc. In the eighteenth century the most highly considered pieces were the doors of the tabernacles, in precious metals and stones.
Toward the mid 18th century the placing of the tabernacle on the altar was by common practice in almost all churches, so that Benedict XIV could declare it a “rule in force” in his Accepimus constitution (16 July 1746). It was universally accepted after the decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites of 16 August 1863 that forbade any other form of container.
The current rule
Tabernacle attributed to Arnolfo da Cambio, 14th century, Basilica of San Clemente, Rome
The present rule on the place where the Holy Eucharist must be kept is the outcome of the liturgical renewal conducted by the Vatican II Ecumenical Council.
In the majority of our churches, for known historical reasons, the central element - dominant over the altar itself - has, for about four centuries, been the Eucharistic tabernacle. The liturgical adaptation of existing churches, aimed at highlighting the primacy of the Eucharistic celebration and hence the centrality of the altar, must also take account of the specific function of the Eucharistic reserve. It is necessary, therefore, that in eventual cases of adaptation peculiar concern be devoted to the “place” and to the features of the Eucharistic reserve. In this case, the setting aside of a place for the conservation of the Eucharist must be done in such a way as to give greater stress to the mystery of the permanence of the real presence and to create the conditions for its adoration.
Also the placing and eventual construction of a new noble Eucharistic container should facilitate its identification, and the direct access to it in secluded surroundings favorable to individual adoration. Should the Eucharistic chapel not be immediately visible on entry, opportune indications, clear and in good taste, should be devised that lead one to it. In the chapel, as in the space for the celebration, benches with kneelers must not be lacking so that the possibility of worshipping while kneeling remains customary. This needs to be said and done in so far as there exist insidious practices aimed as making it extremely difficult to pray kneeling. The visible means are also eliminated. Under it all there is an attack on belief in the real presence. How can one fail to notice?
One must remember in any case that in every church the tabernacle for the reserve and for Eucharistic adoration must be one and the same.
The Blessed Sacrament must be kept in really important architectural surroundings, normally distinct from the nave of the church, suitable for adoration and prayer - above all individual - graciously decorated and adequately lit.
Apart from being the only one, the tabernacle must also be unmoveable, solid and inviolable, not transparent. One should not neglect to set close to it the lamp with the eternal flame, in homage to the Lord. The gauze veil and floral ornament also help make people aware of the life that pulsates within that container.
As an alternative to the Eucharistic chapel, which is the recommended solution, a solution that sets apart a space within the body of the church (for example, a capacious side chapel), to be adapted with dignity, decorum and aptness for prayer and adoration, and to be properly marked out, can also be considered suitable (cf. General ordinance of the Roman Missal, Rome 20043, nn. 314-317).
It is perhaps not out of place here to mention the sacred vessels destined to hold the body and the blood of the Lord during mass (chalice, paten) and during Eucharistic adoration (monstrance). Recently the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued an instruction «on some things that must be observed and avoided concerning the Holy Eucharist» which also deals with the sacred vessels, reminding us that they must be forged from materials that are considered noble, according to local judgment, and vessels in everyday use or without any artistic value (citing baskets, vessels of glass, clay, or other fragile material) must be avoided, so that «their use may render honor to the Lord and entirely avoid the risk of belittling in the eyes of believers the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species» (Redemptionis sacramentum, 24 April 2004, n. 117).