Parts of a High Altar

Altar. The place where, through the ministry of the priest, the Savior offers himself to his Father in the unbloody sacrifice of the Mass. Strictly speaking the altar is the central rectangular block, consisting of the support or stipes (the base) and the table or mensa (the surface on which the sacrifice is offered).

Inside the altar is a cavity called a sepulchrum, containing usually small relics of one or more martyrs. The sacrifice is offered right above the relics, honoring those whose deaths most closely resembled that of Christ, and calling to mind the Masses offered on the tombs of martyrs in the Roman catacombs.

A church may have one or several altars; if several, one of them is designated as the "main" altar, usually in a central place and with more decorations. It is quite possible to have several Masses taking place in the same church at the same time, obtaining from Christ's sacrifice the more graces for mankind.

The altar itself represents Christ, and is elevated above the ground to signify Mt. Calvary (the place of the crucifixion) and other mountains associated with our Lord (e.g. Mt. Tabor, the site of the Transfiguration). Its elevation also indicates the dignity of the King of kings.

Altar cloth. If the altar represents Christ, the three cloths covering it symbolize his burial linens. Altar cloths, corporals, purificators, and other sacred cloths are made of linen. Linen comes from flax, and flax comes from the earth: it comes from God and returns to God. It is made with much labor and treated with care, a motif of sacrifice.

Baldachin (Italian baldacchino). A canopy over a high altar, signifying the presence of the King of kings. (In the Middle Ages a baldachin over the throne of a monarch or other ruler was a symbol of authority.)

Candles. The six candles are reminiscent of the Jewish candelabra in the holy of holies. In the Christian temple the seventh candle is Christ, represented by the crucifix. The candles are made of beeswax. The virginal quality of worker bees points to Christís purity.  White (bleached) candles also represent purity; orange (unbleached) candles for Requiem Masses represent the souls in purgatory not having been fully purified.

This great symbol of the Catholic Religion signifies the excruciating and shameful death to which Christ subjected Himself out of love for mankind. Its placement on the altar reminds the priest that the Mass is the renewal of that Sacrifice.

are shelves for candles, flowers, and occasionally ostensoria (display stands) with relics. On the First Gradine are the candles used for Low Mass; at a High Mass the candles on the Second Gradine are lit.

Mass Cards.
Also called altar cards, these contain important prayers and scriptures which the priest recites at different points in the Mass. The majority of prayers and scriptures, however, are in the missal (altar book), not pictured here.

The top platform on which the altar rests.

. An ornamented wall or screen behind an altar, often with shelves, statues, or paintings. The one illustrated above consists of a slab of marble and a crucifix. One practical function of a reredos, especially like the one above, is to reflect and amplify the voice of the priest.

Tabernacle. An ornamented safe, traditionally veiled, in which is reserved the Sacred Body of Jesus Christ in the form of the Most Blessed Sacrament (consecrated Hosts). In the traditional arrangement illustrated above, the main altar is the seat of the tabernacle; however, in some churches the tabernacle may be in a separate chapel or cove.

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© Todd Aylard