Tamquam Cor in Pectore: The Eucharistic Tabernacle Before and After the Council of Trent

In recent years, historical research has paid considerable attention to the relationship between liturgy and architecture. Much of this scholarship has focussed on Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, but there is also growing interest in the periods of the Renaissance and of the Catholic Reform both before and after the Council of Trent (1545-1563), as is evident from the proceedings of a conference held at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence in 2003. The editor of the volume, Jörg Stabenow, identifies two main developments that transformed the typical church interior in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. First, elements that divided the building into different sections were removed in order to create a unified space. By contrast, medieval churches were structured by a complex system of partitions, especially the rood screen separating the nave from the choir. Secondly, the tabernacle placed in a central position on the high altar was adopted as the common form of Eucharistic reservation and became the focal point of Baroque church architecture.

The word tabernaculum was already used in the Middle Ages to indicate the receptacle for the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. William Durandus notes in his highly influential Rationale divinorum officiorum of 1282 that, in imitation of the Ark of the Covenant and of the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 25-26, 33:7-11 and elsewhere), “in some churches an ark or tabernacle (archa seu tabernaculum) is placed, in which the Body of the Lord and relics are kept”. The biblical association is significant, since the Tent of Meeting was God’s presence among the people of Israel in the desert. Moreover, the prologue to the Gospel of John states that the Divine Word “was made flesh and dwelt [literally: “pitched his tent”] among us” (John 1:14). Finally, in the Apocalypse the heavenly Jerusalem is evoked with the words: “Behold the dwelling of God is with men”, which reads in the Latin Vulgate: “Ecce tabernaculum Dei cum hominibus” (Revelation 21:3).

The placing of a fixed Eucharistic tabernacle on the high altar is usually associated with the liturgical reforms that were implemented after the Council of Trent, especially by St Charles Borromeo, whose efforts to renew religious life in his Archdiocese of Milan became exemplary for the Catholic Church as a whole. However, this practice had already been promoted by reforming bishops before Trent and can be traced back to fifteenth-century Tuscany. High-altar tabernacles were introduced in several churches of this Italian region, including the cathedrals of Volterra (1471) and Prato (1487); perhaps the best-known example is the transferral of the older tabernacle of Vecchietta to the high altar of Siena cathedral in 1506, where it replaced Duccio’s Maestà.

The new arrangement was vigorously promoted by Gian Matteo Giberti, bishop of Verona from 1524 to 1543. Giberti’s Constitutiones, which were issued in 1542 with the approval of Pope Paul III, aimed at a reform of ecclesiastical life in his diocese and in many ways anticipated post-Tridentine developments. Reserving the Blessed Sacrament on the high altar in the centre of the church, where it would be exposed for the veneration of both clergy and laity, formed an important part of Giberti’s pastoral programme. The bishop wrote in his Constitutiones, with reference to various psalm verses:

And as the eyes of a maid to the hands of her mistress (Ps 122[123]:2), so should be the eyes of those who stand around the table of the Lord (cf. Ps 127 [128]:3), always with fear and trembling towards the most high and most precious sacrament, which is there on the high altar; they should weep for joy about it, and rejoice devoutly in their weeping, and they should see how sweet is the Lord (cf. Ps 33[34]:9) …

In a similar mould, Per Francesco Zini in his biography of Giberti, published in Venice in 1555 with the title Boni pastoris exemplum ac specimen singulare, describes the position of the tabernacle on the high altar as being “like the heart in the breast (tamquam cor in pectore)”. The tabernacle was intended to be the heart of the church both in a spatial and in a spiritual sense. Giberti applied this principle to his own cathedral in Verona and prescribed it for every parish church of his diocese.

The Council of Trent, which met from 1545 to 1563, did not give specific directives on church architecture and furnishing. However, by affirming traditional Eucharistic teaching, the conciliar decrees gave clear theological indications that were to shape the construction of the new churches and the restructuring of already existing ones. The canons of the Decree on the Eucharist, dating from the Council’s thirteenth session on 11 October 1551, confidently asserted the Catholic position in the face of Protestant criticism, especially that of Martin Luther who had argued earlier that Christ was present in the sacrament of the Eucharist only during the actual liturgical celebration, when it would be received in faith by the communicants. The canons of Trent restated the teaching of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 about the real and abiding presence of Christ under the form of bread and wine after their consecration by the priest. Hence there is the need for an appropriate and secure reservation of the consecrated hosts after Mass, which are also used for bringing Holy Communion to the sick. Canon seven speaks in apparently general terms about the reservation of the Holy Eucharist “in sacrario”. In medieval use, the word sacrarium could indicate any place for Eucharistic reservation, including the sacristy. However, in the context of Trent, it would be safe to assume that many Council Fathers would have understood sacrarium to mean the altar tabernacle. This idea had already obtained some currency, as is evident from synod convoked by Cardinal Reginald Pole, Legate of the Holy See in England, and held in Westminster in December 1555 and January 1556. The legatine synod decreed that the Holy Eucharist should be reserved “either in the middle of the altar or at is end.”

The Council of Trent also emphasised the role of bishops in implementing ecclesiastical reforms and mandated the edition of revised liturgical books, a work that was carried out by the popes in the years to follow. These factors resulted in a standardisation of liturgical life, which made the new way of Eucharistic reservation on the high altar spread throughout the Catholic world. Historians have often have concentrated on the contribution made by St Charles Borromeo (1538-1584) to the development of church architecture and furnishing after Trent. Borromeo has been presented as a model reforming bishop, who implemented the Tridentine decrees in the Archdiocese of Milan with exemplary diligence. Without reducing the role of this great bishop, it would seem appropriate to place his work into a larger cultural context. The high-altar tabernacle was by no means an innovation of Borromeo, and we have also seen that most of the theological reasoning behind this practice had already been circulating for some time.

Borromeo’s ideas on church architecture are expressed most succinctly in his Instructiones fabricae et supellectilis ecclesiasticae of 1577, which was composed by a group of authors under his auspices. On the question of Eucharistic reservation, the Instructiones refer to the decrees of the first provincial synod of Milan held in 1565, which stipulated that in all the churches where the Blessed Sacrament was reserved, including the cathedral, it should be placed on the high altar, unless some necessity or grave reason would speak against it. The Archbishop of Milan set the example by transferring the Blessed Sacrament in his own cathedral from the sacristy to the high altar. While Borromeo’s Instructiones were widely received in the post-Tridentine period, there was still some flexibility about the place of Eucharistic reservation. It is worth noting that the Caeremoniale Episcoporum of 1600 recommended that the Blessed Sacrament should not be kept on the high altar, or on another altar where the bishop was to celebrate Solemn Mass or Vespers. However, I do not think this can be taken to indicate a critique of the high-altar tabernacle, as Christoph Jobst suggests in his magisterial study of the subject. The prescription is not concerned with the general arrangement of churches, but with the rubrics of specific celebrations. At most, one could argue that in pontifical liturgies the older custom of Eucharistic reservation being separate from the altar is reflected.

The Rituale Romanum of 1614 has a relevant paragraph in its Praenotanda on the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist, which says: “The tabernacle ought properly to be covered with a canopy, and nothing else kept therein. It should be placed on the main altar or on another where it can be viewed readily, so that due worship may be rendered this great sacrament”. Even here, there is flexibility about the placing of the tabernacle: it can be on the high altar or on another altar of the church which is appropriate for the veneration of the sacrament. Similar instructions can be found in the acts of many diocesan and provincial synods were that held in the first half of the seventeenth century. For instance, the Synod of Constance in 1609 decreed that the Blessed Sacrament should be reserved “either on the altar itself, according to the Roman custom, or on the left side of the choir near the altar”. However, the placing of the tabernacle on the main altar according to the “Roman use” was gradually adopted throughout Europe as part of the Tridentine reform.

A variety of factors contributed to this development: first, the Council’s clear and confident re-affirmation of the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence in the face of Protestant criticism; secondly, the increasing popularity of Eucharistic devotions (Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, Eucharistic processions, Forty Hours’ Devotion); thirdly, the flourishing of Baroque art and architecture not just in Europe, but throughout the Catholic world, with its emphasis on visibly expressing the truths of the Faith, especially the Real Presence; and fourthly, the standardisation of liturgical books after the Council of Trent, with Roman practice being the model for the whole Church.

Seen in its cultural and artistic context, it is evident that this development was not initiated by the Council of Trent, but was part of the common tendency in Renaissance and Baroque church architecture to create a unified space, in which the high-altar tabernacle was indeed, in the words of Bishop Giberti’s biographer, “tamquam cor in pectore.”

Rev. Uwe Michael Lang, a native of Germany and priest of the Congregation of the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri in London, is a Lecturer in Church History at Heythrop College in the University of London and a Consultor to the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff.  He has published in the fields of Patristics and liturgical studies, including Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2nd edition 2009. His most recent book is The Voice of the Church at Prayer: Reflections on Liturgy and Language, San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2012.