Introibo Ad Altare Dei

The Baldacchino as an Element of Catholic Litrugical Architecture

by Steven Semes, appearing in Volume 2

There was a time when nearly every church of the Latin Rite had, as the main focus of its interior, a high altar surmounted by an elaborate architectural canopy, a kind of tabernacle, which both marked the location of the altar as a place of special honor and drew the eye to it. While by no means consistently in use throughout the history and geographic extent of Roman Catholicism, the baldacchino, as such a canopy is usually called, was standard in Early Christian churches at Rome and was later mandated in the Ceremoniale Episcoporum, the principal Counter-Reformation statement of liturgical practice, promulgated in 1600. Certainly, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s great example at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome is the best known, although the oldest surviving one is in San Apollinaire in Ravenna (9th century) and we know from literary sources that the Emperor Constantine gave a baldacchino fashioned of silver to the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano.

In fact, practice has oscillated between use of a free-standing altar under a canopy and the placement of the altar against a flat wall, with or without a vestigial canopy above. During the Middle Ages and most of the Renaissance, altars placed against a wall were standard, often surmounted by a reredos or a dramatic work of painting or sculpture. Despite Bernini, the wall altar remained the most common form until the Second Vatican Council, which recommended the practice of celebrating mass versus populum. The implementation of the Council’s reforms for the most part reflected an interpretation that the altar against a wall or reredos was now liturgically obsolete.

The new orientation of the celebrant, whatever its theological or liturgical merits, had an unfortunate consequence for existing churches, especially those whose altarpieces were of artistic importance. All too often, a portable altar has been placed in the sanctuary in front of the former high altar which, now bare and unused, still visually dominates the church interior. Or, worse, the old altar and reredos were simply demolished and replaced by a free-standing altar of undistinguished and often temporary appearance, lacking in scale, ornament and visual interest. While seeking to comply with the reforms of the Council, we continue to face the problem of how to make the altar the visual center of the liturgical space.

The baldacchino presents itself as both a liturgical and architectural solution to this dilemma, one which appears ripe for a comeback. The reasons for reconsideration of this once ubiquitous element are both symbolical and pragmatic and are the same reasons that prompted the development of the form in the first place: Most important of these is the desire to mark in an unambiguous architectural gesture the location of the altar and visually reinforce its centrality to the liturgical setting.

Like so many other aspects of ecclesiastical design, the baldacchino is layered with symbolic and associative content. Its meanings are illuminated by considering its historical origins and the stream of images that link it with other theological, biblical and liturgical ideas.

The altar canopy is evidently derived in part from a secular practice in the ancient courts of Asia and the Eastern Roman Empire. Monarchs and other high personages presented themselves on their thrones under fabric canopies. Apart from whatever shelter from the elements it may have provided, the canopy was a sign of honor, representing the majesty of the royal person, and also made him or her clearly distinguishable and easy to see in a crowd. A lightweight framework and fabric hangings allowed the canopy to be portable. This practice entered the Roman world in the late Empire and, following the collapse of Roman civilization, was revived again in the Carolingian period. A painting of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III in the year 1000 depicts him enthroned below a canopy supported by columns and hung with fabrics.

Similar canopies were erected over the thrones of bishops, and many cathedrals feature elaborate baldacchinos over the bishop’s throne, a practice no longer permitted in new construction. The baldacchino was also found in the papal conclaves. Before Paul VI discontinued the practice, the Cardinals assembled in the Sistine Chapel sat under fabric canopies color-coded for the pontificate in which each had been elected. After the new Pope was selected and pronounced his new name, the other Cardinals collapsed their canopies as a sign that authority had now passed from the College of Cardinals to the new Pontiff. A fascinating photograph from around 1950 shows a papal procession with Pius XII carried in his sedan chair under a billowing portable canopy supported on poles carried by his attendants.

The portable canopies carried above the monstrance in Corpus Christi or Holy Thursday processions are another illustration of the type. Given these examples, one can understand the implied transference of the honorific canopy from the throne of an honored personage to the altar itself.

The term baldacchino comes from the Italian “Baldacco,” meaning Baghdad, which was the chief source of the fabrics used for the canopies, mostly fine silks. Another term used to denote an altar canopy is ciborium. Strictly speaking, a baldacchino would be a non-permanent structure, presumably fabric, whereas ciborium refers to a permanent structure of wood, metal or stone. In practice, the two terms are used interchangeably. The origins of the word ciborium are obscure, possibly derived from the Greek kiborion for the seed-pod of the Egyptian water-lily or from the Latin cibus, for food. We recall that ciborium also denotes a type of vessel containing the Eucharistic elements. The name for the vessel may simply have been transferred to the structure within which the Eucharist was consecrated, or vice versa.

The baldacchino has many symbolic resonances with biblical events, all related to the creation of a space of honor. In the Old Testament, we read of the exacting requirements given by Yahweh to Moses for the tabernacle of the Ark in the desert, with its fabric draperies hung from moveable posts and beams. From the New Testament, we recall the Transfiguration, at which event Peter offers to build three tabernacles. This has been an obscure passage for modern readers, but perhaps we can best imagine these structures as simple fabric canopies of the type we have been considering here. Peter has sometimes been ridiculed for this interjection, which some commentators have characterized as a desire to fix or ‘objectify’ the revelatory experience by placing the three figures before him into structures of some kind. But perhaps Peter’s offer simply bespeaks the human impulse to place an honored person or object on a pedestal or, in this case, within a suitable frame. In my own view, Peter’s gesture was an architectural act of worship.

We should not forget another image suggested by the baldacchino: that of a banquet. The Eucharist has often been characterized as a banquet and in the Mediterranean world, such a gathering might well be held under a festive tent. The wedding at Cana, traditionally seen as a “type” of the Eucharist, comes to mind. In Jewish weddings to this day, the chuppah, a fabric canopy held above the heads of the bride and groom, captures the combined sense of consecrated and festive space which might appropriately be seen as analogous to the celebration around the Eucharistic table.

Finally, the baldacchino is associated with death and burial through its use over a tomb or as a shelter for a relic. Erection of a small temple-like shrine over a tomb is an ancient practice dating back to Roman times and before. Temporary canopies were often erected in connection with the funeral rites of monarchs, princes or bishops. In the 18th century, these catafalques were architecturally elaborate, incorporating large baldacchino-like structures and massed draperies. In the nave of the Old Saint Peter’s there were many canopies, marking both altars and tombs, and of course, the basilica itself may be seen as a grand baldacchino erected over the gravesite of Saint Peter. At San Giovanni in Laterano, the great 14th century baldacchino does double duty by sheltering the altar of the Pope and housing the relics of Saints Peter and Paul. The association of altar and tomb is further reinforced in many cases by the use of a sarcophagus (literally or a representation of one) as the altar itself. The tradition of the altarstone containing a relic remains as a vestige of this practice.

In the form of the baldacchino itself there is more symbolism. The four columns may be seen to represent the Four Evangelists. Sometimes, as at Saint Peter’s, the columns are of a twisted or Solomonic type, thought in the 17th century to have been the form of the pillars before the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple at Jerusalem. A representation of a starry sky on the ceiling of the canopy suggests the universal presence of God, the Creator of the Cosmos. A dove on the ceiling of the canopy represents the descent of the Holy Spirit at the Mass. Often the whole structure is crowned by figures of Seraphim, recalling those in Isaiah and their hymn, “Holy, holy, holy Lord. . .” On a more fundamental level, the overall silhouette of the baldacchino, with its strongly vertical orientation, may be seen as a simple pointer, directing our eyes and the actions of the liturgy heavenward as we offer up our worship ad Patrem.

Aside from its symbolism, the pragmatic appeal of the baldacchino flows from its role as a place-maker. In the churches where it appears, it gives pride of place to the altar, which is supposed always to be the central focus of any liturgical space. But how do you make an object about 3 feet high and 6 feet long the visual center of a space many times larger than these dimensions? Perhaps the best way is to place it in its own space—a sanctuary within the sanctuary. We see a good example of this at San Lorenzo fuori le mura in Rome. However active or complex the surrounding space, the altar remains the centerpiece.

Historically, the baldacchino has had lavished on it some of the best artistry and design available, but modernist architecture has had difficulty with liturgical design (and churches in general), lacking the symbolic and ornamental language to both direct and satisfy the eye. The baldacchino, when it appears at all, is typically reduced to an abstract reference to its former self. For example, at the Church of St. Francis de Sales in Muskegon, Michigan (designed by Marcel Breuer in the late 1960’s), the baldacchino appears as a kind of marquee suspended above the altar, and at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco (designed by Pietro Belluschi and Pier Luigi Nervi in the 1970’s), the altar stands beneath Richard Lippold’s abstract metal sculpture which resembles nothing so much as a cascade of icicles.

To demonstrate that the traditional baldacchino is still artistically viable in our own time, we may contrast these examples with the magnificent one at London’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Dykes Bower about the same time (in the 1960’s). It uses Solomonic columns, seraphim, a dome, and all the symbolic content we expect in the sanctuary of the altar. (London’s Roman Catholics can also boast a beautiful example at Westminster Cathedral, designed by J. F. Bentley at the end of the 19th century).

To conclude, I offer two examples of how the baldacchino can be used in new or remodeled church interiors today. In the first case, I show a traditional baldacchino executed in stone and modeled after Early Christian and Romanesque examples. It stands in an apsidal sanctuary at the liturgical east end of a basilican space. The canopy is both a marker and a gathering place, inviting the community to gather around the table of the banquet that is the Eucharist. The classical columns are a restatement of the structure’s symbolic and honorific role. While a monumental realization of this design suggests the use of fine marble, it could also be fabricated of a more modest material, such as wood or copper. The latter material, with a patinated finish, would be very attractive, glowing warmly in candlelight.

Image: Author

Finally, there are circumstances when a permanent baldacchino is not practical or affordable. We can return to the model of the fabric canopy (also called a tester), hung from the walls or ceiling of the sanctuary. This approach would be particularly appropriate in remodeling modern church interiors, or where the insertion of a free-standing structure supported on columns might obstruct views of the altar. If the fabric is rich and beautifully colored and the installation is done with great attention to scale, proportion, and proper lighting, the effect can be both festive and prayerful.

Image: Author

While many welcome advances in liturgical design have flowed from the reforms following the Second Vatican Council, there are important design issues that have yet to be resolved. Among the most important is the proper placement and visual centrality of the altar. The return of the baldacchino offers one way in which this problem can be addressed to satisfy both liturgical and aesthetic requirements.