Altar (Lat. alius, high), a place or structure, usually elevated, on which to perform certain religious services. The use of altars in religious worship reaches back beyond the historical era. The earliest account we have of an altar (Gen. viii. 20) shows that it was used for the offering of sacrifices. Later in Biblical history, we find altars sometimes built apparently as memorials of some religious event, and sometimes with a further idea of a distinct act of worship, as where Jacob built an altar and poured a drink offering thereon. Generally, however, the idea of sacrifice attended the altar. In the Jewish system there were two altars, viz., of incense and of burnt offering, besides the table for the shew-bread. Among the surrounding heathen nations, the same custom of erecting altars for purposes of worship may be traced to the earliest antiquity. The altars of Baal, that god of the oldest pagan cultus, are frequently mentioned in Scripture. Among the Greeks and Romans altars were erected to the various gods, and the services varied according to the character and functions of the divinities to which they were dedicated. The materials used in the construction of the ancient altars at first were probably rude stones.
In Egypt they were highly wrought with sculptured representations of the gods. The Israelites at their exodus were therefore commanded to make their altars of earth, so that they could not violate the second commandment. Afterward they were made of shittim (acacia) wood and cedar, overlaid with precious metals. The Greeks and Romans made them of earth and rude stones at first, then of highly sculptured stone. There are to this day many cairns of stones in the northern part of Britain, which were probably ancient altars. Similar structures are found on the high tops of the Anti-Libanus range, and some of the structures found in Mexico and the valley of the Mississippi, and in South America, may have been erected for the same purpose. The form of altars has varied among various nations and at different times, as also their elevation. The Jews were forbidden to go up to their altars by steps. In the Latin and oriental churches, the altar is an elevated structure, on which the priest offers the sacrifice of the mass. In the Roman Catholic church, a permanent altar is a solid structure, the top of which must be a slab of stone. Within the altar is a hollow receptacle for the relics of martyrs or other saints, called the sepulchre. The altar is consecrated by a bishop with chrism.
A portable altar is a small slab of stone, usually marble, consecrated and containing relics, which is placed on temporary or ordinary wooden and unconsecrated altars, in such a position that the oblation can be placed on it. Where there is sufficient wealth to permit it, the most costly marbles are used in the construction of altars, and the most sumptuous decorations are employed in their adornment. Altars on which the sacrament is reserved have a tabernacle, made in the shape of a small temple. In the East the altars have, instead of a tabernacle, an urn or casket suspended from the ceiling, in which the consecrated hosts are kept. In some Lutheran churches the altar has been retained. Some of the ancient altars remain also in the English churches, though they have been covered in some way, or at least disused. Gen-erally speaking, altars have been abolished in the Protestant churches, and the existence of any such thing as an altar in pure Christian worship is denied. In the church of England and the Protestant Episcopal church of the United States there are, and always have been, many who advocate the use of an altar in place of a common table, and solid altars are to be seen in some churches; occasionally even very beautiful altars of marble, with emblematic devices, rich altar cloths, altar pieces, and conspicuous crosses.
The liturgy, however, substitutes the word "table" in place of "-altar,"
ALTENSTE1N which occurs only in one or two occasional offices. In the early church the tombs of the martyrs, especially in the catacombs, were frequently used as altars, whence the present form is evidently derived. The earliest Christian writers use the words mensa sacra, mensa Domini, and altare, indiscriminately as convertible terms. In the small early churches the altar stood on the floor of the sanctuary; in the churches of the 4th century, which were larger, it was elevated on a platform; and it was subsequently elevated still more, so as to be reached by an ascent of several steps. Until the 13th century it stood in the middle of the sanctuary, and the priest stood behind it, facing the people, as is still the case in the Lateran basilica. Afterward the altar was placed against the wall, or a screen, which occasioned the change in the posture of the priest. This seems to have been peculiar to Rome, however, as elsewhere there is no record of a change in this respect.