Question: What do we know about the position of the priest relative to the altar and the congregation at Mass in the early Church? Are the great churches of Rome, like Saint Peter’s, the basilicas in which Mass is said facing the people, the norm for Catholic worship?
Answer: It will help to start first with the practices of the Old Testament. While they were wandering through the desert after escaping from Egypt, God gave the Jewish people rather precise instructions for the construction of a structure in which He was to be worshipped.[i] The portable structure would eventually be replaced with the Temple building under Solomon—both included courtyards which opened at the east and enclosed a holy of holies at the western end. Worshippers in the courtyard could witness the sacrifices offered in front of the holy of holies, and knew that therein God dwelt behind a series of curtains, through which only the high priest could pass. Priests and people faced west toward the Presence of God, the Shekinah. With the entrance in the east, sunlight was admitted in the morning, while the structure provided a modicum of shade over the courtyard in the hot afternoon.
The Passover sacrifice, the context of our Lord’s Last Supper, would have been eaten in Mediterranean style, with the guests reclining on cushions or low couches at a low table or tables in the shape of a horse shoe. Dishes could be brought and removed through the opening of the “horse shoe” without having to reach over any of the guests. In early Christian art Jesus and the Apostles are often portrayed in a semicircle, as are the participants in early depictions of the Mass. For all bit the tiniest group, this semicircle of reclining Christians would have to extend along the walls at the left and right of the altar.
Ravenna, San Apollinare Nuovo, "The Last Supper" (Mosaic).
Our Lord is often pictured to the right of the Apostles, as in the mosaic above, but sometimes in the center. The right was the place of honor, but it is not difficult to imagine the One who had just washed the feet of the Apostles, and who had cautioned against “taking the first places at table,” Himself taking the lower place.[iii] Saint John’s Gospel suggests that Judas and John sat on either side of Jesus.
The earliest locations for the offering of Mass were in the homes of private individuals. The Upper Room of the Last Supper is believed to have belonged to the family of John Mark; there are a number of references to homes and rooms used for Mass in the Acts of the Apostles, and in various lives of the Saints.[iv] During times of persecution, Mass was offered in the catacombs on the tombs of the martyrs. Art and architectural evidence suggest that the “horse shoe” layout was maintained, although there had to be occasional variation in the catacombs and other “tight” places.
It is clear from Saint Paul’s writings that the early Christians understood the Mass to be a renewal of our Lord’s sacrifice, even though it was in some cases celebrated within a communal meal:
Paul directly contrasted the altar of the Temple with the Christian altar:
Paul even went so far as to forbid the communal meal when it became a source of contention among the Christians of Corinth:
The altars or pictures of altars which we possess from the early centuries are all tiny by modern standards—big enough to hold a chalice and paten, and little else. For obvious reasons the altars were wooden, generally covered to the floor with rich cloths. A wooden altar, said to be used by Saint Peter, found today in the Lateran Basilica, was placed there at the Basilica’s dedication by Pope Saint Sylvester on 9 November 324. Sylvester would soon declare that henceforth altars were to be made of stone. The Basilica itself was a gift of the Emperor Constantine; probably in 313 to Pope Saint Miltiades.
Early Christians prayed facing East, in the direction of the rising sun. The practice was so widely known that Tertullian (born c. AD 160) felt constrained to write in his “Apology,” and again in his writing “Against Valentinian”:
According to Saint Gregory of Nyssa. the Orient was the birthplace of mankind, and the earthly garden of paradise. Saint Thomas Aquinas spoke of the East as the place of our Lord’s life and death, the direction from which He would come on judgment day. Our Lord was the “Orient from on high,” the priest-king prophesied by Zacharias, the Old Testament prophet, and by Zachary, the father of John the Baptist in the New.[x]
At least until Christians became numerous, in order to permit this turning toward the East, the semi-circle was not closed at the eastern end of the church. During the Mass of the Catechumens, everyone turned toward the Scripture readers and then toward the bishop or priest as he preached. But when the inquirers and catechumens were dismissed, the faithful would take positions facing generally East for the Anaphora (Canon or Eucharistic Prayer).
The Roman Basilicas, following the plan of Roman public buildings and built for the most part by the Emperor Constantine and his mother Saint Helena in the early 300s AD, preserved the orientation of the horse shoe or semi-circle with the priest at the western end, the altar in front of him, and everyone facing east toward the entrance doors and the rising sun. In its simplest form, the basilica consisted of the “nave,” a central rectangular roof supported by high columns and a western wall; the nave was flanked by “aisles,” with lower roofs supported by lower columns and walls on the outside and west. Curtains down the center of the nave separated the men from the women, while a chest high curtain separated the clergy from the people.[xi]
The Altar of the original Saint Peter’s Basilica was built over the saint’s tomb, located in an “apse”—a semicircular extension of the nave at the western end.[xii] Other basilicas (including the re-built Saint Peter’s under Julius II in the sixteenth century) centered over the tomb of a martyr, and the Altar might be located well east of the western wall—generally the clergy had it in their field of vision when they faced the East.
The Altar was surmounted by a “ciborium” or canopy, from which hung curtains that were drawn about the Altar during the Canon. The veiled altar is patterned after the heavenly altar of the Apocalypse, from which Saint John could hear but could not see.[xiii] The curtains (or the more solid structures later taking their place—the Rood Screen in the West and the Iconostasis in the East) generally remained until the Renaissance with its emphasis on flooding the building with light. Lenten curtains endured a bit longer, and were probably the origin of our custom of veiling statues and images during Passiontide.
Plan of a simple Basilica
Constantine’s plan with the Altar at the western end of the church was never in widespread use. The familiar layout with the altar at the eastern end became the norm almost immediately. This enabled priest and people to face both the Altar and the East during the Canon, eliminating the need for the people to direct their attention in two directions at once. For both historical and practical reasons the Roman basilicas generally retained their orientation even when the time came to rebuild or refurbish them. Nonetheless, Saint Paul’s was reoriented when rebuilt; Saint Peter in Chains, and the basilica at Ravenna were constructed with the altar in the East.
Until the 1960s, the fact that the Pope faced a large number of people seated in the eastern nave of Saint Peter’s was purely an accident of accommodating large numbers of the faithful at Mass—their numbers made it impossible any longer to sit only along the aisles facing north and south. The high Altar is in the center of the church over the tomb of Saint Peter. The papal Altar rests under a massive bronze canopy (cast by Bernini around 1630) with short sculpted curtains reminiscent of the full length drapes of earlier years. On the Altar itself rested six massive candle sticks and a crucifix on a pedestal of matching proportions, obstructing the line of sight between the Pope and those seated in the eastern nave. The idea that Mass should be offered with the priest facing the people was an innovation of the Protestant reformation, rarely seen in Catholic churches until the liturgical revolution.
Aisle: Lower section, outside and parallel to the nave.
Ambulatory: Passageway around some secction of the church. e.g. around the nave; behind the altars; etc.
Apse: A semi-circular extension of some part of the church.
Ciborium: Canopy over the altar.&nbssp; Facilitated altar drapes in early churches. a.k.a. baldachin.
Nave: Central main section of a church, usually running east to west.
Orientation: Practice of placing the alltar at the East end of the church, so that priest and faithful face East as they face the altar.
Transept: Section crossing the nave at right angles, giving the building the appearance of a cross.
[i] Exodus xv-xxxi, xxxvi-xl.
[iii] Luke xiv: 7-11.
[iv] E.g. Acts ii: 46; xii: 12; xx: 7-11.
[v] 1 Corinthians x: 16-21
[vi] Hebrews xii: 10-13.
[vii] 1 Corinthians xi: 21-34.
[viii] Tertullian, Apology XXVI
[ix] Tertullian, Against Valentinian, III
[x] Summa II-II, Q.lxxiv, a.3; Zacharias iii: viii & vi: 12; Luke i: 78; cf Isias ix:1f; lx: 1f.
[xi] Walter Lowrie, Art in the Early Church (NY: Harper, 1947), pp. 99, 103, 203-4; Catholic Encyclopedia s.v. “Ecclesiastical Architecture.”
Rudolfo Lanciani, Pagan and Christian Rome, Boston 1892,
Ch. III http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Gazetteer/Places/
[xiii] Apocalypse ix: 13; xv: 5; xvi: 17.