Webster defines art as a “conscious arrangement or production of sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements in a way that affects the aesthetic sense.” Expanding on that, G.K. Chesterton said blasphemy is an art. One of the unfortunate characteristics of the Reformation was the practice of this “art of b.asphemy.” We have accounts not just of chalices melted down and missals and vestments burned, but of altars knocked apart and their stone slabs used for street paving and cheese presses.
As Evelyn Waugh pointed out in his biography of Edmund Campion, the reformers could see that: “the Mass was recognized as being both the distinguishing sign and the main sustenance of their opponents.” The destruction and profaning of Catholic altars was a conscious assault on Catholic religious and aesthetic sensibilities.
The altar (and in modern times the tabernacle with it) is the focal point of the church building. It is the material expression of the Church’s worship. The church building is literally built around and over the altar. When a large church or cathedral was built, it was always the sanctuary that went up first.
Today we don’t have the physical assaults on the Church that occurred in the Reformation. Yet there are still many anti-Catholics and non-Catholics who see the altar as a stone thing which is idolatrously venerated with bows, genuflections, incense, and even kisses. Chalk this up to a deficiency in their religious sense.
Catholics often take the external objects used in the Church for granted. This leaves them unarmed when they are confronted by questions and arguments–but they need not be. A right understanding of such externals as the altar and an ability to explain them to non-Catholics can be powerful apologetical weapons.
The word “altar” connotes a raised or high place (we see in Scripture the equivalent expressions “table,” “Lord’s table,” and “place of sacrifice”), a place of consecration and sacrifice, where God meets man. It is a symbol of God’s presence.
Gregory of Nyssa makes it clear: “This altar whereat we stand is by nature only common stone, nothing different from other stones, whereof our walls are made and our pavements adorned; but after it is consecrated and dedicated to the service of God, it becomes a holy table, an immaculate altar.”
We see this in the Bible. Noah built an altar to God (Gen.8:20), as did Abraham (Gen.12:8) and Solomon (2 Chron. 4:1). The central feature of the Temple was the altar of sacrifice. In the upper room the table used at the Last Supper becomes an altar. In Revelation the heavenly altar is described; “underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered because of the witness they bore to the word of God” (Rev.6:9). This is not just evidence of the Church’s practice in the first century but becomes a model. The altar marks not only the place of the Lord’s sacrifice, but the tombs of martyrs and saints as well. We see in the early Church enormous efforts made to construct altars and churches directly over the graves of the holy ones. The basilicas dedicated to Peter and Paul are the most important examples of the growth of this practice.
Given the relatively fixed number of martyrs and the growing number of churches, pieces of relics were taken from their original tombs and given to new churches to be included in their altars. This practice continues. The altar is consecrated and marked with five crosses symbolizing the five wounds of Christ. Typically within the altar are sealed relics.
The profanation of altars has a long tradition of its own. Altars were profaned by the Hellenists in the time of the Maccabees (1 Macc. 1:57), and Augustine describes (Epistle 185) how Donatist heretics broke apart an altar and beat a Catholic bishop with the pieces. In our own day communist regimes profaned altars and turned churches into museums of atheism.
The smashing of altars during the Reformation was a symbol of the Reformation’s fracturing of the unity of Christians, a unity that will only be restored when all are together again at the same, Catholic altar.