Portable Altars and Hermits

The frequency with which Hermits traditionally celebrated the Divine Liturgy (if they were Priests) or received Holy Communion is a subject deserving research and exploration. The earliest Christian Hermits were very rarely Priests or Monks or Nuns, and lived in such remote locations that frequent reception of Communion would have been impractical, if not impossible.
cave liturgy
However, if the Divine Liturgy was to be celebrated in a Hermitage it would, traditionally at least, have required an Altar. Few ancient Hermitages appear to have Altars, let alone chapels or even oratories.

“From at least as early as the fourth century the Christian church has used altars for the celebration of Mass. The altar represented simultaneously a table, as that on which Christ and his disciples ate their Last Supper, an altar, on which was celebrated the ‘bloodless sacrifice’ which had replaced the bloody sacrifice of the pagans, and the tomb of Christ or of a martyr….Inevitably though, the rule that Mass can only be celebrated on an altar so consecrated must create practical problems. It was to solve some of these that the portable altar was invented. “
Crispin Paine “The Portable Altar in Christian Tradition and Practice” in Hallie G. Meredith (Ed) “Objects in Motion: The Circulation of Religion and Sacred Objects in the Late Antique and Byzantine World” BAR International Series 2247 2011, Oxford, 2011:25-26
My Coptic nagis enshe (Altar tablet), a photograph of which was used in Mr Paine’s paper.

Presumably, in the case of Hermit, either the Hermit (if a Priest) or a Priest visiting a Hermitage, would have made use of a portable Altar. Paine’s study, referred to above, remains the definitive survey of portable Altars in Eastern and Western Christianity, and is profusely illustrated.

“The origins of the portable altar are controversial. The first scholar to study the topic, Giovanni Gattico in the mid-eighteenth century, argued that since there is plenty of evidence of Mass being said in fields, homes, prisons and so on in the early days of the church, portable altars must have been in use from the beginning. He pointed to a tradition that the wooden altar fragments in the church of St Praxedes in Rome were the remains of an altar used by St Peter and claimed that St Denis of Paris (d. c. 250) used one in prison. The church of S. Maria in Campitelli in Rome claims the wooden portable altar of St Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 328-389).

Rather more persuasive of early use is the reference by the late sixth century Bishop Constantine of Assiut, Egypt, to a possible portable altar belonging to a village church, discovered by thieves in St Claud’s baggage. The canons attributed to St Clement, but perhaps of the sixth century, refer to churches having one fixed and one moveable altar. Korolevskij argues that portable altars originated in sixth century Syria, where the Jacobites and Monophysites were being persecuted. The lives of early saints sometimes mention their portable altars, but these were normally written, of course, some centuries later. The ‘Tripartite Life’ of St Patrick, written about 895 from older sources, tells how, in order to provide space for a leper for whom there was no room on the boat, the saint threw his stone portable altar into the sea. It floated around the boat, with the leper on it, until they reached Ireland. Patrick’s colleague Saint Carantoc lost his as he crossed the Severn estuary. It was washed up on the Somerset coast near Carhampton. Carantoc went to King Arthur to ask his help in recovering his altar, and the King asked him in return to tame a dragon that was troubling the neighbourhood. He did, of course.”
Paine, above cit.:29
portable altar
Hildesheim Portable Altar – ca. 1160-1170 (made) – Porphyry, framed in wood, with plates of gilt copper and partially gilded, embellished with vernis brun.

In the West (Rome and Canterbury) it would seem that the liturgical necessity for an Altar, portable or permanent, is no longer obligatory. In the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Traditions, it remains. The Eastern Orthodox use a cloth “portable altar” (whether there is a permanent Altar or not) known in Greek as an “antimension”, and in Old Slavonic as an “antimens”, supposedly from the Greek “anti” ‘instead of’ and the Latin “mensa” ‘table’.
The Oriental Orthodox, other than the Armenians, generally use a wooden (rather than stone, as traditionally used in the West) tablet: the tablitho of the Syriac Orthodox Church; the al-lawh al-muqaddas (Arabic) or nagis enshe (Coptic) of the Coptic Orthodox; and the tabot of the Ethiopian Orthodox.
An Ethiopian Tabot being carried (wrapped) in procession. Tabot (Ge’ez ታቦት tābōt, sometimes spelled tabout), is a Ge’ez (as well as Ethio-Semitic) word referring to a replica of the Tablets of Law, onto which the Biblical Ten Commandments were inscribed, used in the practices of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The Tabot is never publicly displayed unwrapped.

One Response to “Portable Altars and Hermits”

  1. Very interesting. You should write more.

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