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Ciborium (architecture)

In ecclesiastical architecture, a ciborium is a canopy or covering supported by columns, freestanding in the sanctuary, that stands over and covers the altar in a basilica or other church. It may be known by the more general term of baldachin, though ciborium is considered more correct for examples in churches. Early ciboria had curtains hanging from rods between the columns, so that the altar could be concealed from the congregation at points in the liturgy. Smaller examples may cover other objects in a church. In a large church, a ciborium is an effective way of visually highlighting the altar, emphasizing its importance; the altar and ciborium are set upon a dais to raise it above the floor of the sanctuary. A ciborium is a covered, chalice-shaped container for Eucharistic hosts. In Italian the word is used for the tabernacle on the altar, not the case in English; the ciborium arose in the context of a wide range of canopies, both honorific and practical, used in the ancient world to cover both important persons and religious images or objects.

Some of these were temporary and portable, including those using poles and textiles, others permanent structures. Roman emperors are shown underneath such a structure called an aedicula, which term is reserved in modern architectural usage to a niche-like structure attached to a wall, but was used more widely. Examples can be seen on many coins, the Missorium of Theodosius I, the Chronography of 354, other Late Antique works; the Holy of holies of the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem, a room whose entrance was covered by the parochet, a curtain or "veil", was regarded as a precedent by the church. The free-standing domed ciborium-like structure that stood over what was thought to be the site of Jesus's tomb within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem was called the aedicula, was a key sight for pilgrims shown in art, for example in the Monza Ampullae; this structure, erected under Constantine the Great, may itself have been important in spreading the idea of ciboria over altars. The structure now in its place is far larger, with solid stone walls.

Ciboria were placed over the shrines of martyrs, which had churches built over them, with the altar over the spot believed to be the site of the burial. They served to shelter the altar from dust and the like from high ceilings that could only be reached; the earliest important example over an altar was in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome donated by Constantine, looted by the Visigoths in the 5th century and now replaced by a large Gothic structure. This is described as a fastigium in the earliest sources, but was a ciborium. Like most major early examples it was "of silver", whose weight is given meaning that decorated silver plaques were fixed to a wood or stone framework. No early examples in precious metal have survived; the earliest ciborium to survive complete is one in Sant'Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna, dated to 806-810, though the columns of the example at Sant'Ambrogio appear to date from the original 4th-century church. The ciborium commissioned by Justinian the Great for Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and described by Paulus Silentarius is now lost.

It was of silver, surmounted by "a globe of pure gold weighing 118 pounds, golden lilies weighing 4 pounds, above these a golden cross with precious and rare stones, which cross weighed 80 pounds of gold". The roof had eight panels rising to the cross; the Early Medieval Eastern Orthodox church "directed that the eucharist be celebrated at an altar with a ciborium, from which hung the vessel in which the consecrated host was kept", the vessel sometimes being in the form of a dove. Early depictions of the Last Supper in Christian art, showing the Communion of the Apostles, show them queueing to receive the bread and wine from Christ, who stands under or beside a ciborium reflecting contemporary liturgical practice. An example of this type is in mosaic in the apse of the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, under a large standing Virgin. According to the 8th-century saint and Patriarch Germanus I of Constantinople: "The ciborium represents here the place where Christ was crucified, it is placed in the church in order to represent concisely the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

It corresponds to the ark of the covenant of the Lord in which, it is written, is His Holy of Holies and His holy place. Next to it God commanded that two wrought Cherubim be placed on either side —for KIB is the ark, OURIN is the effulgence, or the light, of God."Examples in Orthodox manuscripts show rounded dome roofs, but surviving early examples in the West placed a circular canopy over four columns, with tiers of little columns supporting two or more stages ri

Sherif Sabri Pasha

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VH1 Behind the Music: The Daryl Hall and John Oates Collection

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