Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

Liturgy: The Baldachinno

St. Thomas Aquinas College Chapel

Liturgically, a baldacchino (baldachin, or baldaquin) is the canopy over an altar or throne/cathedra (the use over cathedras has been forbidden since Vatican II)[1].  It is used particularly over high altars and in cathedrals. When it is purely architectural and not ornamental, it is also known as a ciborium. Another source describes it as,

…a permanent canopy made of wood, stone, or metal that rises over free-standing altars to show their importance. While medieval in origin, the notion of a baldacchino harkens back to the tent that Yahweh commanded the Israelites to erect over the Ark of the Covenant (Ex. 25-27).[2]

Jewish Tradition of the Chuppa

Preceding our tradition and closely related to the baldacchino is the Chuppa. This is the cloth canopy that was erected over the Ark of the Covenant but is also consider a constituent part of the Jewish betrothal and marriage rites. The rich symbolism that we share with our Jewish brethern can be seen in the following:

The chuppah represents a Jewish home symbolized by the cloth canopy and the four poles. Just as a chuppah is open on all four sides, so was the tent of Abraham open for hospitality. Thus, the chuppah represents hospitality to one’s guests. This “home” initially lacks furniture as a reminder that the basis of a Jewish home is the people within it, not the possessions. In a spiritual sense, the covering of the chuppah represents the presence of God over the covenant of marriage. As the kippah served as a reminder of the Creator above all, (also a symbol of separation from God), so the chuppah was erected to signify that the ceremony and institution of marriage has divine origins.

The “chuppah” may also represent the tent of Abraham, which was open on four sides. Hospitality is considered a cornerstone of the Jewish home.

Before going under the chuppah the groom covers the bride’s face with a veil, known as the badeken (in Yiddish). The origin of this tradition is in the dispute of what exactly is the chuppah. There are opinions that the chuppah means covering the bride’s face, and that by this covering the couple is to be married. Thus, some insist that the marriage witnesses also see this act of covering, as it is a formal part of the wedding.

The groom enters the chuppah first to represent his ownership of the home on behalf of the couple. When the bride then enters the chuppah it is as though the groom is providing her with shelter or clothing, and he thus publicly demonstrates his new responsibilities toward her.[3]

Secular and Christian Tradition

Within the secular realm, the baldacchino started out as a cloth canopy over a throne, this honor was reserved for royalty – especially emperors, kings, and those of sufficient authority or importance. An ecclesial example of this honor would be includes:

…canopies over each of the cardinal-electors, in conclave, symbolizing equal authority during the Sede Vacante. Upon election, the canopies of all but the new pope were lowered as the first gesture of obedience to the new pope.[4]

The literal translation of baldacchino, from Old English, means “stuff from Baghdad.”[5] This was of course a reference to the rich and beautiful silk, marble and precious stones found in modern day Iraq which was used in a baldachin’s construction. For many centuries, Iraq provided the materials for these glorious, and sometimes simple yet elegant structures.

The State Bed

The baldacchino is also responsible for inspiring the “State Bed” which later became known as the canopy bed of the hoi poloi.  The State Bed gain popularity in the late seventeenth century in France.  It was more ornamental than functional and was there to be a visual reminder of the royalty (and of course their humble importance) that resided there. Commonly, the room with the State Bed was used to receive important guests. History records the only time the State Bed was functional used was when there was a need to “produce a rightful heir” for the royal family.

Liturgically, the baldacchino has a rich tradition. The most recognized or famous baldacchino is in St. Peter’s. Pope Urban VIII commissioned Gian Lorenzo Bernini to design and construct the present baldacchino. Bernini designed the solomonic columns under the inspiration of the former columns surrounding old St. Peter’s high altar (donated by Constantine).  Below is a picture of St. Peter’s present baldacchino.

Baldacchino: St. Peter's Basilica, Rome

The Domestic Baldacchino

Nearly every little girl dreams of being royalty.  If asked, she many times would describe her bedroom with that canopy bed – otherwise known as a baldacchino.  But why? Women innately (though many times not consciously) understand that the marital act is in some sense, no less than as liturgical act which is sacred and deserves its proper solemnity.

The sacraments infuse holiness into the terrain of man’s humanity: they penetrate the body and soul, the femininity and masculinity of the personal subject, with power of holiness. All of this is expressed in the language of the liturgy…The liturgy…elevates the conjugal covenant of man and woman…to the dimensions of the “mystery”, and at the same time enabels that covenant to be realized in these dimensions through the ‘language of the body. (Theology of the Body 117b:2)

Christopher West summarizes this theology and that of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the following two points:

The Church celebrates her liturgy especially in and through the sacraments. Not only is conjugal life “liturgical,” but the Church’s liturgical life is in some sense “conjugal” (see CCC, 1617).

The one-flesh union is meant to be “Eucharistic.” Analogously, the Eucharist is the one-flesh union of Christ and His Church.

This place of intimacy and solemnity in the bedroom is but a reflection of the Sacred Liturgy.  For, it is during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the Christ gives His body to His bride upon the altar to be communicated and consumed – to be in intimate communion.

“The Eucharist is the … sacrament of the Bridegroom and of the Bride” (Mulieris Dignitatem 26).

So too does the bride and bridegroom communicate themselves to each other in the intimate communion of the marriage bed.  Is not the marriage bed also an altar of sacrifice where the bride and bridegroom are suppose to offer themselves totally to each other?

The marital bed can be viewed as an altar upon which spouses offer their bodies in living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. This is their spiritual act of worship (see Romans 12:1; see also CCC, 2031)

While not practical or even preferable, every married couple should have a “canopy bed” to remind themselves that their re-celebration of the sacrament of marriage is not only a human act but a solemn and liturgical act. During the marriage rite, the priest or deacon requests that the bride and bridegroom express their intentions to ensure that they enter into their vows freely, faithfully, and with the openness to fecundity – the same intentions for the marital act and reception of the Blessed Sacrament.

Should it be a surprise that in this age the integrity of the liturgy and marital act are being assailed from every side? They are necessarily bound to each other. May this silent liturgical structure remind and inspire us to stir within ourselves solemnity for the liturgy in the both the ecclesial and domestic church.

[1] James-Charles, Jr, and James-Charles Noonan. The Church Visible. New York: Viking, 1996. p 397

[2] “Campaign – Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel.” Thomas Aquinas College. Thomas Aquinas College, 2002. Web. 14 July 2010.

[3] “Chuppah.” Wikipedia Foundation. 24 June 2010 Web. 14 July 2010.

[4] “Campaign – Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel.” Thomas Aquinas College. Thomas Aquinas College, 2002. Web. 14 July 2010.

[5] Baldac is a medieval Latin form for Baghdad, whence fine silks reached Europe.

3 Responses to Liturgy: The Baldachinno

  1. Does this mean that our wedding would have been better if we had a Chuppah? Julie really wanted one…

    • Q says:

      I think she could make a really good case for that. On the hand, why not get married in a church with a baldacchino? I’m guessing this means you chose not to be married by the Holy Father in St. John Lateran or St. Peter’s. Both have available baldacchinos.

  2. Fr.WBS says:

    And so, we see the wedding feast of the lamb is motif of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass… not simply ‘the Lord’s Supper’. Mass is Calvary and Heaven more than the cenacle.

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