An altar is a structure for making sacrifices and offerings to gods, spirits, and death. The style and size of altars varies from religion to religion, with the biggest one being the Temple of Heaven in China, made to enshrine Heaven.
Types of altars
There are various types of altars, including stone altars made from naturally table- or board-shaped stone; soil altars made by piling up earth; stonework altars made by laying stones; and altars set up by spreading animal skins or straw mats on the ground. Early altars consisted of natural objects or man-made items and later, with the construction of shrines, became more structurally complicated. As altar construction became more complicated, various materials, such as marble or metal, were used and elaborate decorations were sometimes added.
Altars in Shinto
It is said that the origin of Shinto altars was the toshidana, a shelf set up specially for rituals such as New Year, and they became permanent structures from the Middle Ages onwards. When enshrining an image of a deity, a hokora (a small shrine) is built, with the image covered by a roof or placed in a zushi (a small sacred cabinet with a double-leaf door) or a mikoshi (a portable shrine). Shinto altars are divided into two types: an iwasaka, encircled by piled-up stones and enshrining a deity; and a himorogi, a sacred place planted with evergreen trees and enshrining an object of worship. Sometimes there is no physical structure but it is still called an altar.
Altars in Christianity
In Christianity, altar commonly refers to the table where mass is held in a church. Altars have represented the body of Jesus Christ or the dining table of 'The Last Supper' since ancient times.
Although altars were designated to be built of stone, in fact wood and metal were also used. An antependium hung on the front is used as decoration, and some altars have decorations applied directly to their front. Some elaborately decorated altars, such as that in the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio in Milan, have gold and silver reliefs on the side as well as the front. Besides that, some altars have a retable on the top of the altar, and a reredos behind the altar.
The altar in the inner sanctum of Eastern Orthodox churches are referred to as the Holy Table.
Altars in Buddhism
Altar types used in Buddhism include a permanent altar called a shumidan which enshrines an image of the Buddha; a household altar referred to as butsudan; a temporary altar for funerals and religious ceremonies; an altar called a chuindan which is kept until the Buddhist memorial service held 49 days after a person's death; and an altar called a shoryudana (or bondana) which is used in the Bon festival (the festival of the dead). In a broad sense, the daidan (great altar) and the gomadan (an altar used in homa fire rituals) used in the Esoteric Buddhism are also regarded as altars.