Sunday, 6 August 2017

How Old is the Pulpit?

From "The Pilot", 1967, comes this, an interesting historical ramble.

Some Church Customs Explained
By S.G. Thicknesse

How Old is the Pulpit?

THE pulpit as a place almost exclusively for preaching is only as old as the importance of preaching-that is to say, some five centuries old. Before then, and specially in the primitive Church, there were certainly sermons; but it was only rarely (before the fifteenth century) that these were delivered from a `pulpit', a piece of furniture specially made for the purpose.

At first, in accordance, as it seemed, with the example of the Apostles, a homily in church had been the prerogative of a bishop. Homilies had been delivered by bishops to their flocks ex cathedra-from the episcopal chair of office in the chancel. On occasion, they were delivered from the altar steps.

It seems to have been St. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople in the fourth century, who first changed the custom. Chrysostom, `the golden-mouthed,' decided to preach to the people from some place from which he could be better heard. He chose, therefore, to speak from the ambo, the high desk or platform from which the Gospel and Epistle were read.

The ambo was also used for the reading of notices and of the pastoral letter of the bishop, and for reading the names from the `diptych'. This was a tablet made with a hinge to open and shut in which were weekly written the names of those who had brought the bread and wine for the Communion. To these names there were soon added those of benefactors in general and of the deceased for whom prayers were desired.

The ambo seems usually to have stood at the dividing line of chancel and nave, and therefore to have been a much more convenient place from which to preach than from the chancel proper.


As time went on, the ambo was often made more complicated and ornate. Sometimes it became a `double-decker', sometimes a `triple-decker', divided thus for its various uses. From the highest floor the deacon read the Gospel, facing towards the congregation. From the next floor the sub-deacon read the Epistle, facing the altar. From the lowest floor a clerk in minor orders read the Old Testament.

At a later date it became embedded in the rood screen from which the singers chanted. (Before the development of rood screen or choir, the appointed singers seem generally to have sung from the platform of the ambo itself.) 

Reconstruction of St Sophia with ambo

In the great church of St. Sophia at Constantinople, the ambo held the central position. Richly and exquisitely embellished, it was the place where the Emperor of the Eastern Empire was crowned.

Mediaeval churchmen explained how very proper it was that preaching was added to the other various uses of the ambo. They quoted the verse of St. Matthew which recorded that Jesus went up `into a mountain' and, opening his mouth, taught the people; and Isaiah's `Get thee up into the high mountain; [thou] that bringest good tidings, lift up thy voice with strength'.

The reading of the Bible from a raised place had precedent from the Jewish synagogue, and from the Old Testament record of how, for example, Josiah and Ezra had read the Law to the people from raised places.

By the end of the middle ages, two changes had taken place which produced more specialized pieces of furniture to take the place of the ambo. First, the sacred books had become so heavy that they needed a special support, and the lectern was made. Secondly, a great revival of preaching after a long lapse made it natural to build a special preaching-place, and to put it boldly in the nave.

Both the lectern and the pulpit tended to carry away with them the symbols and decoration of the old ambo.

On the lectern were repeated the motifs of the Evangelists, and on the pulpit the scenes of Christ's preaching, or the figures of Moses and the Apostles, or of the fish, the peacock, and the dove. 

Fotheringay, Northamptonshire

Sometimes, as at Fotheringay, Northamptonshire, a fine sounding-board was made above the pulpit, which soon became an indispensable part of the furniture of the church, and was usually against the second pier of the nave on the north side.

Sometimes, for special occasions, and after the example of the friars, open-air pulpits were made.

The famous one at St. Paul's Cross has now disappeared, but there are still some very fine specimens left: for example, at Shrewsbury, and in Magdalen College, Oxford. These pulpits were at once seed-bed and symbol of the Reformation.

Magdalen College, Oxford

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