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Westminster Record | November 2015

The Ambo of Westminster Cathedral by Dom Daniel McCarthy OSB


Cardinal Vincent preaches from the ambo at this year’s Easter Vigil

When Pope Benedict XVI visited Westminster Cathedral on 18 September 2010, the celebration of the Eucharist showed the best practice of the local church and gave a fine example to follow. One aspect of that liturgy which may still be unfamiliar to many people is the proclamation of the scripture from the ambo, sometimes called a pulpit. This is the marble and mosaic balcony standing on pillars two-thirds of the way up the nave. The original pulpit was installed in June 1903 and was rebuilt in 1934. There the scripture is proclaimed in the midst of the assembly, whereas in many parish churches it is proclaimed from a lectern standing near the altar in a raised sanctuary. History The pulpit of Westminster Cathedral can now be understood, thanks to recent research into the origin, ritual use and symbolic structure of the ambo. The etymology of the term ‘ambo’ is not certain, but may come from the Greek verb anabaino, ‘I go up’, referring to the steps and raised structure for proclaiming the scripture. Proclaiming the scripture from a raised platform in the midst of the congregation developed early in the Christian tradition. In the sixth century the largest ambo ever constructed was commissioned by the Emperor Justinian for the great church of Hagia Sophia in Page 12

Constantinople. The building still stands, but the ambo was dismantled. In the eleventh century the use of the ambo was introduced into the Christian west by Abbot Desiderius of Monte Cassino (later Pope Victor III 1086-87) who invited artisans from Constantinople to renovate the abbey church. They brought with them the artistic heritage of Byzantium, including the intricate mosaic work best known by the work of the Cosmati family. A superb example of a Cosmati mosaic is the floor design in front of the main altar of Westminster Abbey, where the English monarch is anointed. The artisans’ work on Monte Cassino was so well received that they were invited to renovate the nearby cathedral of Ravello, whose original smaller ambo remains intact but was moved to make space for a larger one whose design is more reminiscent of the ambo in Westminster Cathedral. The first ambo to be built in Rome was installed between 1118 and 1124 during a renovation of the basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. It still stands, unappreciated by the innumerable visitors to the Bocca della verità or the ‘Mouth of truth’, an ancient sewer cover located in the church’s front porch. Another fine ambo remains intact in the Basilica of San Clemente near Rome’s Colosseum. Many Roman basilicas had an ambo, including

St Peter’s and St John Lateran, Rome’s cathedral. In the 1400s many ambos were dismantled in accord with the new aesthetic of the Italian Renaissance, which valued wide, open spaces free of medieval accretions. The reading of scripture shifted to the altar and the sanctuary, which gradually came to be the sole focal point in the celebration of Mass. Meaning The meaning and use of the ambo finally came to light with the research of Mgr Crispino Valenziano, emeritus professor of the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy located at the Benedictine house of studies, Sant’Anselmo, Rome. Through research he began to piece together the historical account and the ritual use of ambos. The difference between a lectern and an ambo is that a lectern, no matter how monumental, serves the function of holding a book, whereas an ambo has a symbolic structure for proclaiming the word of God. It can be explained easily if we begin with the first antiphon of Vespers on Easter Sunday which says: ‘The angel of the Lord came down from heaven, rolled the stone away and sat on it. Alleluia, alleluia.’ The account continues as the angel told the women: ‘Do not be afraid… he is not here. Go quickly and tell his disciples: “He has been raised from the dead”’ (Mt 28:1-7). The space below the present

ambo at Westminster Cathedral is empty, as if to say, ‘He is not here! He has been raised from the dead’. The empty space is an integral element of the symbolic narrative and so cannot be used for storage. The emptiness is the negative expression of the Resurrection, whose positive expression is given on the front of the ambo, where the minister stands to proclaim the scripture. There the low edge is decorated with a bas relief of the victorious Lamb who was slain. This image of the victorious Lamb is also integral to the symbolic narrative of the ambo and so should not be covered by a hanging. Pope Benedict XVI presided at a Votive Mass of the Precious Blood in honour of the dedication of Westminster Cathedral. The deacon proclaimed the passage from the Gospel according to John, 19.3137. The passage recounts part of the passion of Jesus, when the soldiers came and broke the legs of the other two men but, because Jesus had already died, a soldier pierced Jesus’ side and there flowed out blood and water. This scripture passage, taken alone, ends on a difficult note and does not point to the Resurrection. Because the deacon is standing on the ambo, however, itself a type of the empty tomb, the architecture and ritual supply what the

specific passage of scripture does not. The proclamation of the account of piercing the side of Jesus is proclaimed in the context of the Resurrection. All scripture proclaimed from an ambo, indeed, is interpreted in light of the resurrection, its proper Christian context. At that liturgy the ambo was decorated in flowers all along the top of its low edge. The garden motif, indeed, was incorporated into the marble sculpture of the ambo itself. The capitals of the pillars holding up the ambo are decorated in acanthus leaves. This floral motif is integral to the narration of the Resurrection account, because Jesus was buried in a borrowed tomb located in a garden. Because the ambo can thus represent the empty tomb, the Easter candle is placed near it during the Easter Vigil, and the Easter Proclamation, the Exsultet, is sung there in praise of Christ the Light. The Easter candle also remains there throughout the Easter season. Noteworthy ambos mentioned above each have a sculpted candleholder for the Easter candle integrated into the ambo itself, where it remains throughout the liturgical year. Indeed a permanent Easter candleholder could rightly be added to the ambo of Westminster Cathedral. © Daniel McCarthy OSB

Fr Daniel McCarthy, OSB is a monk of St Benedict’s Abbey, Atchison, Kansas, guest professor of Liturgy and Latin at KU Leuven and recently appointed to serve as a professor at the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy, Rome.

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Westminster Record - November 2015  

Westminster Record - November 2015