(Latin pulpitum, a stage or scaffold)
An elevated stand to preach on. To elucidate the meaning of the word Durandus refers (Ration. div. offic., I) to Solomon (2 Chronicles 6:13), who prayed from "a brazen scaffold," and to Esdras (Nehemiah 8:4) who "stood upon a step of wood" and read the law of God. Their elevated position and public action suggest to Durandus the symbolical meaning of the pulpit: the position of the perfect. He also calls it analogium (analogeion-anagnostyrion), from the preaching of the word of God; and ambo ab ambiendo, quia intrantem ambit et cingit. The ambo was the immediate predecessor of the present pulpit. In the first Christian era the bishop preached from his cathedra; a survival of this is retained in the French and German words for pulpit, chaire and predigtstuhl. The other German word kanzel recalls the position of the ambo at the choir-screen (cancelli). Durandus clearly distinguishes the pulpit from the cancelli and stalli of the choir. The pulpit characterized as part of the church furniture by its independent position and use, is found separated from the choir and pushed forward in the central part of the nave beyond the choir for singers, as indicated by a large circle in the building plan of St. Gall (820). The analogia, or reading desks for the Epistle and Gospel, remained at the sides of the choir, and were used for the same purpose as the ambo, which, as belonging to the choir, was considered a part of the cancelli and was chiefly used for reading or singing parts of the liturgy.
Just when it became customary to use the ambo mainly for the sermon, which gave it a new importance and affected its position, is not known. The pulpit is often connected with the appearance of the mendicant friars, but this can refer only to some innovations in its use and some external changes, as the Fathers of the Church had long before this constantly used the ambo for preaching. Although Paul of Samosata (Eusebius, VII, xxx) spoke to the people from a high canopied seat in the apse, Socrates (Church History VI.5) says of St. Chrysostom that he preached "sitting on the ambo." Sozomen (Church History IX.2) states the same, still characterizing the ambo as bema ton anagnoston. Chrysostom was the first to speak from the ambo "in order to be better understood"; Isidore of Seville first employed the word pulpit (Etym., XVI, iv), then "'tribunal," because from this the priest gave the "precepts for the conduct of life," proclaiming law and justice. Isidore also derives "analogium" from logos, as "the addresses were given" from it. Thus the ambo became the regular place for the preacher, and its situation was dependent on local conditions. In the Church of St. Sophia it stood under the dome (Paul the Silentiary, P.G., LXXXVI, 2259, sqq.), but was united with the choir "like an island with the mainland." Similarly at Ravenna the ambo of Bishop Agnellus (sixth century) stood in the central aisle of the nave, on the inner side of the old chancel screen. In large churches, therefore, the bishops, e.g. Ambrose, Augustine, and Paulinus of Nola, preached from the ambo at a very early date. The desire to be more plainly understood was the reason why the preacher's platform was pushed towards the centre of the nave; which change led to its assuming the present form. It was not until modern times that the two terms attained clearly distinct meanings. At present the pulpit no longer serves for the reading of the Epistles and Gospels, nor as the tribune for singing, hence the eagle or dove formerly used as support of the book now has little meaning. A position in which the preacher could be heard throughout the church became necessary, and the pulpit was then adapted to receive a greater amount of adornment, having reference to the preaching of the Gospel.
The number of ambos still in existence which may be included among pulpits is undetermined. The ambo of Salonica, traditionally called "Paul's pulpit," appears to be the oldest remaining monument of this kind (fourth to sixth century). It is circular in form, about four metres in circumference, with two stairways, for ascending and descending, and is ornamented with carvings of the three Magi set in niches representing a shell; two ornamental bands are carried around above the niches ("Archives des missions scientifiques," III, 1876). Bishop Agnellus, builder of the ambo of the cathedral at Ravenna (sixth century), called it pyrgus, or tower-like structure. The exterior surface of the round middle part and the steps which come far forward on the sides have panels arranged like a chess-board in six parallel bands filled with symbolic animals: fish, ducks, doves, deer, peacocks, and lambs in regular succession. Owing to the aversion of Byzantine art of that period to delineating the human figure, animals are here presented in symbolical dependence on the words: "Preach the Gospel to every creature." The ambo of St. Sophia was adorned with flowers and trees. The beautiful pulpit in the cathedral at Aachen was, according to the inscription, a present from Emperor Henry II (d. 1024). The ground-plan consists of three unequal segments of a circle. The wooden core is covered with sheets of copper overlaid with gold. Of the fifteen flat surfaces formed by slightly sunken panels, six contain ivory carvings belonging to an earlier period, and the others, precious stones, cups of rock-crystal, and enamels. There is no explanation as to what this was intended to represent: with large generosity the emperor had given whatever he had that was costly for the house of God. St. Bernard preached from this pulpit, and also from the pulpit preserved in the cathedral of Reims. In that era there were many wooden pulpits which were movable wherever occasion required.
In many places the pulpit was made a part of the rood-loft, which was a gallery or loft of wood or stone, existing as early as the eleventh century and used, instead of the cancelli, to separate the choir from the nave; it was called the lectorium, or odeum, as the loft where the singers were, and doxale from the singing of the doxologies. Statues of the Saviour and His Apostles, representing the Last Judgment and the Passion, frequently ornamented the rood-loft on the side towards the nave. At Wechselburg in Saxony a Romanesque pulpit from the beginning of the thirteenth century is still in existence; it probably belonged, together with the celebrated altar cross, to the partially preserved rood-loft, which, with a few others of that period, is still to be found. It is ornamented with well-executed reliefs, and rests on arcades and columns. In the central oval panel, or mandorla, there is a relief of Christ as teacher, surrounded by the symbols of the Evangelists; on either side are Mary and John trampling upon allegorical symbols of error. The other reliefs, viz., the sacrifices of Abel and Abraham and the Brazen Serpent, were chosen with reference to the cross and altar in the rood-loft, redemption by Christ's sacrificial death being a main topic of preaching. From the thirteenth century, rood-lofts were customary in France where they were called jubé, from the formula, Jube Domine benedicere. Those still in existence belong to the Renaissance period. Pulpits like those of the present time were built in Italy as early as the thirteenth century. The pulpit at Pisa, completed by Niccola Pisano in 1260, is an unattached structure resting on seven columns, which opened the way to a new development for Italian sculpture. In addition to what is palpably borrowed from antiquity, e.g. the Virgin as Juno, there are figures taken entirely from the life of the time. Instead of the mosaic, six bas-reliefs surround the breastwork: the Annunciation, Nativity, Adoration of the Magi, Presentation in the Temple, Crucifixion, and the Last Judgment; they present the main contents of the doctrine of Salvation. Between the trefoiled arches of the columns over the capitals, in the spandrels, are symbolical representations of the virtues and figures of the prophets. An allegorical meaning should also be attributed to the lion, griffin, and dog, which, together with three figures of men, ornament the seventh or middle column, and to the lions that carry three of the supports, or stand guard on the steps. The ornamentation of the cathedral pulpit of Siena was executed by the same master in a similar manner. It forms, however, an octagon, thus permitting two more reliefs which represent the slaughter of the children at Bethlehem and further details of the Last Judgment. A third work of the same character, containing figures that express feeling and motion, is the pulpit of the Church of San Andrea at Pistoia, which was completed by Niccola's son Giovanni in 1301.
The first examples of Renaissance pulpits are those of Donatello (fifteenth century). For funeral orations in the churchyard, for the preaching of pilgrimages, or for the exhibition of relics, pulpits were often built outside of the churches, as that of the cathedral at Prato. Donatello inserted here into the original round form of the pulpit seven white marble panels, on which in his customary manner he represented in bas-relief little cherubs in an animated dance; the ornamentation of the bronze capital below the pulpit, which rests on a single support, is also purely decorative in character. At an earlier era the platform of the pulpit was supported by an understructure or by a number of columns, and during the Renaissance pulpits projected from a pillar or wall, like balconies. Both bronze pulpits in San Lorenzo at Florence rest on four Ionic columns, and are decorated with representations of the Passion, over which there is a frieze of cherubs borrowed from the art of antiquity. In the beautiful marble pulpit of Santa Croce at Florence, the panels of the breastwork are decorated with scenes from the life of St. Francis. The details of the work are executed with fine artistic feeling and proportion; the decorative statuettes and other accessories are dignified and graceful. The magnificent pulpit made by Master Pilgram for the Cathedral of St. Stephen at Vienna (sixteenth century) is decorated with busts of the Fathers of the Church and figures of other saints. The ornate decoration of the pulpit of the collegiate church at Aschaffenburg depicts the Church Fathers around the supporting pillar, busts of the same in the upper frieze, scenes from the Bible separated by spirited figures of the Evangelists, and angels in the place of consoles. In the Cathedral at Trier the ascent to the pulpit is covered by a magnificently ornamented archway with a high decoration at the top. On the string-piece of the steps are carved the Sermon on the Mount and the Last Judgment, and on the panels of the parapet the works of mercy are depicted. The pulpit of Freiberg in Saxony is fantastically developed from the root of a plant and on it in a naturalistic manner the figures of men and animals are formed.
The most striking pulpits of the Baroque period are those of Belgium. The base, stairway, and sounding-board were artistically or fantastically covered according to the taste of the time with luxurious and ornate carving. In Ste Gudule's at Brussels the banishment of Adam and Eve from Paradise is carved underneath the pulpit, while, in contrast, the Mother of God is represented above the sounding-board as a mighty female warrior and slayer of the dragon. Underneath the pulpit of the cathedral at Mechlin there is a representation of the Crucifixion on Calvary with the people at Christ's feet, while below the rock Saul falls from his horse, overcome by the truth; above at the side are carvings of Adam and Eve with the Serpent. All these are rich in suggestions for the sermon. At the base of the pulpit of the Church of St. Andrew at Antwerp there is a splendid carving of Christ, and the Apostles Peter and John in a little boat. Over the sounding-board angels hold on high the St. Andrew's cross, and beneath the dove, representing the Holy Spirit, sends rays in all directions. The whole structure of a pulpit in Cracow represents a ship, with sails, mast, and rigging, poised over sea monsters. The ornamentation of the pulpit should never be excessive, but subordinate to that of the high altar, whose view it should not obstruct. The latter difficulty is often removed by setting the pulpit slightly towards the side aisle, whereby a troublesome echo from the transept is avoided. Near which pillar of the nave the pulpit should be placed depends upon the acoustics of the church. The sounding-board should, above all, make the voice of the preacher perfectly distinct; by giving it, the form of a shell the waves of sound are often sent in a definite direction. In order that the speaker may be readily understood, the pulpit should not stand too high. Its ornamentation should be appropriate: representations of the Evangelists or Church Fathers, scenes from the Bible, as the Sermon on the Mount, the dove as a symbol of the Holy Ghost on the underside of the sounding-board, and perhaps an angel over it. A simple pillar skillfully developed into the platform of the pulpit, is satisfactory, when its decoration and that of the stairway and string-piece is subordinate to that of the central main part. The lack of a vertical support makes an unpleasant impression; a reading-desk or crucifix is apt to produce an overloaded effect. A well-arranged pulpit-cloth varied in colour to suit the various feasts and periods of the year would be proper.
OTTE, Kunstarchaeologie (Leipzig, 1883-4); LUEBKE, Plastik (Leipzig 1871); MARTIGNY, Dictionnaire des antiquites chretiennes (Paris, 1877), 159-62, s.v. Chaire; ALLARD, Rome souterraine (Paris, 1874), 536-50; see also bibliography under AMBO. The pulpits for several hundred years past are described in the larger histories of art.
APA citation. (1911). Pulpit. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12563b.htm
MLA citation. "Pulpit." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12563b.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by John Fobian. In memory of John Henry Johnson.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is feedback732 at newadvent.org. (To help fight spam, this address might change occasionally.) Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.