Rediscovering Architecture’s Role in the Proclamation of Sacred Scriptures

Profound reverence of scripture is an integral part of Christian religious life. The act of reading sacred texts has always required an appointed place, which has come to be considered sacred as well. These places constructed within the worship space — ambo, pyrgus, pulpit, and lectern, have attained powerful significance over the past two millennia.In the twentieth century, as new scholarship led the reform of worship rituals within the Roman Catholic Church — with active participation of the people requiring a new design for liturgical spaces — the rite of reading sacred texts and the role of the ambo enjoyed a short-lived resurgence. Liturgical reforms formulated by Vatican II established the ambo as one of the two main focal points of the sanctuary, the other being the altar.

While the altar has been thoroughly explored in terms of its architectural, liturgical, and mystagogical significance since Vatican II, the ambo, despite an initial burst of interest, has never received the attention it is due. Contrary to the desire expressed at the Council to revive the central role of scripture in the life of the Church, the rite of reading sacred texts and the design of the ambo have now entered a period of decline. It is remarkable that liturgists in all Christian traditions have overlooked this development. This omission reflects a lack of awareness of the significance and meaning of a deeply rooted rite and its place within a church’s worship space. The chief purpose of this paper is to examine the genius loci of the word of God in the Liturgy of the Word and consider the important role of the ambo in facilitating public proclamation. Throughout history public proclamation has been a profound and recurring event with a definite spatial dimension, often occurring in a privileged place, which helps to bring God’s presence to his people.

Origins and development

Since Apostolic times, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist have been regarded as a single celebration.[1] No liturgy was without the reading of the sacred scriptures. In ancient times, the assembled people of God was the privileged place for the proclamation of his Word, and Christians have faithfully carried on this tradition as an essential part of their liturgies. The Church Fathers consistently emphasized the importance of scripture and the early Church gave the Word of God a prominent place within their worship spaces. The architectural solution was to elevate this place above all, in order that the Word could be carried to all parts of the church building. It was because of this elevation that the place itself acquired the name “ambo,” from the Greek verb amboien, which means, “to mount up.” R. Kevin Seasoltz reminds us that, ‘The admonition which the bishop addresses to candidates for the lectorate also alludes to the fact that the Word should be proclaimed from a high place, so that it may be heard by all.’[2] Notwithstanding this acoustical reason, the importance of the Word has always emphasized the dignity of the ministers who proclaim the Word of God, and the place from which they do so.

The locations of the ambo and its adopted forms have varied over the course of the Church’s history. It was after the first millennium that two ambos appeared. The Ordo Romanus II instructs the sub-deacon to read the epistle from the ambo, but not from the highest step when there is only one ambo, as this is reserved for the Gospel proclamation. From the twelfth century, it was common for large churches to keep one ambo for the gospel reading only, and the other for the epistle.[3]

In the Middle Ages, with the enclosure of the choir, a monumental structure, the jubé, was developed. It was a place elevated well overhead. From there, the epistle and the gospel were read.[4] It was also during this era that the pulpit was developed, a large and often imposing structure located in the middle of the nave for preaching. This new element brought on the decline of the ambo. It was the liturgical renewal movement that began in the late nineteenth century, combined with Vatican II, that provided meaningful criteria for the construction and use of ambos.

The new liturgical reform was challenged by the reality that traditional patterns of worship are difficult to break. Beginning with Dom Prosper Guéranger’s re-founding of the Abbey of Solesmes in 1837, and culminating in the work and promulgations of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, there was a period of intense study of liturgy aimed at faithful reform of existing practice. The central concept of the liturgical reform movement was that of the liturgy as the communal celebration of the church’s sacraments. With the Vatican II came a new Christian architecture, and a rebirth of art for the liturgy. The council outlined the new worship space within the more complex task of finding the true meaning of the liturgy. The challenge for architects, together with liturgists, was to design a space that aided the participation of the congregation in the liturgy, so as to form a true ecclesia, or gathering of the faithful community (as opposed to an atomized congregation of individuals at prayer). This required uncovering the origins of Christian worship so as to give people an experience of its power. It also initiated the search for a new church design template.

One area in urgent need of attention was the Liturgy of the Word. Various factors weakened its place in church worship from the second millennium up to the last century. Many liturgists agree that the rite and, the place of the Word generally, had fallen into a state of shameful neglect.

The place of the Word in the church and in prayer has been an object of embarrassing concealment: hidden away in a marginal space and veiled by a proclamation reserved and incomprehensible. The eclipse of the ambo, which is configured in this manner, has left the field open for hegemony of the pulpit, in which the internal drama of the Word was absorbed by an urgent need for a clear explanation.[5]

To be in tune with this complex re-invigoration, it was necessary to carry out an effective revival of the liturgical drama of the Word and push to restore its place in the celebration of the Mass. Among the first and simplest reforms was the celebrant’s facing the congregation when reading scripture.[6] The use of vernacular language made the message that God speaks accessible to all — not only to Latin-trained clergy. The theological argument proposed that recovering the sacramentality of the Word of God is the strongest way to relocate it within worship actions. Louis-Marie Chauvet says, ‘each time the assembly in church proclaims and hears the Scriptures as being his very word, it is his spokesperson, his representative, therefore his sacrament.’[7] The Word of Scripture, when it is proclaimed in the liturgical celebrations, is one of the mysterious ways the real presence of God exists among his people.[8] This reminder of the dignity of the word of God called for a place of proclamation in the church which favours the proclamation of His Word. The reappearance of the ambo facilitates a rediscovery of the centrality of scripture to the building up of Christian life.[9]

The experience of the place

Reading sacred texts in the Jewish tradition was, and is still, an action that involves the whole body, in a way where the reader expresses in movements the rhythm of the text. In the same fashion, the ritual action of the Liturgy of the Word has a particular dynamic that delivers a multi-sensory experience to its participants. If that moment brings remembrances of the past, and an emotional-religious significance brought by the body and the voice of the lector, then it acquires a symbolic character: the voice of God. The ambo enters into that liturgical event in order to enhance the presence and the power of the individual who has the role of embodying the word. From a phenomenological perspective, the ambo should relate to what happens in a given space; it necessitates liturgical action.

Pamela Klassen says, ‘ritual spaces are “a focusing lens” and ritual is a “controlled environment” in which the powerful uncontrollability of everyday life is acknowledged by the attempt to control it via performed actions.’[10] During the Liturgy of the Word, the ambo becomes the focus while the general direction of the overall event is maintained throughout the whole of its enacting. The ambo is not an artefact, but the locus of an event. Therefore, the important question is: How then can the ambo be transformed in our understanding from passive church furniture to something that is regarded as a centre of activity, a source of the inspiration, and key to engaging today’s worshippers in a hermeneutical response? The answer is only through the liturgical experience because its symbols not only direct us to meanings, but can also make present the very experience that is symbolized. The symbolic action that we find in the Liturgy of the Word, when the lector proclaims from the ambo, is the coincidence of the sensible act of reading-listening and the non-sensible act of manifesting the sacramental presence of Christ. This experience of discovering, uncovering, and revealing indicates that there is more than one meaning to be experienced in the liturgy, and therein lies the mystery that forces us to recognize it.

The significance of the place

After centuries of neglect, with the promulgation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy in 1963, the understandable proclamation of Sacred Scriptures is regaining its place as a living and life-giving component in all the Church’s rites. The council returned to the principal of no liturgical action without the Word as part of it.[11] The ambo has been restored as the table of God’s Word.[12] The work of the Concilium,[13] the first instruction Inter oecumenici, and the Novus ordo pointed to a complete renewal of the liturgy with a strong emphasis on the Liturgy of the Word as well as the Eucharist.[14] However, it is not clear whether this ensures the recuperation of the status of the ambo as an historically rooted element of church design and liturgical practice. In the way it is described, it seems to be a new structure, disconnected from the tradition of the Church. A great deal of attention is paid to the altar and its removal from the back of churches, but little consideration is given to the ambo, thereby making it an afterthought that poses a creative problem, rather than a possibility for innovative expression of the church’s tradition. The positive aspects of these first norms were that its unique dignity was reinforced by directives that indicated that there ought to be only one such structure in the sanctuary,[15] and that it should be elevated and fixed, designed so as to indicate that it is one of two tables.[16]  Theological notes indicate that the proclamation of the Word from a single ambo is a metaphor for the one Word of God in which Christ is present and continues his ministry of salvation, sanctifying worshipers,[17] and embodying the unity of the witness of scripture. A criticism that could be levelled at the process of developing these norms is that they fail to consider the phenomenological aspects of the ambo, its potential as a work of sacred art, and its symbolic content.

From a liturgical-theological perspective, post-Vatican II documents confirm that the proclamation of the Word and its place, having its own dignity and uniqueness, is independent of the celebration of Eucharist. The stress is, therefore, upon its being a place of liturgical action and not on its being furnishing.[18] This is in part confirmed in the Ordo of Dedication,[19] since the principal part of the rite for dedicating the ambo is the first proclamation of the Word of God from it.[20] It is surprising that there are no rubrics to indicate that the ambo is signed with the cross, sprinkled with holy water, or incensed. It is only the proclamation of the Word of God that dedicates and blesses the ambo, but never is it clearly expressed to the assembly in the prayers of the ordo.

Post-Vatican II ideas concerning the ambo can be summarized by saying that the ambo is not simply a place to keep the scriptures; it is a place to proclaim the Word of God. It is related to the altar in that it shares the sanctuary area. (Figure 1)

Only some episcopal conferences demonstrate a progression in their theological and hermeneutical insights, as well as discussing practical considerations––updated to fit with realities that were never taken into account before, such as having sound equipment and providing accessibility to all. The bishops of France issued the first document, and it expresses not only the spirit of the Vatican II, but has considerations of the psychology of worship and an appreciation of modern architecture.[21] Also one can see the influence of the Paris diocesan commission on sacred art, with its series of publications on ambos built during the last decade.[22] The Irish document published a year later was much more focused on the ambo, and is noteworthy in its consideration of the ambo’s phenomenological significance and the different scenarios it envisions for carrying out the Liturgy of the Word. A small 1966 publication was greatly enlarged into a pastoral directory issued in 1972. A third edition was published in 1994.[23] Nevertheless, it is remarkable that few ambos in Ireland can be considered good examples of this new thinking.

After these two first documents there is a gap of twenty years in which most of the churches built were guided in their design by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal alone, leaving full creativity (or lack of) in the hands of the liturgical commissions in charge of approving church building projects. Although Germany has had several of the most influential figures in liturgy with Romano Guardini, and in liturgical architecture with Rudolf Schwarz, the first norms only came out in 1988.[24] Nevertheless their influence has not been negligible. The norms are full of remarkable insights. It is the first and only document where the ambo is included in the list of objects of art, requiring that it be an expression of the liturgical action. The influence of these norms can clearly be seen in the ambos of new German churches.[25]

Despite being so close to the Vatican, it took four hundred years for the Italian bishops to write new norms.[26] Nevertheless, the new norms (created almost thirty years after the Vatican II) have had a positive influence upon liturgists, architects, designers, and artists.[27] Resulting in the most expressive ambos being found in Italy. (Figure 2) The impetus given by the diocese of Rome’s celebration of the end of the second millennium prompted the construction of sixty new churches in Rome, and in these new buildings the results of the new norms are well demonstrated.[28]

The North American norms––a document theologically and liturgically well grounded, has had a strong influence across the whole of the United States.[29] It has incorporated all the new reflections on phenomenology and architecture. Nevertheless, the area dedicated to the ambo does not provide any exceptional insight. There are no outstanding examples of ambos in United States as works of art. However, the merit of American church architecture can be found in the experimentation in the placement of ambos within liturgical space.[30]

The last norms analyzed in this study were those issued by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales in 2006.[31] They are the first norms that clearly place the ambo in the same category as the altar, following the lead of Sacrosanctum Concilium. It is the most complete document related to the ambo and covers many of the aspects that discussed in this paper. The influence of this document, being so recent, cannot yet be evaluated.[32]

These new episcopal standards take into account the space required for the ritual actions around the proclamation of the Word, such as processions, incensing, and recognize that place and event are bound together intrinsically. These norms have also reinforced the idea that the ambo must only be used for the reading or singing of scripture, the homily and intercessions. The cantor, song leader, commentator, and reader of announcements should not use the ambo.

The documents of the Church after Vatican II show a true reverence for the ambo. They clearly express the idea that it is from the ambo that the Christian assembly receives spiritual nourishment from Christ through his Word. The importance of its location, design, and its dignity, arises from it being a place of encounter. The faithful establish such a relationship with the ambo from which they hear the scriptures as God speaking to each one of them.

Concluding thought

Liturgical-architectural configurations are intended to encourage worshipers into active participation rather than limit their role in the liturgy. The architectonic arrangement of the ambo should enhance the understanding of the liturgical event. I am convinced that the ambo as venue, regardless of contemporaneous liturgical evidence, may reveal to us a significant understanding relevant to liturgical theology, devotional practices and liturgical design — much more so than historical studies have done. The ambo is a standard element in our churches deriving from long tradition and is often perceived as a vestigial furnishing when it is not. The ambo is designed as a ritual-architectural ‘stage’ for the reiteration and re-enactment (commemoration) of the sacred drama of Christ’s life, passion, and resurrection. For all sacred ritual there is a sacred space. From early times, churches were built to enact liturgical rites. The ambo provides a perfect stage setting for the Liturgy of the Word.

Fig. 1. Chapel Cardinal Flannigan Basilian Centre. Toronto, Canada (ca. 1985). Architects: Rambusch Co.
Fig. 2. Ambo. Chiesa di Padre Pio, San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy (2004). Artist: Giuliano Vangi.
Fig. 2. Ambo. Chiesa di Padre Pio, San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy (2004). Artist: Giuliano Vangi.


[1] Josef A. Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its origins and Development, trans. F.A. Brunner, vol. I (New York, NY: Benziger Brothers, 1951), 391-393.

[2] R. Kevin Seasoltz, The House of God: Sacred Art and Church Architecture (New York, NY: Herder and Herder, 1963), 190.

[3] One ambo for the gospel reading, and other for the epistle can be found in the Basilica of San Lorenzo fuori le mura and in the Basilica of San Clemente, both in Rome.

[4] One of the most exquisite examples is the jubé of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont in Paris.

[5] ‘Il posto occupato dalla Parola nella chiesa nella preghiera è stato oggetto di un imbarazzante occultamento: nascosta in lontani recessi spaziali e velata da una proclamazione riservata e incomprensibile. L’eclissi dell’ambone che si è in questo modo configurata ha lasciato campo libero a un’egemonia del pulpito, nella quale l’interna drammatica della Parola era per così dire assorbita da un’imperiosa necessità didascalia.’ [My translation] Giuliano Zanchi, “L’ambone nella drammaturgia liturgica: Elementi di teologia e criteri di estetica,” in Goffredo Boselli (ed.), L’Ambone: Tavola della parola di Dio (Magnano: Edizioni Qiqajon, 2006), 203.

[6] In the Tridentine rite, the priest’s orientation during the reading the epistle and the gospel was relative to the altar, and not to those trying to hear him.

[7] Louis Marie Chauvet, The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body, trans. Madeleine Beaumont (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001), 25.

[8] Catholic Church and International Committee on English in the Liturgy, General Instruction of the Roman Missal, Liturgy documentary series ; 2 (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2003), no. 51.

[9] Giuliano Zanchi, La forma della chiesa (Magnano: Edizioni Qiqajon, 2005), 71.

[10] Pamela E. Klassen, “Ritual,” in John Corrigan (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Emotion (Oxford, UK; New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[11] Annibale Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy, 1948-1975 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990), 46.

[12] Catholic Church, Book of Blessings: for Study and Comment by the Bishops and the Member and Associate-Member Conferences of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (Washington, DC: International Commission on English in the Liturgy, 1987), no. 1181.

[13] The Concilium was a series of commissions guided by a group of periti and other advisors established by Pope Paul VI.

[14] Two literal tables: altar-table and altar-ambo were designed by Waldemar Kuhn in 1966 for the Heilig-Geist Kirche in Emmerich, Germany. He brought this idea to the limits.

[15] Catholic Church and International Committee on English in the Liturgy, General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 309.

[16] Catholic Church., Lectionary of the Roman Missal (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1965), no. 10, 32.

[17] Ibid., no. 4.

[18] Such as the ambo designed by Mauro Galantino for the Church of Gesú Redentore in Modena, Italy (2008).

[19] Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, “Ordo dedicationis ecclesiae et altaris,” in The Rites of the Catholic Church, ed. International Committee on English in the Liturgy. (Collegeville, MN: Pueblo Pub. Co., 1991), no. 53.

[20] The altar is given a stronger symbolic presence with its anointing.

[21] Commission Episcopale Française de Liturgie, “Le renouveau liturgique et la disposition des églises.”, Centre National de Pastorale Liturgique, (1965). (accessed May 1, 2009).

[22] Commission diocésaine d’Art Sacré de Paris, “Création d’un nouvel ambon,” (2005). (accessed 11/10/08). It is worthwhile to mention the ambo of Saint-Pierre de Montmartre in Paris designed in 2005 by J.P. Froidevaux, and the one at the Saint-Étienne de Metz by Mattia Bonetti in 2006.

[23] Irish Episcopal Commission for Liturgy, The Place of Worship: Pastoral Directory on the Building and Reordering of Churches, 3rd ed. (Dublin, Ireland: Veritas Books; Carlow Irish Institute of Pastoral Liturgy 1994).

[24] Deutsche Bischofskonferenz and Liturgische Kommission, Leitlinien für den Bau und die Ausgestaltung von gottesdienstlichen Räumen Handreichung der Liturgiekommission der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz; 25. Oktober 1988 (Bonn: Sekretariat der Deushchen Bischofskonferenz, 1994).

[25] A good example can be found at the Jesuitenkirche in Mannheim, Germany (2003).

[26] I am referring to the Instructionum fabricae et supellectilis ecclesiasticae by Cardinal Charles Borromeo. His contributions are of great interest because he composed norms for church buildings and their furniture in 1577. These norms were universally accepted in the Roman Catholic Church and were an anticipation of the different episcopal norms regarding church buildings in the twentieth century.

[27] Chiesa Cattolica Italiana. Commissione Episcopale per la Liturgia. CEI, “La progettazione di nuove chiese”, Conferenza Episcopale Italiana, (1993). (accessed April 1, 2006)

[28] Chiesa Cattolica Italiana. Commissione Episcopale per la Liturgia. CEI, “L’adeguamento delle chiese secondo la riforma liturgica”, Conferenza Episcopale Italiana, (1996). (accessed April 1, 2006)

[29] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture, and Worship”, United States Catholic Conference, (2000). (accessed April 1, 2006)

[30] Cf. Christ the Light, Roman Catholic Cathedral, Oakland, United States (2008). Architects: Skidmore, Owings and Merrills Craig Hartman.

[31] Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, Consecrated for Worship: A Directory on Church Building (London, UK: The Catholic Truth Society and Colloquium, 2006).

[32] Previous to this document is the remarkable work done at the Brentwood Cathedral in Essex, England by the architect Quinlan Terry.

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