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Nicholas Penny writes:
Today the Roman Catholic priest celebrating Mass stands on the far side of the altar, facing the congregation, in accordance with the prescription of the Second Vatican Council of 1963. In doing so he is adopting the position which was normal before the 13th century. On the modern altar an altarpiece is an impossibility: it would get in the way. It was the same in 1200. Much else has, however, changed since then. The altar is now, emphatically, a table, the mensa of the primitive Church, whereas in 1200 it was, and had long been, a solid structure more like a tomb chest. Its frontal or antependium was often as lavish in materials and in workmanship as a shrine or reliquary. Indeed, altars were a type of shrine or reliquary, for relics had to be kept in them and were often exhibited above them or in crypts beneath them – relics which might be merely a toe or a tooth but which were, not unusually, the mortal remains of a martyr.