AMBO, or AMBON (Gr. ambon, from anabainein, to walk up), the reading-desk of early Basilican churches, also called purgos. Originally small and movable, it was afterwards made of large proportions and fixed in one place. In the Byzantine and early Romanesque periods it was an essential part of church furniture; but during the middle ages it was gradually superseded in the Western Church by the pulpit and lectern. The gospel and epistle are still read from the ambo in the Ambrosian rite at Milan. The position of the ambo was not absolutely uniform; sometimes in the central point between the sanctuary and the nave, sometimes in the middle of the church, and sometimes at one or both of the sides of the chancel. The normal ambo, when the church contained only one, had three stages or degrees, one above the other, and it was usually mounted by a flight of steps at each end. The uppermost stage was reserved for the deacon who sang the gospel (facing the congregation); for promulgating episcopal edicts; reciting the names inscribed on the diptychs (see DIPTYCH); announcing fasts, vigils and feasts; reading ecclesiastical letters or acts of the martyrs celebrated on that day; announcing new miracles for popular edification, professions by new converts or recantations by heretics; and (for priests and deacons) preaching sermons, -- bishops as a general rule preaching from their own throne. The second stage was for the sub-deacon who read the epistle (facing the altar); and the third for the subordinate clergy who read other parts of scripture. The inconvenience of having a single ambo led to the substitution of two separate ambones, between which these various functions were divided, one on the south side of the chancel being for the reading of the gospel, and one on the north for reading the epistle. In the Russian Orthodox Church the term “ambo” is used of the semicircular steps leading to the platform in front of the iconostasis (q.v.), but in Cathedrals the bishop has an ambo in the centre of the church. In the Greek Church the older form remains, usually placed at the side. In the Uniate Greek Catholic Church the “ambo” has become a table, on which are placed a crucifix and lights, before the doors of the iconostasis; here baptisms, marriages and confirmations take place.
Ambones were made of wood or else of costly marbles, and were decorated with mosaics, reliefs, gilding, &c.; sometimes also covered with canopies supported on columns. They were often of enormous size; that at St Sophia in Constantinople was large enough for the ceremonial of coronation.
The churches in Rome possess many fine examples of ambones in marble, of which the oldest is probably that in S. Clemente, reconstructed in the beginning of the 12th century. Those of slightly later date are enriched with marble mosaic known as Cosmati work, of which the examples in S. Maria-in-Ara-Coeli, S. Maria-in-Cosmedin and S. Lorenzo are those which are best known. Some early ambones are found in Ravenna, and in the south of Italy are many fine examples; the epistle ambo in the cathedral at Ravello (1130), which is perhaps the earliest, shows a Scandinavian influence in the design of its mosaic inlay, an influence which is found in Sicilian work and may be a Norman importation. The two ambones in the Cathedral of Salerno, which are different in design, are magnificent in effect and are enriched with sculpture as well as with mosaic. In the gospel ambo in the cathedral of Ravello (1272), and also in that of the convent of the Trinita della Cava near Salerno, the spiral columns inlaid with mosaic stand on the backs of lions. In the epistle ambo at Salerno and the gospel ambones at Cava and San Giovanni del Toro in Ravello, the columns support segmental arches carrying the ambones; the epistle ambo at Ravello and all those in Rome are raised on solid marble bases.
See the litumical and ecclesiastical dictionaries of Martigny, Migne, and Smith and Cheetham, sub voce, where all the scattered references are collected together and summarized. In Ciampinus, Vetera Monumenta (Rome, 1747), plates xii., xiii., are several illustrations of actual examples.
Source: 1911 encyclopedia.
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