Aleteia logoAleteia logo
Tuesday 02 March |
Saint of the Day: St. Chad
home iconSpirituality
line break icon

The symbolism of a medieval pulpit

Cathedral Pulpit

By Philip Bird LRPS CPAGB/Shutterstock | Gary Campbell-Hall/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Philip Kosloski - published on 08/21/19

A common feature of medieval churches is an elaborate pulpit with much symbolism.

As the celebration of Mass developed over the centuries, there grew a need in the Roman Catholic Church to have a centralized location where the priest could proclaim the Gospel and preach a homily.

For most of Christian history, pews did not exist, and the people in the congregation remained standing or kneeling throughout Mass. When it came time for the priest to address the congregation, he needed an elevated spot that could be seen by everyone.


Read more:
This is why church pews were invented

The pulpit was subsequently developed and became very popular for many centuries. The word stems from the Latin pulpitum, and was originally used to denote a theatrical stage. In medieval churches it became a platform primarily used for preaching. The pulpit was located near the center of the nave (the place where the people stood) and was well elevated, to allow the priest to adequately address his congregation.

While it was primarily developed for a practical purpose, medieval artists used the pulpit as a canvas to teach the people various spiritual truths. Most commonly, pulpits would be carved with representations of the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), highlighting the fact that the Gospel for Mass was pronounced from the pulpit.


Read more:
Ox, eagle, lion, man: Why and how are the Evangelists associated with these creatures?

A sounding-board was often placed above the pulpit, and underneath it the Holy Spirit was carved to represent how the Holy Spirit is the one who inspired the four evangelists in writing their gospels.

In some artistic traditions, the pulpit would have spires, which beckoned the congregation to dwell on higher things, raising their hearts to God.

Elsewhere the pulpit was designed to look like a ship. This visibly put the priest as the pilot of the congregation, leading them to the distant shores of Heaven.

Other pulpits feature scenes from thelife of Christ, again reminding the people of various biblical events that are tied to the Gospel preached at the pulpit.

With the introduction of electronic microphone systems, the practical reason for the pulpit was obsolete, and the structure was left aside in many churches. Yet, some still use the pulpit, not for its ability to project sound, but as a visible reminder of the importance of the Word of God. It remains the “table of the Word,” and leads to the “table of the Eucharist,” where the words of the Gospel are made incarnate as the Eucharistic bread and wine transforms into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ.


Read more:
What’s the difference between an ambo and a pulpit?

Read more:
What was Mass like for the early Christians?

Support Aleteia!

If you’re reading this article, it’s thanks to the generosity of people like you, who have made Aleteia possible.

Here are some numbers:

  • 20 million users around the world read every month
  • Aleteia is published every day in seven languages: English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, and Slovenian
  • Each month, readers view more than 50 million pages
  • Nearly 4 million people follow Aleteia on social media
  • Each month, we publish 2,450 articles and around 40 videos
  • We have 60 full time staff and approximately 400 collaborators (writers, translators, photographers, etc.)

As you can imagine, these numbers represent a lot of work. We need you.

Support Aleteia with as little as $1. It only takes a minute. Thank you!

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...

Top 10
Cerith Gardiner
12 Things every Catholic woman should have in her purse
Jacques Fesch
Brother Silas Henderson, SDS
Meet the Death Row prisoner who discovered a ...
V. M. Traverso
The 9 oldest images of Mary
Cerith Gardiner
10 Celebrities whose marriages have stood the test of time
Philip Kosloski
Padre Pio’s favorite prayer of petition
Zoe Romanowsky
20-year-old filmmaker wins award for powerful 1-minute film about...
Frei Giuseppe Ungaro
The 100-year-old Franciscan who knew 6 saints in person
See More
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.