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The Church Ciborium: A Vessel of Sacred Significance

Written by: Richard John



Time to read 4 min

The church ciborium, a beautiful and symbolic object, plays a vital role in Christian worship. It's a vessel used to hold consecrated bread, also known as Eucharistic hosts, for Communion. But the ciborium holds more weight than just its function. Steeped in history and symbolism, it represents core Christian beliefs and practices.

This blog article delves into the world of the church ciborium, exploring its:

  • History and development over time
  • Liturgical function and use in Christian traditions
  • Symbolic meaning and artistic expression
  • Practical considerations for churches

By the end of this exploration, you'll gain a deeper appreciation for this sacred vessel and its significance in Christian faith.

A History of the Ciborium

The word "ciborium" comes from the Greek word "kibotion," which means "chest" or "box." Early Christians used various containers to hold bread and wine for Communion, including baskets and wooden boxes. The ciborium, as we know it today, emerged around the 4th century AD.

Early Ciboria:

These early ciboria were often small and resembled chalices, the cup used for wine during Communion. They were made from simple materials like wood or terracotta. As Christianity spread and practices became more formalized, the ciborium evolved.

Medieval Ciboria:

By the Middle Ages, ciboria became more elaborate. They were crafted from precious metals like silver and gold, sometimes adorned with jewels and engravings. The shape shifted to a cylindrical base with a conical or spire-shaped cover.

Post-Reformation Ciboria:

The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century led to a shift in ciborium design. Protestant churches, emphasizing a simpler form of worship, often used less ornate ciboria. Meanwhile, Catholic churches continued the tradition of richly decorated ciboria, though the shape became more standardized, resembling a rounded chalice with a dome-shaped cover.

The Liturgical Role of the Ciborium

The ciborium is primarily used during the celebration of the Eucharist, also known as Holy Communion. The bread used for Communion, typically unleavened wheat wafers, is blessed and consecrated by the priest or minister. These consecrated breads are then placed in the ciborium for distribution to the congregation.

Here's a breakdown of the ciborium's role in the Communion service:

  1. Preparation: Before the service, the celebrant places a sufficient number of Eucharistic hosts into the ciborium. The ciborium may be placed on the altar or a nearby credence table.
  2. Presentation: During the service, the ciborium is brought to the altar, often alongside the chalice containing consecrated wine.
  3. Distribution: The celebrant, or a designated minister, uses a special spoon called a paten to distribute the consecrated bread from the ciborium to each communicant.
  4. Safekeeping: After Communion, any remaining consecrated bread is carefully returned to the ciborium. The ciborium is then secured in the tabernacle, a locked container on the altar that houses the reserved Eucharist.

Importance of the Ciborium:

The ciborium serves several important functions:

  • Reverence: It provides a dignified and respectful way to store and transport the consecrated bread.
  • Practicality: It allows for the distribution of Communion to a large number of people efficiently.
  • Symbolism: It visually represents the importance of the Eucharist in Christian faith.

The Symbolism of the Ciborium

The ciborium is more than just a practical vessel. Its design and use carry rich symbolism:

  • The Bread of Life: The rounded shape of the ciborium can be seen as symbolic of bread, referring to Jesus' words in the Gospel of John: "I am the bread of life" (John 6:35).
  • Sacrifice and Offering: The material of the ciborium, often precious metals, signifies the value and importance of the Eucharist as a sacrifice and offering to God.
  • Heavenly Banquet: The ciborium, along with the chalice, can be seen as representing the heavenly banquet promised by Jesus in the Gospels (Matthew 22:2-14).

Artistic Expression in Ciboria

Ciboria throughout history have been adorned with beautiful and meaningful artwork. Here are some common motifs:

  • Crosses: Representing Christ's sacrifice and redemption.
  • Grapes and wheat: Symbolizing the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
  • Angels: Evoking a sense of heavenly presence.
  • Biblical scenes: Depicting stories related to the Last Supper or the institution of the Eucharist.

Following up on the artistic expression in ciboria, let's explore some variations across Christian traditions:

  • Catholic Ciboria: Often ornately decorated with engravings, chasing (decorative metalwork), and precious stones. They may feature imagery related to the Eucharist or saints associated with the Communion.
  • Eastern Orthodox Ciboria: These tend to be simpler in design, focusing on clean lines and symbolic imagery. They are often made from silver or gold and may feature doves (representing the Holy Spirit) or geometric patterns.
  • Protestant Ciboria: Protestant churches, particularly those emphasizing a simpler form of worship, often use plain and unadorned ciboria. These may be made from brass, pewter, or even wood.

Practical Considerations for Churches

When choosing a ciborium, churches consider several factors:

  • Denomination and Tradition: As mentioned above, the style of the ciborium often reflects the denomination's practices and aesthetics.
  • Material and Cost: Ciboria can range from simple and affordable to highly ornate and expensive. The choice depends on the church's budget and desired level of ornamentation.
  • Size: The size of the ciborium should be appropriate for the number of congregants who typically receive Communion.
  • Security: The ciborium should be secure when not in use, particularly if it is made from precious materials.

Caring for the Ciborium:

The ciborium, as a sacred vessel, requires proper care and respect. Here are some best practices:

  • Cleaning: The ciborium should be cleaned regularly with a soft cloth and non-abrasive polish.
  • Storage: When not in use, the ciborium should be stored in a safe and secure location, such as a sacristy or a locked cabinet.
  • Reverence: The ciborium should be handled with respect during liturgical celebrations.


The church ciborium is a beautiful and symbolic object that plays a vital role in Christian worship. From its historical development to its artistic expression and practical use, the ciborium holds deep meaning for believers. By understanding its significance, we gain a richer appreciation for the traditions and practices that have shaped Christianity for centuries.