PULPIT. This term affords a striking instance of the great change of meaning and application which words frequently undergo, for, exclusively of the Latin termination, it is identical with Pulpitum, which signified that part of the Roman stage (distinguished from the orchestra) on which the actors recited and performed their parts. The Frvoch Pupitre and the English Pulpit both come from the source, but are dissimilar in signification ; the former meaning merely a reading-desk, and C/taire (Cathedra)being the term that corresponds with our English one. The Ambo of the early Christians appears to have been different both in form and purpose from pulpits afterwards used for preaching, it being rather a low platform on which parts of the service were sung or recited. The most antient pulpits now existing are supposed to be those in S. Lorenzo fuor delle Muni and S. Clemente at Rome; and these and other early pulpits of the same kind are of marble, with inlaid or mosaic compartments. In the church of S. Lorenzo at Florence, and several other modern basilicas, there are two pulpits, one on each side of the nave. Great cost both of material and workmanship was frequently bestowed on pulpits; and some of them rank among the most celebrated monuments of art of their period. Niccola and Giovanni Pisano [pisano], Donatello, Benedetto da Majano, and other eminent sculptors, employed their talents upon such works. The pulpit in the baptistery of Pisa, by Niccola, is hexagonal, and supported on seven columns, one at each angle and a central one. Giovanni Pisano executed that in- the nave of the Duomo at Pisa, besides which there are two others in the same church, on the opposite sides of the choir. The Pergamo of Santa Croce at Florence, by B. da Majano, is greatly extolled by Vasari for the beauty of its reliefs and sculptures. The two pergami in S. Lorenzo at Florence, similarly placed opposite each other, are the work of Donatello; and of the mastery of composition displayed in their reliefs some idea may be formed from the specimen given of them in Cicognara's ' Storia della Scultura.' Notwithstanding the richness of such pulpits, and their elaborate execution, their general forms are not always the most pleasing or appropriate.
For a long time the pulpit appears to have been treated as an architectural feature of the interior, being construclcd, if not of marble, of the same material as the rest. Among numerous other examples of Gothic stone-pulpits may be mentioned that in the nave of Strasburg cathedral, which is spoken of by Dr. Dibdin in terms of unqualified admiration, yet it is too much of a jumbled mass of ornament, and the whole of the canopy is in exceedingly bad taste, though not quite so vicious as that afterwards displayed in many Roman Catholic pulpits whose canopies are made in the form of clouds, curtains, palm-branches, and similar extravagancies. One of the most celebrated as a performance of art is the magnificent oak pulpit in the nave of St. Gudule, at Brussels; the whole is elaborately carved, and the pulpit itself is supported by figures representing Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise by the Angel.
Of stone-pulpits we have few remaining in this country; but there is one in Bristol cathedral, and another in Worcester, drawings and details of which latter are given in Pugin's 'Gothic Specimens.' It was originally erected in the nave, near the west end, but has been removed to the north side of the choir, and has been greatly disfigured by modern 'beautifying,' a (lat sounding-board having been added to it in the shape of a bed-tester ' with paltry little scalloped festoons.' Even the pulpit itself is not remarkable for the elegance of its details, although its general form is good. This and another subject represented in the same work are instances of what may be termed oriel pulpits, being made to project after the fashion of an oriel [oriel] from a pier or wall, and similarly corbelled below, instead of being supported from the ground. The second of the above-mentioned examples U in fact a small oriel in an angle of the outer court of Magdalen College, Oxford; and another, still more antient and curious—and we may add, more beautiful—is that at Beaulieu, Hants, which projects from an elegant open Gothic arch, and is supported, not on a corbelled and moulded oriel-stool, but on a short reversed spire, whose angles are decorated with small pillar-shafts, and the sides between them with foliage: a representation is given in the plates to the 'Glossary of Architecture.' Besides pulpits of this kind in the courts and cloisters of religious houses, there were others called PreachingCroisei, from which sermons were delivered in the open air: Paul's Cross is a celebrated and well-known instance.
At the present day very few of the pulpits in our English churches have any beauty of form or character, but are frequently tasteless excrescences, encumbered with steps, reader's-desk, &c. and with respect to design, they are mere carpenter and joiner's work. Of late years the practice has been introduced of having two distinct pulpits, one for the reader, the other for the preacher; placed on opposite sides of the chancel; whereby architectural symmetry at least is kept up; yet this has been objected to as a reprehensible departure from strict usage, and likewise an absurdity, though if there be absurdity in having two pulpits when only one is required at a time, the absurdity is the same whether they be united together, one above the other, or placed singly. The two might very properly be combined, were the pulpit to be made a central object in a church, by being so placed at the altar-end of the chancel; but though it has occasionally been adopted, such mode is still more strongly objected to as being offensively indecorous, because in such case the pulpit must be before the altar. It might however be at such distance from it as not to obtrude upon it; and as to indecorum, when no irreverence is intended, but merely convenience is consulted, the impropriety becomes excusable, such situation being certainly the most advantageous of any, because the preacher is then both heard and seen more distinctly by the whole congregation than when he is stationed on one side of the church.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)