To Romanesque viewers, a baldachin-ciborium over the high altar was a rare and distinguished element in the liturgical furnishing of a church. Beginning in Rome, where ciboria had been established since the 4th century, the ciborium featured as a prominent sign in basilicas ad corpus or in sanctuaries above reliquary crypts (Old St Peter’s, Sta Maria in Cosmedin, Lateran Basilica, Sta Maria Maggiore). Its use was restricted even in Romanesque Italy. Examples from the 11th and 12th centuries – such as those of Montecassino, of San Nicola in Bari, or in the Abruzzi – should been seen as echoing Papal Roman settings. Outside Italy, baldachin-ciboria over high altars are exceptional and seem to be restricted to places and institutions especially concerned to advertise their adherence to papal authority as a guarantor of their rights. Thus the baldachin at Old St Peters is the symbolic and ideological model for those at Cluny, Ripoll, Cuixà, and Santiago de Compostela.
Notwithstanding all this, as with other forms of ‘prototype’ and ‘copy’ the evocation of a prestigious model does not imply a facsimile, and in some cases the choice of materials and figurative ornamentation enhanced old meanings and added new content. Thus, in 11th-century Catalonia, ciboria were described as the ‘sancta sanctorum’ of the Temple of Jerusalem, and their pictorial programmes introduced themes that were subsequently incorporated into Romanesque mural and panel painting. In certain later examples, as represented by the mid-12th-century replacement for the canopy at Ripoll or the twin ciboria at San Juan del Duero (Soria), the significance of the baldachin-ciborium was updated either to reflect Eucharistic themes or to evoke the Holy Land and Christ’s tomb in Jerusalem.