Ecclesiastical architecture (church architecture) refers to the architecture of Christian churches. This fork of architecture has developed specific terminology to describe the parts of a church structure. Since this term is used to describe Christian churches, by definition, the terms could have originated over two-thousand years ago, however, several were derived from words in Latin and Greek that were used for Roman and Greek temples at much earlier dates. That said, many of the terms in use today for the basic parts of a church originated between the 14th and 17th centuries during the church-building periods of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture.
Terms of Church Architecture
Some of the terms of church architecture apply predominantly to large, cruciform (cross-shaped) church structures with longitudinal seating arrangements (wherein the congregation displays a linear “movement” toward a terminally located sacred space) – and many are most easily identified in large Catholic cathedrals. However, several of these terms are also applicable to smaller, newer churches, even those modern churches designed with a centripetal floor plan (wherein the congregation groups around a centrally located sacred area). One can also notice that some of the terms incorporate religious symbolism as part of their meaning such as the term “nave” (derived from the Latin word “navis”, meaning “ship”) – read more in the Glossary below.
Glossary of the Most Common Interior Parts of a Church (alphabetical order)
|Aisle||A passage parallel to, and at the side of, the nave, choir or transept.||Sometimes aisles are separated from other parts of the church by a row of columns.|
|Altar||The sacred table in a Catholic church where the priest celebrates the Liturgy during the sacrifice of the Mass. The location is always set apart from the rest of the church and is where the bread and wine are consecrated.||Since altars are considered to be permanent places of sacrifice, they are generally made of stone, fine marble or solid wood; and firmly attached to the floor of the sanctuary.|
|Ambo||In Roman Catholic Churches, the ambo is the stand used for the readings, homilies and Universal Prayer intentions – it is not called a pulpit or lectern.||In the antecedent liturgy, there were two ambos. The Epistle ambo was placed on the southern side of the sanctuary, while the Gospel ambo was located on the northern side. Today, the ambo is generally on the northern side.|
|Ambulatory||An aisle behind the altar and sanctuary.||May be used to access radiating chapels behind the central location of the service.|
|Apse||A semicircular or polygonal-shaped area at the eastern (usually) end of the nave – arched or with a domed roof.||Term originally used in pre-Christian Roman architecture to describe an area designed to hold a statue or deity.|
|Clerestory||An upper story of the nave with windows for illumination.||Sometimes called “clearstory” in American English.|
|Crossing||The intersection of the nave and the transepts in a cross-shaped (cruciform) church, i.e. the junction of the four arms of the cross.||The crossing often has an overhead dome, or a tower constructed above it.|
|Narthex||A vestibule between the main entrance and the nave of the church – usually at the western end of a church – generally colonnaded or arcaded from the nave. The narthex is a specific kind of vestibule if it leads directly to the outside.||In the early church, the unbaptized faithful would be restricted to the narthex. Another purpose for the narthex, in early days, was to provide a meeting place between the clergy and civilians or females.|
|Nave||The central part of the church building where the congregation sits or stands. In Western churches, it is rectangular and separated from the sanctuary.||Derived from the Latin word “navis” meaning “ship” because the nave resembled the shape of the deck of a ship; and also because of the church’s function as an “ark of salvation”, like “Noah’s Ark”.|
|Sanctuary||The “holy place” containing the altar where the service is conducted, distinct from the nave. Usually is elevated.||From the Latin word “sanctus” meaning “holy”. |
In the medieval Church, it was a place of immunity from arrest for a fugitive.
|Transept(s)||The part(s) of a cross-shaped (cruciform) church at right angles to the nave. Sometimes called colloquially as “the wings”.||Transepts are used for seating places other than the nave. Initially used to provide seating near the sanctuary for the clergy, choir or members of religious orders.|
|Vestibule||A hall or lobby next to the outer door of the church – does not have to be at the front entrance.|
Note: The “narthex” is a specific kind of vestibule.
|From the Latin word “vestibulum” meaning “entrance court”.|
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Adoremus – Elliott, Peter J., Most Rev. – https://adoremus.org/2022/08/what-is-an-altar/
Encyclopedia Britannica – https://www.britannica.com/browse/Architecture
Cathedrals and Churches, an illustrated glossary – https://www.abelard.org/france/cathedral_glossary.php
Online Etymology Dictionary – https://www.etymonline.com/
Oxford Languages – https://languages.oup.com/google-dictionary-en/
The Concise Lexicon of Christianity – https://www.kencollins.com/glossary/architecture.htm
United Methodist Church – https://www.umc.org/en/content/ask-the-umc-where-do-church-terms-like-narthex-and-nave-come-from
Hiller, Carl E. Caves to Cathedrals. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1974.
Oggins, Robin S. Cathedrals. New York: Metro Books, 2000.