Ecclesiastical architecture (church architecture) refers to the architecture of Christian churches. The term may be most clearly understood by defining the two words (definitions from Oxford Languages):
Architecture: The art or practice of designing and constructing buildings.
Ecclesiastical: Relating to the Christian church or its clergy. (Of interest to note is that the word “Ecclesiastical” comes from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. The introduction to this Book by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops indicates that the Hebrew name of this book means an “assembler” (of students, listeners) or “collector” (of wisdom sayings)).
Therefore, ecclesiastical architecture refers to the architecture of Christian churches. The architecture includes parts of the church, interior and exterior. Of particular importance to the definition is that a church is a building for public worship, and therefore in its best instances, all parts of church architecture reflect this purpose; and, thus, the building is immediately recognized as such based on the architecture.
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 forms a linear “movement” toward a terminally located sacred space) – and many are most easily identified in large Catholic cathedrals. However, many 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).
Church architecture includes specific terms for descriptions of features of the interior and exterior structure. Two Glossaries for the exterior are shown here: Tower features, and Features of the Front of a Church. For a Glossary of interior features, see https://churchwonders.com/architecture-symbolism/parts-of-a-church/
Glossary of the Exterior Parts of a Church – TOWER
|Belfry / Campanile||Both words are used for the upper part of a tower that contains bells. The word “campanile” is of 17th century Italian origin (meaning “bell”) and is a tower detached from the primary structure that contains bells.||The origins of the word “belfry” are from Middle English (1150 – 1450) from an Old French word “berfrei” which designated a wooden tower used in besieging fortifications. In Medieval Europe, newly independent states would erect a belfry as a bell was an important symbol of power, as well as a method for calling the newly formed community together.|
|Steeple||A tall, decorative tower (that sometimes has a belfry) attached to a church or public building.||A steeple is usually built with a series of diminishing stories and is topped with a spire.|
|Spire||A pointed pyramidal or conical top to a tower.||From the Old English (450 – 1150) word “spir” meaning a “tall slender stem of a plant” and the German word “spier” meaning “tip of a blade of grass”.|
Glossary of Exterior Parts of a Church – the FRONT of a Church
|Façade||The “face” of a church (or any building), especially the main front of the structure which is generally on the western side of churches and faces the street – although large churches may have more than one façade, e.g., the side entrances at the end of each transept.||The 17th century word comes from the French word “façade” meaning “face” which is thought to come from the Latin word “facia”, also meaning “face”. The façade is an important aspect of a church which sets the tone as worshippers enter the building and transition into the sacred space, and thus is usually adorned with liturgical artifacts such as sculptures, statues, stained glass windows and other features of liturgical or sacred design.|
|Porch||A covered shelter extending outward from the front of the church building.||The word arrives in usage today from the Latin “porta” meaning “passage” and “porticus” meaning “colonnade”.|
|Portal||A doorway or entrance to a church, especially used to describe a large and imposing one. The term is used to designate not only the doorway, but also the architectural frame of the door which may include pillars, columns and pilasters on the sides; as well as overhead arches, a frieze and sometimes a tympanum.||The word arrives in usage today from the Latin “porta” meaning “passage, door or gate” and “portalis” meaning “like a gate”.|
|Lintel||A horizonal support beam over the door of a church.||The lintel can be made of wood, stone, concrete or steel and is a main structural feature of the portal. The word originates from the Latin word “limen” meaning “threshold”.|
|Pediment||The triangular upper part of the front of a building above the lintel, typically held up by a row of columns.||The feature is related to the tympanum of a church (see below) which occupies the space on the front of a church that was called the pediment of a classical building, but since it is over the entrance of the church, is not supported by a series of columns.|
|Tympanum||An adorned space above the lintel over the door and below an arch, or below a series of moldings surrounding an arch (archivolt, a.k.a. “archivault”).||The tympanum was a characteristic feature of important, majestic buildings of ancient Greece and Rome and, thus, is used in ecclesiastical architecture to denote the majesty of God; as well as to aid in preparation of the worshipper for the holy service inside. In Romanesque churches, the tympanum has a rounded shaped at the top; while the top reflects a point in Gothic churches. Tympana in churches are often decorated with symbolic images and/or sacred stories. One of the frequent topics displayed is that of “The Last Judgement”. It is the scene where humans are judged after death by God to determine whether their life has provided for an entrance into heaven or banishes them to hell for eternal damnation. The Last Judgement scene is often shown in European churches built in the Romanesque period, but also in churches of more modern times. Another typical scene, is that of the “Jesse Tree” (a depiction of the genealogy of Jesus in the form of a tree , i.e. “a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse” Is 11:1) as is shown in the feature photo above from the western side of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Rouen, France. Tympana are also frequently adorned with symbolic images of animals and imaginary beasts.|
All websites were accessed on or about 10-17-2022 and are considered to be useful, reliable and secure, but users should view the websites at their own discretion. The author or the website https://www.churchwonders.com is not responsible for those sites’ code or content.
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
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops – https://bible.usccb.org/bible
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
Hiller, Carl E. Caves to Cathedrals. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1974.
Oggins, Robin S. Cathedrals. New York: Metro Books, 2000.