Layout, Terms & Church Use

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2 Areas within a Church

Aisle. The long spaces within a church which run at the side(s) and parallel to the nave and chancel, separated by an arcade. A passage around the apse used for processions.

Apse. The semi-circular eastern end of a chapel or chancel and usually containing an altar. Derived from Byzantine and early Christian architecture of the Mediterranean area. See Basilica.

Ambulatory. The apse aisle of a church, a passage behind the chancel or the gallery of a cloister. Used as part of the route for ceremonial processions in the church. From the Latin ambulans =walker.

Basilica. From a Latin word used to describe an oblong building with 2 or more aisles, where the centre part was higher and wider than the side aisles, and where the east end usually has a semi-circular apse. This shape was used for early Christian churches around the Mediterranean. Some examples of the basilica style churches can be seen in England although many have had so many additions and alterations over the centuries it is hard to distinguish the original shape.

Chancel. The eastern end of a church. It contains the main altar and is reserved for the clergy. It is sometimes subdivided into presbytery or sanctuary (with the altar) and the choir. The chancel was usually apsed at the east end in Anglo-Saxon and early Norman churches. Later churches tended to have square ended chancels. Some purists don't like to see the word used in relation to cathedrals.

Choir. The part of a church where the chorus or choir sings during services, usually fitted with seats called the choir stalls.

Crossing. The space where the nave and chancel axis crosses that of the transepts in a cruciform shaped church. 

Lady Chapel. A chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary in a large church or cathedral, often the largest of the side chapels.

Minster. A ‘mother’ church which served a large area before parish churches and administration were established in that area. Not necessarily a cathedral or abbey church although such an example is York Minster.

Narthex. A porch at the western end which acted as an antechamber for the nave. Sometimes used for baptisms or the withdrawal of penitents, (those making amends for their sins), as it was outside the sanctified (or liturgical) area of the church. In Anglo-Saxon churches the narthex is open to the air with an arcade on its west, (outer), side.

Nave. The western ‘arm’ of a church. It usually forms the main body of the church building and is where the lay public attends church services.

Porticus. (Same word used whether singular or plural). Low arched side openings off the main space of the church and used as chapels, tombs of important people, (in the early church the burial of the dead inside a church was forbidden), or if off the chancel, where the communion vessels were stored. By late Anglo-Saxon, early Norman times the openings of the porticus in some churches became larger and the porticus take on the role of embryonic transepts.

Presbytery. In the eastern ‘arm’ of the church. The area laid out for the priests (presbyteri) performing the ritual of ceremonial or conventual (for the whole congregation or monastery) Mass at the High or main Altar which only they could celebrate. Monks who were also priests could only celebrate private Masses and used the altars in the side chapels

Reredos. The screen or wall set behind an altar. Could be highly decorated .

Retro-choir. The area behind the High Altar in a large church or cathedral.

Rotunda. A building with a circular ground plan and frequently with a dome.

Sanctuary. The part of a church which contains the altar. See chancel.

This is distinct from the other meaning of sanctuary which referred to an area or building, often a church with or without its immediate grounds, where certain categories of lawbreakers could take refuge for specified lengths of time from their pursuers. Severe penalties were enacted upon those who broke the law of sanctuary and arrested someone within the sanctuary area.

Transept. The transverse arms of a cruciform shaped church, usually between the nave and chancel and projecting north and south. Used to house side altars where private masses could be said. Early transepts were reached through small archways from the main body of the church, but as technology advanced larger openings were used until they became completely open to the church nave and chancel. See porticus. In practical terms they also help buttress the arches supporting a central tower.

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