Church Architecture Terminologies

Updated on April 21, 2018
Plan of Old St Peter's Basilica, showing atrium (courtyard), narthex (vestibule), central nave with double aisles, a bema for the clergy extending into a transept, and an exedra or semi-circular apse.
Plan of Old St Peter's Basilica, showing atrium (courtyard), narthex (vestibule), central nave with double aisles, a bema for the clergy extending into a transept, and an exedra or semi-circular apse.

Ecclesiastical

In ecclesiastical architecture, a retroquire, or back-choir, is the space behind the high altar in a church or cathedral, which sometimes separates it from the end chapel. It may contain seats for the church choir.

Ambulatory

The ambulatory is the covered passage around a cloister or the processional way around the east end of a cathedral or large church and behind the high altar.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Interiorvaticano8baldaquino.jpg
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Interiorvaticano8baldaquino.jpg | Source

Rood screen

The rood screen (also choir screen, chancel screen, or jube) is a common feature in late medieval church architecture. It is typically an ornate partition between the chancel and nave, of more or less open tracery constructed of wood, stone, or wrought iron. The rood screen would originally have been surmounted by a rood loft carrying the Great Rood, a sculptural representation of the Crucifixion.

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Rood screen
Rood screen
Rood screen
Rood screen

Atrium

an open-roofed entrance hall or central court in an ancient Roman house.Atria were a common feature in Ancient Roman dwellings, providing light and ventilation to the interior.

Atrium
Atrium | Source

Gargoyle

In architecture, a gargoyle is carved or formed grotesque with a spout designed to convey water from a roof and away from the side of a building, thereby preventing rainwater from running down masonry walls and eroding the mortar between. Architects often used multiple gargoyles on buildings to divide the flow of rainwater off the roof to minimize the potential damage from a rainstorm.

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Gargoyle
Gargoyle

Choir

A choir, also sometimes called quire, is the area of a church or cathedral that provides seating for the clergy and church choir. It is in the western part of the chancel, between the nave and the sanctuary, which houses the altar and Church tabernacle. In larger medieval churches it contained choir-stalls, seating aligned with the side of the church, so at right-angles to the seating for the congregation in the nave (of which there would have been little if any in the Middle Ages).

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Albi Cathedral Choir Wikimedia Commons.jpgChoir
Albi Cathedral Choir Wikimedia Commons.jpg
Albi Cathedral Choir Wikimedia Commons.jpg
Choir
Choir
http://bengfa.info/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/popular-chartres-cathedral-floor-plan-with-chartres-cathedral-part-ii-4.jpg
http://bengfa.info/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/popular-chartres-cathedral-floor-plan-with-chartres-cathedral-part-ii-4.jpg

Apse

In architecture, an apse (plural apses; from Latin absis: "arch, vault" from Greek ἀψίς apsis "arch"; sometimes written apsis, plural apsides) is a semicircular recess covered with a hemispherical vault or semi-dome, also known as an Exedra. In Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic Christian church (including cathedral and abbey) architecture, the term is applied to a semi-circular or polygonal termination of the main building at the liturgical east end (where the altar is), regardless of the shape of the roof, which may be flat, sloping, domed, or hemispherical. Smaller apses may also be in other locations, especially shrines.

Chancel

In church architecture, the chancel is the space around the altar, including the choir and the sanctuary (sometimes called the presbytery), at the liturgical east end of a traditional Christian church building.

Buttress

A buttress is an architectural structure built against or projecting from a wall which serves to support or reinforce the wall.Buttresses are fairly common in more ancient buildings, as a means of providing support to act against the lateral (sideways) forces arising out of the roof structures that lack adequate bracing.

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Buttress

Clerestory windows

In architecture, a clerestory is a high section of wall that contains windows above eye level. The purpose is to admit light, fresh air, or both. clerestory denoted an upper level of a Roman basilica or of the nave of a Romanesque or Gothic church, the walls of which rise above the roof lines of the lower aisles and are pierced with windows.

photograph:Ilya Orehov  Clerestory windows
photograph:Ilya Orehov Clerestory windows | Source

Apse

An apse chapel or apsidal chapel is a chapel in traditional Christian church architecture, which radiates tangentially from one of the bays or divisions of the apse. It is reached generally by a semicircular passageway, or ambulatory, exteriorly to the walls or piers of the apse.


Pulpitum

The pulpitum is a common feature in the medieval cathedral and monastic architecture in Europe. It is a massive screen, most often constructed of stone, or occasionally timber, that divides the choir (the area containing the choir stalls and high altar in a cathedral, collegiate or monastic church) from the nave and ambulatory (the parts of the church to which lay worshippers may have access).

Pulpitum
Pulpitum

Narthex

an antechamber, porch, or distinct area at the western entrance of some early Christian churches, separated off by a railing.The narthex is an architectural element typical of early Christian and Byzantine basilicas and churches consisting of the entrance or lobby area, located at the west endof the nave, opposite the church's main altar. Traditionally the narthex was a part of the church building but was not considered part of the church proper.

Narthex
Narthex

Arcade

An arcade is a succession of arches, each counter-thrusting the next, supported by columns, piers, or a covered walkway enclosed by a line of such arches on one or both sides. In warmer or wet climates, exterior arcades provide shelter for pedestrians. The walkway may be lined with stores. A blind arcade superimposes arcading against a solid wall.

Arcade
Arcade

Kliros

The kliros is the section of an Eastern Orthodox or Eastern Catholic church dedicated to the choir. It refers both to the general space in which chanters or singers assemble for the services, as well as to the actual music stand or shelves on which music is stored and read.

Aumbry

a small recess or cupboard in the wall of a church.An ambry ("a place for keeping tools") is a recessed cabinet in the wall of a Christian church for storing sacred vessels and vestments.

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Aumbry[41843] Northorpe : Aumbry (Budby) by Budby (flickr) Tags: northorpe lincolnshire church aumbry westlindseychurchesfestival Aumbry
Aumbry
Aumbry
[41843] Northorpe : Aumbry (Budby) by Budby (flickr) Tags: northorpe lincolnshire church aumbry westlindseychurchesfestival
[41843] Northorpe : Aumbry (Budby) by Budby (flickr) Tags: northorpe lincolnshire church aumbry westlindseychurchesfestival
Aumbry
Aumbry

Altar

An altar is any structure upon which offerings such as sacrifices are made for religious purposes and by extension the 'Holy table' of post-reformation Anglican churches.

Altar
Altar

Transept

A transept (with two semi-transepts) is a transverse part of any building, which lies across the main body of the edifice.In churches, a transept is an area set crosswise to the nave in a cruciform building within the Romanesque and Gothic Christian church architectural traditions. Each half of a transept is known as a semi-transept.

Transept
Transept

Aisle

In cathedral architecture, an aisle is more specifically a passageway to either side of the nave that is separated from the nave by colonnades or arcades, a row of pillars or columns.

Occasionally aisles stop at the transepts, but often aisles can be continued around the apse. Aisles are thus categorized as nave-aisles, transept-aisles or choir-aisles. A semi-circular choir with aisles continued around it, providing access to a series of chapels, is a chevet.

Nave

The nave is the central aisle of a basilica church or the main body of a church between its rear wall and the far end of its intersection with the transept at the chancel. It is the zone of a church accessible by the laity.

Crypt

A crypt is a stone chamber beneath the floor of a church or other building. It typically contains coffins, sarcophagi, or religious relics.

Crypt
Crypt | Source

Presbytery

In those English cathedrals with two transepts, there is a further area beyond the choir which is called the Presbytery. This is where the priests or monks could make their private devotions.

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Presbytery

Sanctuary

A sanctuary, in its original meaning, is a sacred place, such as a shrine. By the use of such places as a haven, by extension, the term has come to be used for any place of safety. This secondary use can be categorized into the human sanctuary, a safe place for humans, such as a political sanctuary; and non-human sanctuaries, such as an animal or plant sanctuary.

Sanctuary
Sanctuary

Antechamber

An antechamber (also known as an anteroom or ante-room) is a smaller room or vestibule serving as an entryway into a larger one. The word is formed of the Latin ante camera, meaning "room before".

Antechamber
Antechamber

Bema

The bema, or bima, is an elevated platform used as an orator's podium in ancient Athens. In Jewish synagogues, it is also known as a bimah and is for Torah reading during services. In an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, a bema is the raised area around the Aron Kodesh or the sanctuary. In antiquity, it was made of stone, but in modern times it is usually a rectangular wooden platform approached by steps.

Bema in an Eastern Orthodox church, with three steps leading up to it. Assumption Cathedral in Smolensk, western Russia
Bema in an Eastern Orthodox church, with three steps leading up to it. Assumption Cathedral in Smolensk, western Russia

"narthex". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 23 April 2012.

Friar (1996), p. 386.


Francis D. K. Ching (2011). A Visual Dictionary of Architecture. John Wiley & Sons. p. 29. ISBN 978-1-118-16049-7.

Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Back-Choir". Encyclopædia Britannica. 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Curl, James Stevens (2006). A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. Oxford University Press. p. 166. ISBN 0198606788.

"Transept", ProbertEncyclopaedia.com: PE-tran.

One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Spiers, Richard Phené (1911). "Aisle". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica. 1 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 447.

Cathedral, The Story of Its Construction; David Macaulay; The Trumpet Club; New York City, New York; 1973

New Oxford American Dictionary

James Bettley and Nikolaus Pevsner (2007), Essex. The buildings of England, Yale University Press, page 865

Janetta Rebold Benton (1997). Holy Terrors: Gargoyles on Medieval Buildings. New York: Abbeville Press. pp. 6–8. ISBN 0-7892-0182-8.

Morris, Richard (1979). Cathedrals and Abbeys of England and Wales. London: Dent. p. 144. ISBN 0-460-04334-X.

Britannica Concise Encyclopædia: 'bema'

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