The Style and Layout of European Churches and Cathedrals
Created | Updated Jan 27, 2014
Most Christian churches in the western world follow similar basic architectural principles, and, when reading about a church, one is often subjected to a barrage of technical or Latin terminology to describe the various features of these unique buildings. This entry is designed as a simple introduction to the layout of such a building.
It should of course be obvious that each building is an individual design and may or may not include all of these features. In addition, the layout of 'modern' buildings is often much simpler. This entry is therefore more concerned with the style of layout used between the 10th and early 19th centuries.
Most larger churches or cathedrals are built in the form of a cross, with the longer axis of the cross aligned east-west. The main altar is normally at the eastern end of the church, frequently under a large, stained-glass window, and the entrance is either at the western end or through one of the two, shorter, north-south arms of the cross.
Smaller buildings may be a simpler, rectangular shape, missing the cross-pieces, but will still be lined up in the same direction, with the altar to the east.
A Brief Visit
The easiest way to understand the layout of a church or cathedral, and learn the various terms for the specific parts of the building, is to take a look around one. Unless you have the ability to print out this entry and take it to your nearest cathedral, a little imagination may be required here.
We will start the tour in the centre of the cross, known as the crossing.
Standing at the crossing, if the building has a central tower1, steeple2 or dome3, you will now be under the very centre of this architectural feature. Historically, the tower is fitted with bells, used to announce services and, in time of war, as an alarm. Often, when looking straight up from the crossing, you might see a small section of the ceiling covered by a trap door; this is used when hoisting the bells up into the tower.
Looking to the north and south of the crossing you will see the shorter arms of the cross. These arms are known respectively as the north transept and the south transept. In many buildings, these transepts hold small chapels - semi-private areas set aside for individual prayers, often dedicated to a particular saint.
Looking towards the west of the church, one sees what is generally the largest part of the building: the nave.
Strangely enough, the word 'nave', which dates back to the 12th Century AD, comes from the Latin navis, meaning 'ship', as the vaulted ceilings of this part of the church often reminded people of the timbers used to build the hull of a ship.
The nave is where the congregation4 sits during a service. To the north and south of the seating, sometimes separated by a number of pillars, the aisles run the length of the church. Looking up towards the ceiling one sees a row of windows, again running the length of the building above the roof of each aisle. These windows, accompanied by a walkway running along the inside of the building, are known as the clerestory.
Still looking upwards, below the clerestory, one often finds a row of highly ornate 'false' windows. These are openings into the roof spaces of the aisles, a space which is known as the triforium.
Finally, towards the western end of the nave one will find the font, a stone basin used during baptisms.
Turning back towards the east, you may now be able to see the full-length of the church. However, in some buildings, the public nave is completely separated from the eastern end of the church, where the priests direct services, by an ornate screen5.
Heading towards the east of the church, across the crossing and through the screen, one enters the area of the church that was, in times gone by, accessible exclusively to the clergy6. This is known as the choir.
As the name suggests, this is where the choir stands during services. Many churches have ornately carved choir stalls, one on each side of the church. The choir in an English cathedral is divided into two sections: the cantoris half sits on the side of the choir near the cantor (the priest who sings certain sections of the service), while the decani sits on the same side of the building as the dean of a cathedral. When singing psalms, the two sides of the choir generally sing alternate verses; and when eight-part harmonies are required, the cantoris singers generally take the lower of the two parts in each of the four voices (soprano, alto, tenor and bass).
Other features of this area of the building are the pulpit, generally on the north side of the building, and, in cathedrals, the bishop's throne, which is of course part of the definition of a cathedral7 itself.
Continuing eastwards, one sees the altar rail, which divides the choir from the sanctuary8. The altar rail is generally where communions are held, the congregation kneeling before the rail to receive communion.
Finally, we come to the altar itself and the apse9 beyond. The altar may be a simple, wooden structure or an ornate, canopied and decorated table. It represents the table used by Christ during the Last Supper, and is used during the consecration of the bread and wine during communion services and as the centre for all worship in the church.
For those who would like to see more on this subject without leaving the comfort of their computer, the BBC History website has an interactive church tour and an illustrated cathedral floorplan. You can find out more about specific churches by reading the following Guide Entries:
- St Paul's Church, Little Eaton, Derbyshire, UK
- The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban
- The series of articles on Anglo-Saxon Churches on the Isle of Wight