Cathedral diagram

From Academic Kids

This article discusses cathedral diagrams.


West end

The main doors are at the west end, and there are often towers on that end flanking an opening, sometimes a triple opening, into the nave, often below a stained glass "rose window." The narthex forms a kind of lobby or interior porch on some plans, though not on these two groundplans.


The nave (from the Latin for "ship," illustration, right) is the long central section directly inside the main (west) doors, where the public attends services. The nave is ordinarily flanked by aisles. If the aisles are comparable in height and width, the plan may be described as having three naves. More often the aisles are lower, and a clerestory above their roofs lets light into the nave. Recesses in the walling of the aisles may provide spaces for shallow side chapels though not in these groundplans. There is usually a rood screen ("rood" meaning "cross") dividing the nave from the choir (earlier, "quire") which may be almost as long as the nave. There monks would attend their own services ("offices"). Against the screen, on its west side toward the nave where the public could see it, is usually an altar.


In these two cruciform (cross-shaped) buildings, the arms of the cross (together, the "transept") which form an aisle across the building are quite pronounced; however, the transept arms might be so short as not to stick out past the sides of the building (as at Notre-Dame de Paris), or there may be two of them (as at Canterbury Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral). The transept itself may have an aisle (St-Denis diagram) or two aisles, or it may have none (Tewkesbury Abbey diagram).

Some Gothic churches, such as Bourges, have no transepts at all and thus are not cruciform. At the ends of the transept are doors, too, and outside them are porches that were used for various rituals.

Liturgical east end

The end with the altar in it is normally at the east (left in the diagrams), for symbolic religious reasons, though frequently the building cannot be disposed in such a way as to make that orientation very precise. Beyond the crossing where the transept intersected the nave was the choir.

The next section to the east after the choir is the presbytery (meaning "priestly"), where the priests who assist at Mass sit; that section is not usually separate and may be only a couple of fancy chairs at the side.

The heart of the building is the sanctuary where the "high altar" is. There are altars in many of the chapels, but this is the one where Mass is said for the public. This area was also where criminals seeking the right of sanctuary were safe from the law. Very often the sanctuary was raised a few steps above the floor level of the nave.

The semi-circular end of the church around the high altar, which corresponds to the apse in Romanesque and Roman architecture, is often expanded into a passage called an ambulatory (from the Latin to walk), with radiating chapels disposed around the outer wall of the ambulatory. Thus users can make a complete circuit within the building, using the north and south aisles of the nave and the ambulatory, without trespassing upon the sanctuary. In the bays around the ambulatory, between the supporting columns, are shrines and chapels. At the far east end, on the axis formed by nave and sanctuary, a larger chapel is often dedicated to the patron saint of the church, or to Mary, the mother of Jesus, this in medieval English usage a Lady Chapel.

"Chantries" are shrines or chapels where someone has paid an "endowment" to have the monks say (or "chant") prayers on a fixed schedule for someone who died.

The apse did not last long as an architectural fashion; in Europe it was replaced by the rounded "chevet," and in England by squared-off east ends, and as the cathedrals were rebuilt or repaired, their apses were remodeled into the newer shapes.

Subsidiary buildings

Outside the cathedral are often "chapter house" where the monks or priests whose church it was would hold their meetings about church business; chapter houses are often round and are usually connected to the church building. There is also usually a "cloister," a rectangular colonnade around a grass lawn, where the monks may walk, and their work or study cubicles often opens onto it.

The cathedral often stands in its own precinct, called in England the close.

See also: Cathedral architecture


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