Architectural features of churches
Top 10 key architectural features to spot inside a church
Church architecture can be thought of like a jigsaw puzzle, with set pieces but that can be used in any combination to make a slightly different picture. In other words, church interiors are generally made up from a range of features, but the architect might only select a few of them, instead of all of them, making the church appear different to others.
In this quick guide I will outline some of the most common features that can be found in churches and what they are for. To see examples of these features in some of Nottingham’s best churches, check out our accompanying vlog!
1. Direction: churches are always rotated east to west with the chancel, sanctuary and altar in the east.
This is because the east faces towards the holy city of Jerusalem which is where, in medieval writing, God’s presence was said to be strongest.
It also links to the Christian story of Jesus rising from the dead at sunrise on Easter day. As such, Christian burials are also rotated with their feet to the east and heads to the west, so that on Judgement Day, they will rise from their graves facing the east and their fate.
The window in the east end of the building also lets in the rising sun symbolising God as the light of the world. Although this would also serve the practical function of lighting up a dark church in medieval times when candles were less common and electricity didn’t exist!
2. Shape: they are most often built in a cruciform shape (cross shaped)
Probably a fairly obvious reasoning behind this feature – the cross of course represents the cross in Christian teachings on which Jesus died for our sins.
3. The narthex or porch: this is the doorway and porch area leading into a church, it is usually at the west end of the church
Not only is this simply an entrance into the church, it also symbolic as a place of transition where you would cross from the outside world and into a spiritual place. It is where worshippers would put aside the business of the outside world, adjust and prepare themselves to enter a place of reflection and stillness, set aside for the worship of God.
4. Nave: this is the large central aisle in the middle of western end of the church, this is where people usually sit during a service
The word nave comes from the Latin ‘navis’ meaning ship. This is important as it symbolically refers to Christian teachings such as Noah’s Ark, and the passage of Christians through life. If you look up while standing in the nave, many roofs in Christian and Catholic churches sometimes look like the belly of a ship, almost like you are stood inside an upside down ship with the floor being the deck upside down.
In gothic architectural churches, the nave often has side aisles as well.
5. The crossing: this is the area where the nave, transepts and chancel cross – if you think of a shape of a cross, it is the area in the middle where the two lines cross over
This does not have as strict symbolic meanings as some of the other areas in the church, other than it being a part of the cross shape of the church itself. Although, you could think of it as another transitional space like the narthex as you pass from the nave where the normal ‘less holy’ people would sit and the chancel and sanctuary in the east where the priest or vicar would be.
6. The transepts: again thinking about the shape of a cross, these are the arms of the cross which go to the sides of the crossing.
Similar to as written above, these don’t really have any specific symbolic function unlike other elements of interior church architecture, although they could again be thought of that symbolic transitional space before the chancel and the sanctuary.
7. The chancel: again thinking of the shape of the cross, the chancel is in the top line of the cross but before the sanctuary where the altar is located
This is normally where you would find choir benches, and would have been traditionally where the priests would sit on long benches and sing responses during mass. This area is quite often separated from the crossing and the nave by railing. Again this railing could represents another symbolic transitional space, and only those that were more holy, as in the priests, would be allowed to sit here.
In medieval churches, these areas were often completely separated from the rest of the church by ‘rood screens’ so that the normal or lay people who attended services couldn’t really even see the chancel and the sanctuary, again further separating the less-holy from the holy. It also made the sanctuary completely separate, making this the holy of holies, the most sacred place and so a space where only a select few could go.
During the reformation where the national religion of England changed from Catholic to Church of England Christian, most rood screens were ripped out, although some examples can still be seen in churches.
8. The sanctuary: found in the easternmost end of the church and is where the altar is located
As said above, this is the holiest part of a church, located at the far east, and so the altar can be found here. The ‘tabernacle’ can also be found here which is where items used in communion are kept, such as the chalice which holds the “blood of christ” which people attending communion drink.
9. The altar: this is located in the sanctuary at the eastern end of the church
This is where the priest or vicar often performs certain rituals and sometimes sermons. It can be seen as symbolising the table at which Jesus shared bread and wine with his disciples.
Traditionally, altars were also tombs that contained relics (bones) from Christian saints who died for their faith.
Also in the past, particularly before the reformation, priests used to face east towards the altar and away from the congregation, facing the rising sun and towards holy Jerusalem. However, they now tend to face the congregation.
Generally the altar is on a raised dias, normally with three steps leading up representing “faith, hope and love”.
10. Romanesque vs. gothic: very very broadly speaking, many churches fall into the broad categories of romanesque or gothic (although there are many types of these including revivals, and there are also completely different styles as well…)
Romanesque and gothic are two different style of architecture, and many churches very broadly fit into these categories, although of course not all will.
On a very crude level, one of the easiest ways to tell if a church is built in either the romanesque or gothic styles is to look at the windows.
Romanesque windows have a rounded arch at the top. Rounded arches may also be found in other areas such as at the roof connecting the pillars. Rounded arches are not as strong and so cannot carry a lot of weight. Therefore, generally romanesque churches tend to be not as tall and have very thick walls and pillars to support the roof.
In gothic architecture, the windows have pointed arches at the top, and pointed arches will also probably be found connecting the columns to the roof. Pointed arches are a lot stronger, and so walls and columns will be thinner and the ceilings higher. Flying buttresses (arches on the outside of the walls of the church) are also found in gothic architecture, again to support the roof because of the much thinner walls.
By Helen Simmons, Project Manager