Navigating a Cathedral Part I

Open and close each section to view, listen, and learn about navigating a cathedral.

Before reading the Travel Blog, it may be helpful to learn more  about what you will see at cathedral or great church.  Not all cathedrals or great churches will have all the attributes we are going to review, and certainly smaller churches will not have the grandeur of a larger church.  If you are not familiar with medieval churches, this will help you to better understand these splendid buildings.

First, let’s go back to Ancient Rome.  The basilica was a meeting hall, distinguished by parallel spaces.  The largest area is called the nave and on both sides of the nave are aisles, separated from the nave by large columns.  An especially grand basilica may have two aisles on either side of the nave.  The apse is on one end and was the focal point of the meeting hall.  A judge might sit here, or it might have a dais for government officials.

Medieval Christians adopted the basilica as the model for their religious houses.  It is interesting that they chose the basilica, rather than Greek or Roman temples, as their model.

Most, but not all, medieval churches are based on the basilica.  The Temple Church in London, for example, has a round nave.

This drawing shows a generic floorplan for either a cathedral or a great church.  It is important to remember that no two cathedrals or churches are identical – and we will see several variations in this introduction.  A couple of things are fairly standard, though, and the first is that the holiest section of the building – the area containing the high altar – is the east end, or the section of the building closest to Jerusalem.  In addition, most of these buildings are axial – meaning most are longer than they are wide and the building has a Cruciform shape.

Unless you were a monk or clergy, worshipers would generally enter from the west side.  You would not be able to see all there is to see from this vantage point – the intent is that the building would “unfold” as you entered different sections.

In general, the west end consists of the nave and two aisles. The nave’s ceiling (called a vault) is higher than the aisle vaults.  The sides may have side chapels – meaning they were built for a specific purpose, rather than the high altar located in the east end.

The two sections on the north and south sides are called transepts, and the central crossing is where the north and south transepts intersect with the west and east ends.  Most central crossings have a large tower.  In medieval times, a screen would be present that blocked the view from the nave and central crossing into the east end.

On the other side of this screen we find the east end, consisting of a seating area for monks and/or clergy.  We call this area a choir.  Next would come the high altar, with another screen behind it. The area behind the high altar screen is called the retrochoir, and may contain a saint’s shrine or additional side chapels.

Let’s take a closer look at each section.

We start in location 1, the West Entry.  The main entry for laity is usually the west portal of the building.  It is typically quite grand and was built to impress upon people that they are entering a sacred world.  The didactic functions of the west front – the architecture and the statues  – were extraordinarily varied and inventive.  Usually, but not always, the west entry is dominated by two towers and the width of this section is often wider than the rest of the building.

I like this photo because it helps to understand how big the building is – look at how tiny the people are in comparison.

Once you enter the west front, always be sure to turn around and look at the great window from the inside.  These marvelous windows are architecturally beautiful from the outside, but their true magic comes alive on the inside – especially on a sunny day.

Once inside, you will immediately see the largest area of the building – the nave – with parallel aisles on either side.  But let’s first learn about the side chapels.

A large church may have many side chapels – they may be on the sides of the aisles (see areas 2 and 3 in the floorplan), and/or on the transepts, and/or in the far east part of the church.  If a church has a crypt – a sort of basement below the building – it may be filled with smaller chapels.  And, if a building has a usable second floor (called the gallery level), you may find “side” or small chapels there.

These side, or individual chapels, were built to honor saints, wealthy donors, or bishops and other high-ranking clergy that have passed away.

You should also note that the altar in these side chapels will be located on an east wall, whenever possible.  As before, the idea is to have the altar as close to Jerusalem as possible.

As already noted, the nave usually the largest area of the building. In medieval times, this is where the laity would hear the mass which occurred in the east end on the other side of a screen separating these two important areas.  The laity did not actively participate in the mass – the clergy conducted the liturgy for them.

There was no permanent seating in the nave in medieval times – the people would have to stand (or sit) during religious services. 

The word “nave” is thought to be derived from the Latin word for ship “navis.”  Ships were thought to be an early Christian symbol for the Church as a whole, with a possible connection to the “Ship of St. Peter” or the Ark of Noah.