Architectural Terms for Churches


It’s easy to miss the greatest treasure of a famous church if you don’t understand the description of how to find it. Is the Titian painting in the third chapel of the right aisle. Are the exquisitely carved stalls in the coro alto? Is the original Medieval rose window in the north transcept? Read on, to learn how to find all these places so you can admire the highlights of each church.   

While each architectural style has its own special features, some are common to all or most periods, especially to Romanesque and Gothic churches in Italy, Spain and Portugal. Greek churches are built on a different plan, so the following terms may not be relevant. Therefore, project planning services are always seen in such countries with great infrastructure.

Begin at the back of the church, in the center, looking toward the high altar. That’s the main one, at the far end, inside the chancel which is usually higher than the main part of the church. The center section ahead, often with rows of seats, is the nave. On either side of a larger church or cathedral will be other long sections, called aisles, usually separated from the nave by rows of columns.

These three sections are usually intersected, near the altar, by two arms (the transcept) that form a cross shape for the church. Where they cross the nave in front of the main altar is called the crossing. That’s the basic plan. All other elements relate to those points. Smaller churches may not have side aisles or a transcept, only a nave and altar. The altar is at the eastern end of the church.

Based on this basic plan, it’s easy to locate the following:

  • Apse – A simi-circular end of the chancel, at the far end of the church behind the altar.
  • Ambulatory – In a large church, a curved aisle around the apse, behind the altar; often it has small chapels off it.
  • Arcade – a line of columns with arches, such as those separating te nave and the aisles.
  • Choir – a section with choir stalls, where the mass is sung and monks sit. This is usually inside the chancel. In some churches there is also a coro alto, in a balcony.
  • Crypt – Generally under the chancel, where tombs are located.
  • Side altars – small altars along the side aisles, sometimes housing tombs.

In a monastic church, a side door will usually lead to more places worth exploring:

  • Cloister — An open space enclosed by an arcaded and coverd passage, often with a garden in the center. Sometimes there will be a fountain in the center or, especially in Portugal, in a gazebo built into one corner.
  • Refectory — A large dining hall used by monks
  • Chapter-house – A large room, usually off the cloister, where a religious community met daily for reading a chapter of the order’s Rule.
  • Sacristy – Usually acccessed by a door near the hihg altar, or from the passageway leading to the cloister, this room is used by priests for robing before and after the Mass. In Portugal, these are often the most lavish decorated parts of  church, and are often open to visit if not in use. Elsewhere they are not usually open.

With these basic architectural terms in mind, it should be easy to find the artistic and historic treasures of any church.