Glossary of Churches and Cathedrals
Church architecture has a language all its own. This glossary will help you better understand and appreciate what you're looking at when visiting churches and reading your travel guide. Key terms in non-English languages and terms related to church staff and services are also included.
Church, monastery or convent used by a monastic community governed by an abbot or abbess. It is usually a large religious house belonging either to one of the orders of the Benedictine family or to certain orders of the Canons Regular (Augustinian Canons). See also priory.
Head of a monastery elected by the monks for life.
Highest of the minor orders of the ministry, usually responsible for candles and assisting in preparations for mass.
The holiest part of a church, used primarily for the Eucharist. In the medieval period the altar was a table or rectangular slab made of stone or marble, often set upon a raised step. After the Reformation the stone altars were replaced by wooden communion tables.
A covered passage behind the altar, linking it with chapels at the east end of the church.
A rounded alcove behind the altar, especially found in Orthodox churches.
A bishop who oversees all other bishops in a province. In the Episcopal Church, the archbishop is called the Presiding Bishop.
The rite of admission to membership in Christian churches that involves immersing, sprinkling or anointing with water. Regarded as a sacrament by Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians. Most denominations practice infant baptism; some only baptize adult believers.
Room in a church where the font is stored and baptisms are performed, generally near the west door. Sometimes a screen or grille separates the baptistery from the nave, and occasionally the baptistery is an entirely separate building (as in the Baptistery of S. Giovanni in Florence).
(basilique in French; basilika in German.) Term describing an architectural style, the status of a church, or both. (1) Architecturally, a basilica is an oblong, colonnaded building that was used in the Roman Empire as a town hall or law court. The style was later adapted by Christianity in its church architecture. (2) With respect to status, a basilica is a church that has been awarded special status by the Pope. In this regard, basilicas may be classified as Major or Minor Basilicas.
A vertical division, usually marked by vertical shafts or supporting columns.
A community of lay women living a life of poverty and chastity without living under a monastic rule or taking irrevocable vows.
The upper story of a tower where bells are hung, or a purpose-built structure for the hanging of bells.
Order of monks or nuns living according to the Rule of St Benedict.
From Greek episkopos, "overseer." An ordained member of the church who has ultimate authority over all the churches in a diocese and has the power to ordain priests and administer confirmation.
Book of Hours
A book for the laity containing Psalms and prayers to be read at the times of the Divine Office.
Book containing the Divine Office of the Roman Catholic Church.
A mass of masonry or brickwork projecting from or built against a wall to give additional strength. See also flying buttress.
Relating to the eastern Roman Empire, based in Constantinople, after the fall of Rome.
Bell tower, usually separated from the main building.
Members of the chapter (governing body) of a cathedral.
Song or prayer, other than a Psalm, derived from the Bible and used in church worship.
(cattedrale or duomo in Italian; cathédrale in French; dom in German; catedral in Spanish.) A church that serves as the headquarters of a bishop. It is so named because it contains the bishop's cathedra, seat or throne.
Priest or minister who presides over a service including the Eucharist. Compare with "officiant."
The eastern or front end of a church, containing the choir and altar and usually reserved for use by the clergy and choir.
A small building or room set aside for worship. Large churches or cathedrals might have many chapels dedicated to different saints. A chantry chapel is a special chapel for prayers for the dead.
The canons and Dean, who together constitute the governing body of a cathedral.
A building attached to a cathedral where the chapter meets to govern that cathedral.
A zigzag pattern characteristic of Romanesque decoration that is often carved around pillars, arches and doorways.
Also spelled quire. The eastern arm (front) of a church, where services were historically sung.
Christ depicted as "Ruler of the Universe," a common image on Orthodox icons.
(église in French; iglesia in Spanish; igreja in Portugese; chiesa in Italian; kostel in Czech; kirche in German; kirk in Scottish; kerk in Dutch.) A building used for Christian worship.
Ornamental tracery in the form of a flower with five symmetrical petals.
Church leaders who have been formally ordained into the ministry.
A church governed by a chapter of canons, but not a cathedral.
A monastery for (female) nuns.
The point at which the transepts cross the nave of a church.
From Latin, "cross-bearer." Acolyte who carries the cross in a church procession before the service. The crucifer is followed by the choir, the acolytes, the lay ministers, and then the clergy in order of rank (highest last).
A cross with an image of the crucified Christ on it.
A vaulted chamber made to house graves and relics, generally located beneath the chancel. Many crypts were made very large to allow access to pilgrims.
In Anglicanism, assistant pastor whose duties commonly include visiting the sick and shut-ins.
The head of the chapter (governing body) of a cathedral.
Second phase of Gothic in England, of the early 14th century. Characterized by sinuous decorative forms and considerable surface decoration.
House occupied by the Dean of a cathedral.
A geographical region headed by a bishop, which usually includes several congregations, also known as a see. In Orthodoxy, a diocese is called an eparchy.
Also called daily office. The daily cycle of prayer services performed by clergy in liturgical churches. It includes the "day hours" - lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers and compline - and the "night office" (matins).
Also called the Friars Preacher or the Black Friars. Order of mendicant friars founded in the early 13th century by the Spanish St Dominic.
A monastic dormitory.
(Greek doxa, "glory"). A short hymn glorifying God.
In Italian, a church that is or once was a cathedral. The formal word for a current cathedral is cattedrale.
A tomb bearing a representation of the deceased, usually life sized, in three dimensions and of stone.
Pertaining to the authority of a bishop.
Pertaining to the life of a hermit.
Monastic building where rents and other income are received and held.
Also called Communion or the Lord's Supper. A sacrament commemorating the Last Supper of Christ with the sharing of bread and wine. Many branches of Christianity, including Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Presbyterian, believe in the "Real Presence" of Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Thus the bread and wine become holy objects after consecration.
A chapel containing the shrine for a saint's relics.
The late Gothic style in France, characterized by long wavy tracery designs.
A decorative technique for exterior walls, in which designs are picked out in white stone against a background of flint cobbles.
A free-standing buttress linked to a church wall by an arch or part of an arch that serves to transmit the outward thrust of the wall to the buttress.
Monastic order founded by Francis of Assisi in 1210 AD.
A monastic dining room or refectory.
Also baptismal font or baptismal. A container, usually of stone, which contained holy water for baptism. Usually located near the west door, sometimes the fonts had elaborately carved wooden canopies.
A vestibule or occasionally a chapel, originally for penitents and usually at the west end of a church.
Also called a tribune. An upper story over an aisle, opening on to the nave.
A grotesque carving, usually in the form of a human or animal, at the end of a spout designed to carry rainwater away from the wall of a church.
A style of architecture that was prevalent in Western Europe from about 1200 until 1550. Common characteristics include: Pointed arches; tall, slender pillars; flying buttresses; large windows with ornate tracery. In England, Gothic is normally divided into three succeeding phases - Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular.
Greek cross plan
Church floor plan with four equal arms. See also Latin Cross Plan.
Also called a squint. A hole cut through a church wall or pillar in order to give a view of the altar.
In a church with several altars, the main altar located in the chancel.
A picture of a sacred or sanctified Christian person, traditionally used and venerated in the Orthodox Church. Icons commonly represent Christ Pantocrator, the Virgin as Queen of Heaven, or, less frequently, the saints. Since the 6th century, icons have been considered an aid to the devotee in making his prayers heard by the holy figure represented in the icon. The Orthodox icon grew out of the mosaic and fresco tradition of early Byzantine art.
From Greek for "icon-stand." In Orthodox churches (such as in Greece or Russia), the screen separating the sanctuary or altar from the church proper and adorned with various icons. The main tier the main tier must follow this iconographic form (from left to right): icon of the Patron Saint of the church, icon of the Virgin Mary, icon of Christ, and icon of St. John the Baptist.
A vertical post supporting a window frame or doorway.
A stained glass window featuring a family tree showing the ancestral link between Jesse (the father of King David) and Christ.
In German, a imperial cathedral (i.e. associated with a Holy Roman Emperor).
A wedge-shaped or tapered stone placed at the top of an arch or vault. In vaulting it occurs at the intersection of the ribs of a ribbed vault.
Latin Cross Plan
Church floor plan with one arm longer than the other three.
A room or building in a monastery where monks washed before meals.
The speaker stand in the front of a church used for things like lay Bible readings and announcements. It is usually on the right (as viewed from the congregation).
A form of prayer consisting of a series of petitions sung by a deacon, a priest or cantors, to which the people made fixed responses.
The prescribed worship rituals of the church, including the mass and divine office.
Also called a Patriarchal Basilica. One of five churches in Rome given this designation by the Pope. The Major Basilicas represent the five great patriarchal churches in early Christian history: Rome (St. John Lateran), Constantinople (St. Peter's), Jerusalem (St. Lawrence Outside the Walls), Antioch (St. Mary Major) and Alexandria (St. Paul Outside the Walls). Among the distinctions of a Major Basilica is a "holy door" through which one must pass to fulfill the conditions of a Jubilee.
The head of the Dominican order.
The night office or the service recited at 2 am in the divine office.
A bishop with authority over a group of a province of dioceses and their bishops; also known as an archbishop.
The head of the Franciscan order.
Also called a Lesser Basilica. One of a number of churches that have been given this distinction by the Pope. This designation confers a certain precedence over other churches in the area (except the cathedral) and allows the use of certain symbols and vestments.
From Latin misericordiae, "compassion." A swing-up seat in the choir of a major church, allowing clergy celebrating divine office to rest their weight while standing up.
book containing the forms of service for the mass
The foyer or entryway of a church.
The place where the congregation gathers from worship, as distinct from the place from which the service is led. It usually contains pews and one or more aisles.
A shallow recess in a wall designed to contain a statue or some other ornament.
A staircase used by the monks to enter a church directly from their dormitory in order to attend late night and early morning services.
Term used for Romanesque architecture in Britain.
The final phase of Gothic in England, characterized by large windows with vertical tracery and flattened arches.
A long, backed bench on which congregants sit during church services.
A covered entrance to a doorway. In some great churches these are large and elaborate structures.
A leading member of a monastery, second in rank to the abbot, elected by the monks to serve for life.
A monastery or convent led by a prior. Originally, a priory was an offshoot from a larger abbey, to the abbot of which it continued to be subordinate. Today there is often little distinction between an abbey and a priory.
The speaker stand in the front of a church used by clergy for sermons and Gospel readings. It is usually on the left (as viewed from the congregation).
Dressed stone at the corner of a building.
In Anglicanism, the elected pastor of a financially self-supported congregation. If there are several clergy in the congregation, the rector has primary responsibility for directing worship.
A monastic dining room.
A monastic toilet.
A decorative screen behind the altar, usually decoratively carved.
A carving or painting standing immediately above and behind an altar.
Stone or brick vaulting typically used for roofing and comprising a thin, light layer supported by a framework of arched ribs.
A style of architecture that flourished in Western Europe between 1050 and 1200, deriving its name from the fact that it drew much of its influence from Roman architecture. In England, it is also called the Norman style. Some of the characteristic features of this school of architecture are: Rounded arches; squat, massive pillars; small windows; and simple, carved decoration.
The room or closet in which communion supplies and equipment are kept.
Literally, "the sacred place." Historically, the part of the church containing the altar and from which the service is conducted, as distinct from the nave. (In modern lecture-hall plans, the two are not architecturally distinct and therefore "sanctuary" refers to both parts together.) In medieval times, fugitives from the law were immune from arrest in the sanctuary.
A room set apart for writing in a monastery.
A set of stone seats close to an altar for use by the officiating priests.
A building or place (from an entire church to a small plaque) dedicated to a particular type of devotion commemorating an event or person.
A covered walkway from the transept or cloisters of a cathedral to the chapter house.
The walling above and around the curve of an arch.
An elongated, pointed structure that rises from a tower, turret, or roof.
Divisions within the choir, where clergy sat (or stood) during services. They are often made of richly carved wood.
A container for holy water near the door.
A cover or canopy suspended over a tomb or a pulpit. The tester may have a purely ornamental purpose or - where positioned over a pulpit - may be used as a sounding board to magnify and direct the preacher's voice.
Container in which incense is burned.
Carved stonework of interlaced and branching ribs, particularly the lace-like stonework in the upper part of a Gothic window.
In churches and cathedrals with a cross-shaped floor plan, the transverse, usually shorter, arm of the church. The transept is usually located between the nave and the chancel and usually lies north to south.
trifoil or trefoil
Ornamental tracery in the form of a flower with three symmetrical petals.
An area above a door between the lintel and the arch. This area often contains a carving.
Also called a crypt. A vaulted underground room beneath a church which may be used either as a burial place or for storage.
Room where the clergy and choir dress and the vestments are kept.