words words words – churches and cathedrals

Where did the month go? Sorry – got carried away with decorating, sewing mask (seriously who’d have thought) and generally pottering around. And if I’m honest “words, words, words” is rather bigger than I thought….or rather didn’t think.

But it has given you a good long time to come up with a list of words associated with churches and cathedrals. How did you do? I am sure that there are others – this is not a complete list. However after a month with no posts I think it’s time I got back to my more usual blogging habits.

Architectural style:

Saxon – pre-Conquest . Buildings were often constructed from wood or incorporated into medieval churches but one give away are chunky, deepest windows with triangular points at the top. And here’s a thought the Saxons developed the idea of church towers – the usual reason given is that they were for watching out for the enemy.

Norman (Romanesque) – semi circular arches and vaulting. Quite chunky looking buildings in most cases. Small windows, thick walls and the dog-tooth zig zag pattern which is a common motif of the period. A carved stone font.

Early English (began about 1200) The whole medieval period of church building also has the label Gothic.

The rounded windows give way to larger, pointed windows (lancet windows). Or put another way pointy arches were invented. The ceiling was pushed up by the use of clusters of piers to support arches which became narrower than the Norman columns. Vaults which also helped to push the ceiling up were constructed in four parts (like a cross). Stained glass starts to be used and rose windows are introduced.

Decorated (about 1290) – does what it says on the tin. Everything that cane decorated is. We’re also at fan vaulting and tracery. Four leaved flowers and geometric patterns or “diapering” were very popular as well.

Perpendicular (1350ish) Sharper lines, huge windows, massive towers, tall spires.


aisle – walkway down the middle or sides of the nave. side aisles tend to be lined on one side by columns or pillars.

altar or communion table – usually situated at the East end of the church or at the crossing in cathedrals. They can also be found in side chapels.

ambulatory – aisle around the east end of the choir joining the choir side aisles to make a continuous passage.

apse – semi circular bit that sticks out from the east end of the building – not to be found in all churches.

arcade– series of arches carried on piers (architectural term for columns.)

aumbry – a small recess or cupboard in the wall of a church for storing sacred vessels and vestments.

blind arch – an arch with no opening. Usually decoration.

boss –  a stone at the intersection of ribs in the vaulting that projects down from the ceiling. Very often they are elaborately carved.  The boss ties the vaulting together a bit like a keystone in an arch.

buttress a support built against a wall which reinforces it. This means that medieval masons were able to build taller walls because buttresses braced the walls to act against the lateral (sideways) forces acting from the roof.

campanile -detached bell tower.

 capital– the stone on the top of a column.

chancel – area at the east end of the church beyond the nave. There is usually a step up from the nave to the chancel.

chapel – small building or room set aside for worship – the “room” might be created by wooden partitions or be a specific stone built chamber. Larger churches or cathedrals often have many chapels dedicated to different saints. Chantry chapels are where prayers for the dead are said.

chapter house – meeting place for the governing body of a monastery or cathedral. Chapter houses in England are usually polygonal with a central column supporting the roof.

choir, sometimes quire, area with seating for the clergy and church choir. Choirs can usually be found in the chancel, between the nave and the sanctuary. Medieval choir-stalls, involve seating at right-angles to the seating for the congregation in the nave and these seats would often be highly decorated misericords which are not so much seats as perches to lean on during lengthy services.

clerestory–   wall that contains windows high above eye level usually in the nave or side aisles of Romanesque or Gothic churches.

cloister – usually four sided area surrounded by covered walkways, the middle tends to be an area of grass or garden.

close– the precincts in which a cathedral and any other buildings that supplement a cathedral stand. There may well be a gatehouse and walls around the precinct.

corbel – stonework that sticks out of the wall to support something above it – such as an arch or a beam. Often decorated.

crypt – stone chamber beneath the floor of the church containing, coffins, relics or these days chapels.

galilee – porch at the western end of the church used as a chapel for women and/or penitents. It can refer to the entire western end of the nave.

gargoyle  – a grotesque carved with a spout to take water from a roof and away from the side of the building.

lancet window – pointed window that is part of the Early English evolution of church design.

lantern tower – tower above the crossing with windows to give light on the floor below.

lectern – reading desk, often in the shape of an eagle, made to hold the Bible during services.

misericord  The Latin word for “mercy” gives us misericord – folding wooden brackets in choir stalls that clergy could lean against during long services. They are often beautifully carved.

nave – the main body of the church where the congregation sits today but where they stood in the medieval period as there were no pews.

pew -long wooden benches in the church. Pews started to be placed in churches at the end of the medieval period. Many bench-ends were carved with animal and foliate designs. Box pews are high sided enclosed pews with doors. Some even had their own stove to keep people warm.

pulpit – raised stand from which the preacher addresses the congregation.

pulpitum – stone screen, sometimes wood, that divides the choir (the area containing the choir stalls and high altar. Basically, if acts like a rood screen in a smaller church.

reliquary– casket containing relics.

reredos – decorated screen behind the altar.

rood – another name for a cross

rood screen – the screen separated the chancel from the nave, often surmounted by a cross during the medieval period.

sanctuary – the area beyond the chancel where the altar stands. Again, there is often a step up from the chancel to the sanctuary and there may be a rail as well. Think of the journey east through the church as gradually becoming more Holy – the “zones” are marked by steps, screens and rails.

stoup – basin for holy water near the west door. Can be built into the wall or free-standing.

transept – crossing place usually at the east end of the nave between the nave and chancel where the building is built in a cross shape.

Tympanum – area above a door enclosed by an arch.



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