People walk into church buildings, large and small, every day, without thinking about the name of the area that they stepped into – the “room” just beyond the entryway to the church – what is it called?
Ecclesiastical architecture (church architecture) refers to the architecture of Christian churches. This fork of architecture has developed specific terminology to describe the parts of a church structure and the “rooms” of a church. Since this term is used to describe Christian churches, by definition, the terms may have originated over two-thousand years ago; however, several were derived from words in Latin and Greek that were used for Roman and Greek temples at much earlier dates. That said, many of the terms in use today for the basic parts of a church originated between the 14th and 17th centuries during the church-building periods of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture.
Terms of Church Architecture
Some of the terms of church architecture apply predominantly to large, cruciform (cross-shaped) church structures with longitudinal seating arrangements (wherein the congregation exhibits a linear “movement” toward a terminally located sacred space) – and many are most easily identified in large Catholic cathedrals. However, several of these terms are also applicable to smaller, newer churches, even those modern churches designed with a centripetal floor plan (wherein the congregation groups around a centrally located sacred area). One can also notice that some of the terms incorporate religious symbolism as part of their meaning such as the term “nave” (derived from the Latin word “navis”, meaning “ship”) – read more below.
Familiar and Unfamiliar Terms
There are some terms specific to church architecture that are very familiar such as “altar” or “aisle”, or even “sanctuary”. However, there are also some terms which can be used to describe the parts of most churches in use today, that are not so widely understood, such as “narthex”, “nave” and “ambo” which are outlined below.
Narthex: A vestibule between the main entrance and the nave of the church – usually at the western end of a church - generally colonnaded or arcaded from the nave. The narthex is a specific kind of vestibule. In the early church, the unbaptized faithful would be restricted to the narthex. Another purpose for the narthex was to provide a meeting place between the clergy and civilians or females.
Nave: The central part of the church building where the congregation sits or stands. In Western churches, the nave is of a rectangular shape and separated from the sanctuary. The word is derived from the Latin word “navis” meaning “ship” because the nave resembled the shape of the deck of a ship; and also because of the church’s function as an "ark of salvation", like “Noah’s Ark”.
Ambo: In Roman Catholic Churches, the ambo is the reading stand used for the readings, homilies and Universal Prayer intentions - it is not called a pulpit or lectern. In the initial stages of liturgical development, there were two ambos. The Epistle ambo was placed on the southern side of the sanctuary, while the Gospel ambo was located on the northern side. Today, the single ambo is generally located on the northern side.
See more terms of Ecclesiastical Architecture in a glossary of the most common interior parts of a church at https://churchwonders.com/architecture-symbolism/parts-of-a-church/