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Glossary – Cathedrals



Abacus – The square, polygonal or round stone set above a capital.

Aedicule – A frame, as for a niche, formed by a pair of columns or pilasters supporting a pediment, gable or barrel vault.

Aisle – The side spaces flanking the main nave, divided from it by an arcade.

Altar – The table on which the bread and wine of the Eucharist are consecrated.

Altarpiece – A painting or sculpture behind an altar.

Ambo – An elevated platform at which the reader or cantor stands to proclaim the scriptural readings.

Ambulatory – A route surrounding the columns of the apse for processions.

Anglican – Relating to the Church of England.

Anastasis – The Greek icon of the Resurrection depicting Christ trampling down the gates of Hell.

Antependium – The decorative panel that covers the face of the altar.

Antiphoner – A book of chants.

Apocrypha – Writings which are considered ‘secret’ or ‘hidden’ and not universally regarded as part of the Christian canon of scripture.

Apostle – One of the twelve disciples chosen by Jesus as his closest followers.

Apse – A semicircular termination to a church separated from the main space by an ambulatory.

Arcade – The row of columns which divides the nave from the side aisle.

Arch – The means of spanning the space between two verticals. Arches may be swemicircular, pointed, depressed or ogee in form.

Architrave – The cross-member or lintel carried from the top of one column to the next.

Archivolt – The decorative mouldings on the underside of an arch.

Ark – In a synagogue, the cupboard on the bema at one end of the building in which the scrolls of the Law are kept.

Armaria – Cupboards in which the Gospel Books are kept when not in use.

Asperges – The chant used at the beginning of mass. Psalm 51.

Aumbry – A cupboard to store the Eucharist paten and chalice used during the mass.

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Baldachino – Free standing canopy raised above a throne, altar or tomb.

Baptistry – The space in which the sacrament of baptism is administered.

Basilica – A long aisled building with the central nave lit by clelestory windows over the lower aisles.

Bay – The vertical division of the elevation, defined by the space between the pillars, shafts and arches.

Bema – A raised platform on the central axis of the nave. The Orthadox term for the Presbytery.

Breviary – The single volume containing all the texts for reciting the Divine Office or the Liturgy of the Hours.

Boss – The block of stone, often elaborately carved or painted, marking the intersection of the ribs of a vault.

Buttress – A masonry support strengthening walls.

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Campanile – An Italian bell tower, sometimes free standing.

Catacomb – A place of burial excavated underground.

Cathedra – The bishop’s throne, which gives its name to a cathedral.

Cella – The inner walled structure at the heart of a temple, surrounded by colonnades.

Censer – A metal bowl filled with burning incense swung on a chain.

Chalice – The cup in which the wine of tghe Eucharist is consecrated.

Chancel – The area around the altar reserved for the clergy. Also presbytery.

Chantry – A small chapel around the chancel in which masses are chanted in memory of the deceased.

Chapel – Part of a larger church housing an altar for separate dedications from the main altar.

Choir – The part of a church reserved for the community that sang the Office.

Ciborium – A canopy supported by four columns over the High Altar or a small container for the consecrated host.

Clerestory – The upper stage of the nave pierced with windows to let in light.

Cloister – Originally intended to facilitate communication between the various living spaces of a monastery.

Coenobitic – A pattern of monastic life lived in community, under a common rule and an acknowledged leader.

Coffering – The cutting away of the thickness of a stone roof when not structurally necessary to reduce weight.

Colonnade – A series of columns supporting the architrave.

Column – Also pillar. A vertical architectural member, either round, fluted, chamfered or shafted.

Conch – A semicircular niche surmounted by a quarter-dome, often fluted like a shell.

Confessio – The subterranean chamber below the altar containing the body or relic of a saint.

Corbel – A projecting stone carved with a face or foliage, supporting a roof beam or pilaster.

Cornice – The projecting decorative moulding that forms the top course of the entablature in Classical buildings.

Cosmati – Mosaic decoration made up of geometrically shaped semiprecious stones

Crossing – The point at which the four arms of a cruciform church meet.

Cruciform – Cross-shaped.

Crypt – A vaulted chamber underneath the chancel containing the tomb of the founder or saint of the church.

Cupola – a dome-shaped vault, not necessarily a complete hemisphere.

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Deisis – An image showing Christ enthroned flanked by the Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist.
Byzantine in origin.

Diakonion – The southern space of a church set aside for the reception of offerings.

Disciple – A follower of Jesus.

Dome – A semicircular covering for a roof.

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Elevation – The point in the mass when the priest raises the consecrated host and chalice for veneration. Now marked by the ringing of a bell.

Entablature – The lateral course carried by a series of columns, consisting of the architrave, the frieze and cornice in a Classical building.

Episcopal – Relating to bishops.

Eucharist – The principal service of worship of the church, also called the Mass. From the Greek “to give thanks”.

Evalgelist – One who spreads the word of Christ, and more specifically the authors of the New Testament.

Evangelarium – The Book of the Gospels for Liturgical reading at the Eucharist.

Exhedre – Large niche-shaped units spanning a right-angle, used to project a quarter-dome from a larger structure.

Exultet – The proclamation of the Resurection of Jesus Christ.

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Fan Vault – A vault featuring radiating equally spaced ribs.

Ferramenta – The base of the shrine of a saint on which the sarcophagus or requilary rested.

Filigree – A delicate form of metalwork using gold and silver wire to produce a lacy effect.

Finial – The pointed peak of a gable or pinnacle, often decorated with bunched foliage.

Flying Buttress – A type of buttress where the base is some distance from the wall, so that there is a space underneath it.

Font – The vessel containing water used for baptism.

Fresco – Wall painting created by using pigments bound with egg whites applied directly onto damp plaster.

Frieze – The middle element of the entablature providing a flat surface that can be ornamented by carving.

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Galilee Chapel – A chapel at the entrance to a church, once used as the starting point for some processions.

Gargoyle – A waterspout often carved in the form of a grotesque figure.

Grisaille – Glass painted with stylized patterns of foliage in sepia.

Gisant – A tomb effigy in which the subject is shown lying down.

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Iconoclasm – The destruction of religious images.

Iconostasis – The screen in an Orthodox church dividing the naos from the bema, which is decorated with icons.

Idiorhythmic – An individualistic pattern of monastic life, for example: of a group of hermits living in a locality but without any common rule or collective worship.

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Katholicon – A Greek term for the principal church in a monastic enclosure.

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Lady Chapel – A chapeldedicated to the Virgin Mary: in English cathedrals this was often positioned to the east of the High Altar.

Lancet – A window formed of a tall, thin single opening in the wall.

Lantern – A low tower with windows set over the crossing of the nave and transepts to provide light.

Lavatorium – A place for washing – often found in the cloister.

Lectern – A reading desk on which the Bible is placed.

Lierne Vault – A vault in which decorative ribs are added between the structurally necessary ones.

Lintel – A horizontal stone beam set over a window or doorway resting on two posts or pillars.

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Mandorla – An almond-shaped frame containing the seated figure of Christ in Majesty.

Martyr – One who bears witness to Christ by likewise shedding their blood.

Martyrrium – A structure built over a site that bears witness to an event in Christ’s life or passion, or over the site of a martyr’s death or burial.

Matroneum – A gallery in a church set aside for women.

Mausoleum – A building set aside for burial, named after Mausolus the classical ruler of Anatolia.

Misericord – A ledge on the bottom of a seat on which worshippers canperch when the seat is tipped up – often carved.

Missal – The single volume for celebrating the Eucharist.

Mosaic – Figurative decoration achieved by setting small cubes of glass or stone (tesserae) into plaster.

Mullion – The vertical member dividing a window into two or more lights.

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Naos – The Orthodox term for the nave.

Narthex – A vestibule or porch which forms an introductory space just outside the body of the church proper.

Nave – The main body of the church. From the Latin ‘navis’, a (upturned) ship.

Niche – A recess in a flat surface, framed by a canopy or an arch, usually for a sculpture.

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Oculus – A small circular window.

Octagon – An eight sided structure which supports a dome or spire.

Office – From the Latin officium (duty) the name given to the pattern of daily prayer. Especially that prayed seven times daily in monastic life.

Ogee – An arch formed by two S-shaped curves.

Opus Anglicanum – English embroidery using delicately shaded silks to give a realistic three-dimensional effect.

Opus sectile – A covering for walls or floors made by cutting marble slabs into a variety of geometric shapes.

Orthodox – ‘Right thinking’ referring to a belief which is considered to be ‘correct’- or to the various branches of the Eastern Church.

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Pantocrator – ‘All powerful’, The figure of Christ as the ruler and judge of the world. Commonly found in the central dome of a church.

Parclose – A transparent screen used to enclose an area for use as a chantry chapel.

Paschal candelabrum – A large candle set upon a column and burned throughout the forty days of Easter.

Paten – Dish on which the Host is placed for the Eucharistic prayer.

Pediment – A low-pitched triangular gable over a door, window or portico of a Classical building.

Pendentive – The curved V-shaped surface formed by building from a right-angle corner to the quadrant of a dome.

Pews – Bench seating in churches.

Pier – A substantial masonry support between two apertures, square in section made of coursed stone.

Pilaster – Decorative vertical strips in semi-relief, often fluted and projecting slightly from the wall surface.

Piscina – A basin in which to wash the sacred vessels after Mass.

Portico – A covered entrance to a building, or corridor in front of the entrance supported by columns.

Presbytery – The area in a church around the altar reserved for the clergy.

Prothesis – The space in a Greek Orthodox church reserved for the preparation of the Eucharistic elements.

Pulpit – A raised platform for preaching sermons which allows greater visibility for the congregation.

Pulpitum – The screen in front of the choir, also called the choir screen.

Pyx – A box-like receptacle, frequently circular with a conical lid, in which the consecrated Host of the Eucharist is kept.

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Quadripartite – Divided into four, specifically for vaults.

Quatrefoil – A geometric pattern made up of four interlocking circles like a four-leafed clover.

Quincunx – A fivefold pattern with a square or cross-shape, surrounding a central point.

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Rayonnant – ‘Radiating’, appropriate only to the radiating pattern of the rose window.

Refectory – The monks’ dining hall.

Reliquary – A casket carrying the relics of a saint. Also the place in which it normally stands.

Reredos – A painting or relief behind the altar. Also ‘altarpiece’.

Retable – The shelf standing at the back of an altar on which the reredos stands.

Rib – The structural member of a roof vault that provides skelital articulation.

Rood – The figure of the crucified Christ between the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist supported by a rood beam or rood screen.

Rood Screen – A pierced screen dividing the choir from the nave surmounted with the rood.

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Sacramentary – The book containing the texts needed for the celebration of the Eucharist.

Sacraments – The seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, confession, anointing, ordination and marriage.

Sacristy – The room in which the priest robes in preparation for the Mass. Also ‘vestry’

Sanctuary – The east end of the chancel containing the principal altar. Also ‘presbytery’.

Sarcophagus – A carved tomb-chest, sometimes reused for Christian burials.

Sedilia – Seating in the south wall of the chancel used by the priest and assisting deacons during the mass.

Spandrel – The triangular space between the curve of the arch and the vertical and horizontal members that frame it.

Spire – A tall conical structure often built as a marker for the church.

Squinch – The arch set diagonally over a right-angle corner of a square tower to form an octagon.

Squint – An oblique opening cut in the wall of a chancel to enable those outside to see the elevation at mass.

Steeple – The combination of a tower and a spire.

Stoup – A shallow basin on a pedistal or projecting from a corbel beside the door of a church containing holy water.

Synthronon – The curved bench or tiers of benches flanking the bishop’s cathedra.

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Tabernacle – A small safe, frequently domed, standing on the altar or its retable in which the Eucharist is reserved.

Tabot – The flat stone tables, normally kept in the ark, on which the Eucharist is celebrated in the Ethiopian Coptic Church.

Templon – In Byzantine churches, a beamed colonnade closing off the sanctuary.

Tesserae – A small square of stone or glass used as an element of amosaic.

Theotokos – ‘God bearer’ or ‘Mother of God’.

Thurible – See ‘censer’.

Timkat – The Feast of the Baptism of Christ in the Ethiopian CopticChurch.

Titulus – The board nailed to the top of the Cross that included the words “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”, often abbreviated in Latin to “INRI”.

Tracery – The thin stone ribs in a window that divide the opening and hold the glass.

Transept – The north and south arms of a cruciform church poojecting at right angles to the main nave.

Trapeza – A Greek term meaning a table, so the refectory or dining room of a Greek monastery.

Trefoil – A geometric pattern made up of three interlocking circles like a three-leaved clover.

Tribune – A gallery above the aisles or at the end of the nave or trancepts. Also ‘triforium’.

Triforium – A low arcade over the aisles and below the clerestory designed primarily as a passageway.

Trumeau – A central column in a doorway. Often including a sculpture of the Virgin Mary or the patron saint of the church.

Tympanum – The semicircular area between a doorway and the arch above it, or the triangular area in a pediment.

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Vault – Either a space underneath the floor in which people are buried, or a stone ceiling, which can take a variety of forms.

Vaulting – A system of roofing a building in stone, using the techniques developed in creating an arch by cutting wedge shaped stones.

Vesica – See ‘mandorla’.

Vestry – See ‘sacristy’.

Volute – A spiral scroll filling the triangular space between a vertical and a horizontal.

Voussoire – A wedge-shaped stone used to build an arch.

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Web – The stone infilling between the ribs of the vault, often of a lighter or semi-porous stone.

West front – The main facade of a church or cathedral, designed to create a sense of grandeur, used as the entrance for major celebrations.

Westwerk – The monumental west end of a church consisting of a narthex below with a galleried first floor flanked by twin towers.

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