Cathedral diagram

Cathedral diagram

This article discusses cathedral diagrams in Western ecclesiastical architecture. These floor plans show the sections of walls and piers, giving an idea of the profiles of their columns and ribbing. Light double lines in perimeter walls indicate glazed windows. Dashed lines show the ribs of the vaulting overhead. By convention, ecclesiastical floorplans are shown map-fashion, with north to the top and the liturgical east end to the right.

Many abbey churches have floorplans that are comparable to cathedrals, though sometimes with more emphasis on the sanctuary and choir spaces that are reserved for the religious community. Smaller churches are similarly planned, with simplifications.

There is a separate article on Cathedral architecture of Western Europe.

West end

The main doors are at the west end, and there are often towers on that end flanking an opening, sometimes a triple opening, into the nave, often below a stained glass "rose window." The presence or planned presence of towers reveals itself by more massive stonework at floorplan level: see Amiens ("Fig. 1"). The narthex forms a kind of lobby or interior porch on some plans, though not at Amiens, where the central door opens into the nave and the side doors open directly into the aisles.


:"Main articles: Nave, Aisle".The nave (from the Latin for "ship," "navis") is the long central section directly inside the main (liturgical west end) doors, where the public attends services. The nave is ordinarily flanked by aisles. If the aisles are comparable in height and width, the plan may be described as having three naves. More often the aisles are lower, and a clerestory above their roofs lets light into the nave. Recesses in the walling of the aisles may provide spaces for shallow side chapels, as at Metz ("Fig. 3").

The plans show structural stonework; they omit the usual rood screen ("rood" meaning "cross") dividing the nave from the choir (earlier, "quire"), which may be almost as long as the nave, as at Salisbury ("Fig. 2"). The back-choir or retro-choir is a space behind the high altar in the quire of a church, in which there is a small altar standing back to back with the other.

In the nave, monks would attend their own services ("offices") in an abbey church; in a cathedral the canons would perform similar service. Against the screen, on its west side toward the nave where the public could see it, is usually an altar.


In cruciform (cross-shaped) churches, the arms of the cross (together, the "transept") which form an aisle across the building are quite pronounced; however, the transept arms might be so short as not to stick out past the sides of the building (as at Notre-Dame de Paris), or there may be two of them, as at Canterbury Cathedral and Salisbury ("right"). The transept itself may have an aisle as at St-Denis or Salisbury, or two aisles, or it may have none.

Some Gothic churches, such as Bourges, have no transepts at all and thus are not cruciform. At the ends of the transept are doors, too, and outside them are porches that were used for various rituals.

Liturgical east end

The end with the altar in it is normally at the east (right in the diagrams), for symbolic religious reasons, though frequently the building cannot be disposed in such a way as to make that orientation very precise. Indeed, even in cathedrals, liturgical and geographic directions can be in almost precise opposition (e.g., St. Mark's Cathedral (Episcopal), Seattle, Washington, in which liturgical east faces almost precisely due west), and in parish churches, liturgical directions rarely coincide with geography.

Beyond the crossing where the transept intersects the nave are the choir and the presbytery, which may be combined into a single space, and the sanctuary, site of the high altar.

The section to the east of the choir is the presbytery (meaning "priestly"), where the priests who assist at Mass sit; that section is not usually separate and may consist only of several ornate chairs at the side.

The heart of the building is the sanctuary where the "high altar" stands. There may be many altars in side chapels, but this is the primary altar where Mass is said for the public. This area was also where criminals seeking the right of sanctuary could go to be safe from the law. The sanctuary is normally raised a few steps above the floor level of the nave.

Beneath the sanctuary is often a crypt, which may be earlier than the rest of the structure, or may even mark a pre-Christian holy space. When cathedrals are enlarged, the nave may be extended and a narthex added, the choir may be rebuilt with an ambulatory and chapels, but most usually the consecrated place that is the sanctuary remains at the same place.

The semi-circular end of the church around the high altar, which corresponds to the apse in Romanesque and Roman architecture, is often expanded into a passage called an "ambulatory" (from the Latin "to walk"), with radiating chapels disposed around the outer wall of the ambulatory. Thus users can make a complete circuit within the building, using the north and south aisles of the nave and the ambulatory, without trespassing upon the sanctuary. In the bays around the ambulatory, between the supporting columns, are shrines and chapels. At the far east end, on the axis formed by nave and sanctuary, a larger chapel is often dedicated to the patron saint of the church, or to Mary, the mother of Jesus, this in medieval English usage is a "Lady Chapel".

"Chantries" are shrines or chapels where someone has paid an "endowment" to have the monks say (or "chant") prayers on a fixed schedule for someone who died.

The apse did not last long as an architectural fashion in the West; in Europe it was replaced by the rounded "chevet," (Amiens, Metz) and in England by squared-off east ends, and as the cathedrals were rebuilt or repaired, their apses were often remodeled into the newer shapes.

ubsidiary buildings

Outside the cathedral there is occasionally a "chapter house" where the monks or canons whose church it was would hold their meetings about church business; chapter houses are often octagonal or polygonal in shape, and are usually connected to the church building. There are twelve extant cathedral chapter houses in the world today. There is also usually a "cloister," a rectangular colonnade around an open space that often has a central well, set in a paved or graveled space, where the monks may walk; their work or study cubicles often open onto the cloister.

The cathedral often stands in its own walled precinct, called in England the "close."

See also: Cathedral architecture of Western Europe

External links

* [ Plans of Romanesque St-Sernin, Toulouse and Gothic Notre-Dame, Amiens compared with other cathedral plans]
* [ Salisbury Cathedral floor plan]
* [ Canterbury Cathedral:] several floor plans
* [ Plan of Canterbury Cathedral]
* [ Durham Cathedral Layout]
* [ The Plans of Saint-Sernin, Toulouse and Amiens Cathedral]
* [ St. David's Cathedral Plan]
* [ Holy Trinity Floorplan]
* [ St. Patrick's Cathedral Floorplan (Armagh)]
* [ Exeter Cathedral Floorplan]

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