03. Early Europe & Colonial Americas, Art & Humanities, Christianity, Religion

Student Series! Medieval Church Architecture

Student Series! Medieval Church Architecture

During the Middle Ages religion and worship were a large part of daily life. As Christianity’s beliefs progressed, grew stronger and spread further, larger and larger churches were rapidly constructed. Massive stone buildings with ornate and detailed architecture quickly spread through Medieval Europe.

Most medieval churches were shaped like a cross; this layout had a lot to do with religious pilgrimages and daily use. There are three entrances to the church; the main and largest entrance at the west end, this was mainly used for large ceremonies or special occasions. The other two are found on the north and south sides of the church and used for daily access and visiting pilgrims. At the east end of the church is the altar with the radiating chapels for services and private worship.

This is the Episcopal Cathedral St. John the Divine in New York City

Read more: Student Series! Medieval Pilgrims

As Christianity grew so did the churches, many believed that the more extravagant the architecture the more it was praising G-d. The west end of the church is where the largest and most highly decorated door is located. As you walk in you begin to move through the nave which is the main and largest aisle of the church, this is generally where the congregation would stand during services. On either side of the nave there are side aisles where pilgrims would pass to worship and see relics. Monks and clergy used the nave to proceed to the altar for services.

The high altar at Aachen Cathedral.

Read more: Catholic Culture: Shrine of the Three Kings

The altar is considered one of the holiest parts of a Catholic church. It is usually made from stone or marble and is high up on a platform for people to see even from the furthest end of the nave. The altar is so special, it is only reserved only for the clergy during services. A medieval pilgrimage church had an ambulatory with radiating chapels behind the altar. The ambulatory was the covered passage behind the altar that connected the chapels. These were small rooms at the east end of the church set aside for more personal worship, and some were dedicated to different saints or wealthy families.

Another large part of medieval church architecture were the stain glass windows. All handcrafted and extremely detailed, most depicted stories from the Bible or the lives of the saints. Because many people at the time couldn’t read, the windows were a way for them to understand and visualize the Bible stories they would hear throughout the service.

Read more: Student Series! Stained Glass and Gargoyles


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