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Fact Files: Church Glossary

Aisle
The spaces along the sides of the nave or chancel, and separated from it by an arcade. Aisles differ from transepts in being longer E-W than N-S.
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Alms
Charitable offerings given to the poor or to the Church, generally for religious reasons.

Ambulatory
The aisle around the east end of the choir joining the choir side aisles to make a continuous passage.
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Angel roof
A type of late medieval roof in which the ends of the beams were carved to look like angels.

Apse
Semicircular end of a choir, chancel, or chapel.

Arcade
A series of arches supported by piers or columns.
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Attached shaft
An architectural feature that looks like a shaft or column partially sunk into the wall surface.

Bay
A unit of an interior or exterior elevation defined by vertical features such as windows, columns, or arches.
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Blind arcading
An arcade backed by a solid wall. A very popular decorative motif in English medieval architecture.

Boss
Decorative sculpture at the intersection of two vault ribs.

Braces
Curved or angled pieces of wood used to strengthen a roof or other timber structure.

Buttress
A structure (of stone, brick, or wood) built against a building to strengthen it by resisting the thrust of arches, roofs and vaults. A flying buttress uses arches or half-arches to transmit the thrust to a buttress standing clear of the wall.

Canon
A priest attached to a (non-monastic) cathedral or collegiate church. Canons generally lived a less communal life than monks.

Capital
The carved block separating a column or pier from the arch or lintel that it supports.
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Chancel
The area of a parish church at the east end, where the altar was located. Also known as the choir in larger churches.

Chantry
1) An endowment to provide for the singing of masses for the souls of the founders and/or of persons named by them.
2) The chapel in which these masses were performed.
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Chapel
1) A separate space within a church containing its own altar.
2) Place of worship, either a separate building or incorporated within another structure such as a house or castle, below the rank of a parish church.
3) Place of nonconformist worship.
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Chapter house
The room in a monastery or cathedral where the entire community gathered for a daily assembly.

Choir
1) The part of a cathedral, monastic church or collegiate church where services are sung. Often spelled Quire in older books.
2) A group of singers.
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Choir stalls
The seats in the choir. Often highly decorated and having misericords.
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Clerestory
The uppermost row of windows. So-called because it stands clear of the aisle roof.
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Cloister
An enclosed, square courtyard in a monastery with covered walk-ways open to the centre through an arcade on each side.

Column
A vertical support, usually round or polygonal.
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Compound pier
A pier comprised of a number of decorative elements such as shafts grouped around a central core.

Corbel
A projecting bracket often carved with grotesque monster heads.

Corbel table
A row of corbels used as a decorative feature. Often placed below the eaves of a roof, possibly in imitation of the carved ends of projecting roof beams.

Crossing
The central space in a church where the nave, chancel, and transepts meet.
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Crossing arch
The arches leading from the nave, choir, and transepts into the central crossing space.

Cruciform
Cross shaped.
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Cusps
The projecting points formed by partial curves within an arch.

Decorated
The style of Gothic architecture popular in England c.1260-c.1360. Characterised by all-over use of decoration, especially small-scale architectural motifs like arches and gables.
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Diocese
The area of territory, with its parishes, under the religious jurisdiction of an individual bishop. An archdiocese is a larger area, including several dioceses, controlled by an archbishop. There are two archdioceses in England, Canterbury and York.

Dissolution of the Monasteries
The Dissolution of the Monasteries in England began with the Suppression of Religious Houses Act of 1535, ordering the closure of all monasteries with incomes of under £200/year. After the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536-37, a campaign to close the remaining larger houses began. By 1540, no monasteries or other religious houses remained. All of their assets had been taken for the king (who gave or sold them to his courtiers). Although it was argued that the monasteries had become lax, with the monks and nuns living in sinful luxury, the Dissolution was mainly a way for the king to gain control over a large part of the Church’s assets.
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Doom
A representation of the Last Judgement. Often painted above the chancel arch in a medieval parish church.

Dormitory
The place where the monks slept. In early monasteries dormitories were communal, but in later years, monks were allotted individual cells or rooms.

Early English
The earliest style of Gothic architecture in England, common from c.1180-c.1250. Known in the 19th century as Lancet style because of its use of lancets; also characterised by stiff-leaf ornament and the use of contrasting Purbeck or other dark, English marble.
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Eleanor cross
The Eleanor crosses were a series of 12 large stone crosses made to commemorate Edward I's wife Queen Eleanor of Castile, who died in 1290. The crosses – which had elaborately decorated bases and large sculptures of the queen - were erected at each of the places where her funeral cortege rested on its journey from Nottinghamshire to London. Only three now survive, the best preserved of which is at Hardingstone (Northamptonshire), but the recollection of another is preserved in the name of Charing (‘cher reine’ – dear queen) Cross station in London. The bases made extensive use of motifs associated with the Decorated style, especially the ogee, which was seen here for the first time.
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Elevation
A vertical wall face of a building.

Feretory
The area around the main shrine. Generally located behind the high altar. From feretum, Latin for bier or shrine.

Flying buttresses
Flying buttresses developed in conjunction with rib vaults. The ‘springing’ point where the curved rib rises or springs from the wall is the weakest part of the vault, being liable to buckle outwards. A flying buttress uses the natural strength of an arch to counter this thrust; additional arches lower down, like the tiers of a wedding cake, counter any remaining stresses, while an enormous pier supports the buttressing arches. The great advantage of a flying buttress is that because the supporting pier is away from the wall, larger windows can be used than would be possible if the buttress did not ‘fly’.
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Gable
The vertical, triangular-shaped end of a roof.
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Galilee
A western annex or porch of a church.

Gallery
A balcony or mezzanine overlooking the main interior space of a building. In a church the gallery is an upper storey directly above the aisle, with arches looking down into the nave.
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Geometry of the building site
Medieval master masons used simple proportional systems, such as ad quadratum (by the square), the Golden Section (b/a = c/b) and ad triangulum (by the triangle) to design their buildings. The most common, ad quadratum, is based on the ratio of the side of any square to it diagonal (1: v2). A rectangle (A4 paper is an example) with these two lengths as its sides has a pleasing shape. A mason could derive a whole building simply by making a series of larger and smaller squares and rectangles based on a single base unit and be sure that every section would connect harmoniously.
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Gothic
The dominant architectural style in the Middle Ages, used primarily from the later 12th century until the mid 16th century. It is characterised by pointed arches, rib-vaults, and large tracery windows.
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Heriot
A type of payment made after the death of the deceased's over-lord. Originally it involved the return of military equipment or weapons which had been loaned for life, but later it became the render to the lord of either the best beast (horse, cow, etc) or the best object owned by the deceased.
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High altar
The main altar, usually located towards the east end of the choir.

Lady Chapel
A chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Lancet
A tall, narrow, pointed window.

Lantern
The windowed upper stage of a tower or dome.

Lay
A lay person was anyone who was not a priest, monk, or otherwise in religious orders.
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Liturgy
The words and music of a religious service.

Lierne
An ornamental vaulting rib that joins two other ribs into a net-like pattern but has no structural function.

Mass
The main rite of the Christian Church, at which the Last Supper is commemorated through the consecration of bread and wine, which is then shared by the priest and the people. Sometimes it is known as Communion or Eucharist in the modern Anglican Church.

Medieval Chroniclers
A large proportion of our knowledge of the Middle Ages comes from chroniclers, who were essentially historians. These were individuals within monastic houses who wrote commentaries on political life outside their institutions, recording key events in chronologies. Many chronicles were continued by successive generations of monks in the same monastery, and many manuscripts were highly decorated, or 'illuminated'.
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Misericord
A folding seat which has a shelf on its underside to support a standing person. The bracket supporting the shelf was usually carved.

Nave
The body of the church west of the chancel arch or crossing. The place where lay people stood during the mass.
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Niche
Vertical recess in a wall, often for a statue.
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Norman
A common name for the type of Romanesque architecture used in England in the 11th and 12th centuries after the Norman Conquest in 1066.

Ogee
A sweeping S-curve commonly used for arches and in tracery from c.1300.
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Palatinate
An area of territory controlled by a 'count palatinate'. While this territory was still technically ruled by the king, the count palatinate had powers which elsewhere were reserved for the monarch alone.
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Parclose screen
A wooden screen partitioning a section of an aisle as a chapel.

Perpendicular
A style of Gothic architecture popular in England from the mid 14th to the mid 16th century. Characterised by tracery with patterns of intersecting horizontal and vertical lines.
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Pier
A support (usually made of masonry or brick) for an arch. Generally larger and heavier than a column.
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Piscina
A niche with a drain (like a sink) used to wash liturgical vessels after the mass.

Pre-Conquest
Before the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. Synonymous with Anglo-Saxon.

Presbytery
The area of the church around and in front of the main or high altar; also a priest’s residence. From presbyter, Latin for priest.

Prior
A superior officer in a male religious house.

Pulpit
A raised platform for preaching. A two-decker pulpit also incorporated a reading-desk, while a three-decker pulpit had a reading desk and also a parish clerk’s desk.

Pulpitum
A stone screen dividing the nave and choir of a great church. The upper section was used as a pulpit for preaching, for a choir, and sometimes for an organ.

Purbeck
A dark-coloured, shelly limestone from the Isle of Purbeck (Dorset) that can be polished to a high sheen.

Quire
Archaic term for the chancel or choir.

Refectory
The communal dining hall of a monastery. Sometimes called a 'frater'.

Renaissance
The 15th- and 16th-century intellectual and artistic revival of forms from Ancient Greece and Rome.

Rere-arch
Arch supporting the inner part of the wall around a window or door.

Reticulated
A type of window tracery which has a net-like pattern formed by a series of inter-linked ogee arches. It was common in the early 14th-century Decorated style (from Latin opus reticulatum: net or lace-work).

Retrochoir
The part of the church to the east or behind (Latin retro) the choir.

Rood
A representation of Christ on the Cross, flanked by the Virgin Mary and St John. Almost all medieval roods were destroyed at the Reformation.

Rood screen
Screen originally surmounted by a Rood.

Romanesque
The architectural style common in Western Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries. It is characterised by massive masonry and round-headed arches inspired by ancient Roman models, and by the use of stylised ornament. In England it is often called Norman.
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Secular
Not sacred. Of, or pertaining to, the world. Secular clergy were priests, not monks.

Sedilia
A row of one or more seats near the altar for the officiating priest and his assistants.

Shaft
The body of a column or pillar between the base and the capital. It is especially used for the small columns found around a window, door, or other opening. Shafts are generally round, but may also be polygonal.
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Shaft ring
A characteristically Early English-style moulded band around a shaft. Used to cover the joints between the sections of a detached shaft, but also as a decorative feature.

Shrine
A repository for the relics of a saint. Often in the form of an elaborate tomb embellished with gems and precious metals.
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Spandrel
The wedge-shaped area of wall next to the curved ‘shoulder’ of an arch.
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Spire
The pointed top of a tower.

Stained glass
Stained glass is the generic term for all coloured window glass, especially with a pattern in it. In the middle ages, light from a stained glass window represented the divine light of God. Most medieval stained glass was not stained (e.g. painted or dyed) but made with the pot-metal technique where metallic oxides were added to the molten glass to give it colour. The glazier worked from a cartoon or drawing, cutting the glass to shape and joining it with lead strips called cames. Once the glass was finished, it was held in place on a metal framework or armature.
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Stiff-leaf
A type of foliage ornament typical of the Early English style.

String course
A horizontal moulding projecting from the surface of the wall. Used to visually separate different parts of the elevation.

Tabernacle
A canopied frame like a miniature building, used around an image or over a statue.

Thomas Becket
Thomas Becket (1118 - 1170), Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered after he came into conflict with Henry II over the relationship between Church and state; he was canonised in 1173. The main point of contention was whether the Church, and its clerics, were subject to royal or secular jurisdiction. Becket wanted the Church subject only to God’s representative on earth, the Pope; the king, however, disagreed, as this meant that the English Church - and its huge landed estates - would be subject only to the authority of the Pope in Rome. A compromise was eventually reached in which candidates for clerical office were chosen by the Church, but given their lands by the king. This changed at the Reformation when the king became head of the Church, and ultimate control over the selection of bishops now rests with the monarch.
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Tierceron
A type of ornamental vaulting rib.

Tithe
A tax of 10 per cent of all income which was given to the parish church to support the priest and the work of the church. Tithes were taken on agricultural produce such as grain and newly born animals, on manufactured goods such as woollens, and on money income. In the Middle Ages and early modern period the payment of tithes was compulsory.

Tracery
The open-work pattern within an opening, especially the upper part of a window. Blind tracery is applied to a solid wall. Plate tracery has a decorative pattern of shapes cut through a solid surface, while in bar tracery the patterns are formed by shaped intersecting bands of stonework.
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Transept
A cross-ways compartment of a church, generally used as a pair leading off the crossing at the junction of the nave and choir.
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Tympanum
The surface within the head of an arch or pediment.

Vault
A curved stone ceiling. A barrel vault is simply an arched stone tunnel. A groin vault is formed from intersecting barrel vaults. The edges (groins) where the vaults meet do not have ribs or other strengthening. A rib vault is similar to a groin vault but the vault surface (or webbing) is supported by diagonal ribs at the intersections of the compartments. Tierceron and lierne vaults are rib vaults with added decorative ribs. A fan vault was constructed of intersecting conical shapes, usually covered with blind tracery motifs.
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Vestry
1) A room in a church where the ministers changed into their vestments, which were sometimes also stored there, especially in smaller churches.
2) A group of parishioners who oversaw the secular functions of the parish.



Published: 28-01-2005



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