Exploring the Sacred

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Beholding the Sacred


Ambo: The pulpit used for the proclamation of Sacred Scripture. It is traditionally placed on the left side of the church as you face the Altar; the Gospel alone would be proclaimed from here in the traditional liturgy. The Epistle would be proclaimed from a separate lectern on the right side facing the altar.

Altar: An altar or table upon which the Eucharistic sacrifice is offered. The altar is traditionally fixed, of natural stone or another worthy or solid material, and usually contain a relic of a saint. The altar is venerated because it is the place of sacrifice. An altar is consecrated by a bishop through anointing with Sacred Chrism. Some altars are marked with five crosses, one on each corner and one on the center, in remembrance of the five wounds of Jesus.

Ambulatory: A walkway which can be either inside or outside of a structure. In Gothic architecture, ambulatories often had projecting chapels and were especially common around the apse.
Apse: The often domed, semicircular or polygonal termination where the altar is located.

Baldachino: A ceremonial canopy of stone, metal, or fabric over an altar.

Baptistry: The baptistry traces its roots to Roman homes. An water source was placed in the atrium just inside the front door. Early Christians often worshiped in homes and the water source became the place where Baptism could take place. The tradition of keeping the baptistry near the entrance continued as the early Christians constructed its first churches. The symbolism here is poignant, as Baptism is the entrance into Christian life. Today, the baptistry can vary from a separate chapel near the entrance of the church, to a Baptismal pool for full immersion, to a bowl mounted on a pedestal.

Baroque: 17th century, Italian artistic style known for exaggerated movement to produce drama, tension, and exuberance.

Basilica: A church of great importance that carries special spiritual, historical, or architectural significance. "Major Basilica" refers to one of the four highest-raking basilicas in Rome: St. Peter in the Vatican, the Archbasilica St. John Lateran (the seat of the Pope and site of the papal Cathedra, it is the oldest and frist in rank of the major basilicas), St. Mary Major, and St. Paul Outside the Walls. The status of Basilica is granted by papal authority through. All other Basilicas are known as "Minor Basilicas".

Cathedra: The chair on which the bishop sits and symbol of his teaching authority and jurisdiction in his diocese. When the Pope speaks "Ex Cathedra", it meals he is speaking in his official capacity.

Cathedral: This term refers to the function of a church, not its architectural style. It is the church of the bishop. It is called a cathedral because it contains his cathedra.

Chancel: See Sanctuary

Choir: See Sanctuary

Cruciform: Having the shape of a cross.

Galero: the broad-brimmed, fringed hat once worn by Catholic clergy as a sign of their ecclesial responsibility.  The color of the hat and number of tassels indicate the cleric's place in the hierarchy. Generally, priests and ministers have a black hat with cords and tassels, the number depending upon their rank. Bishops generally use a green hat with green cords and six green tassels on each side, archbishops have likewise a green hat with green cords and ten green tassels on each side, and cardinals have a red hat with red cords and fifteen red tassels on each side. 

Icon: A highly stylized religious painting on wood. The icon follows detailed artistic conventions, which include the lack of perspective and unearthly colors. The icons are deliberately unrealistic so that they edify faith without causing idolatry. In an Orthodox church, no matter where you look, there’s an icon—and that is the whole idea. It is nearly impossible to be in an Orthodox church without thinking spiritual thoughts all the time. The subject and placement of the icons is significant. An illiterate person could learn the whole gospel just by looking around.

Iconostasis: A screen or wall with at least two icons (some are covered with them) that separates the sanctuary from the congregation in Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches. The iconostasis has three doors: the Door of the Proskomide (preparation for Liturgy) on the left; the Royal Door in the middle which leads directly to the altar; and the Deacon's Door at the right (from the congregation's point of view.)

Mary's Side / Joseph's Side: The Gospel side of a church is sometimes known as Mary's Side (see Ambo above). The Epistle side of a church is sometimes known as Joseph's Side. You can remember which side of the church is wich by taking the vantage point of Christ on the Crucifix: His right side the Gospel/Mary Side; His left is the Epistle/St. Joseph side. Mary and Gospels are greater than Joseph and the Epistle so are at Jesus' right.

Narthex: The foyer or entry way of the church.

Nave: The place where the congregation gathers for worship, as opposed to the front part of the church from which the service is led.

Oratory: An oratory is a room or a portion of a room that is set aside for individual prayer. The word oratory comes from a Latin word that means a place to pray.

Predella: A step or platform on which an altar is placed.

Relief: A method of molding, carving, or stamping in which the design stands out from the surface, to a greater (high-relief ) or lesser ( bas-relief ) extent.

Reredos: The decorative panel behind an altar.

Rood Screen: Medieval churches often had "rood screens" ("rood" means "cross") separating the Sanctuary and choir from the body of the nave. The screen was surmounted by the "rood beam" that had the rood -- the Crucifix -- often flanked by images of the Virgin and St. John and by oil lamps. This screen totally separated the sanctuary from the place the people sat so that the sanctuary was truly treated as the Holy of Holies.

Rose Window: A circular window, with mullions and tracery (decorative supporting stonework) generally radiating from the centre, and filled with stained glasses.

Sacrarium: A basin used for washing sacred vessels well as to receive the water used for ablutions (washing of hands). The drain leads directly to the ground. Now usually found in the sacristy, it was once placed near the altar.

Sacristy: The room or closet in which communion equipment, linens, and supplies are kept.

Sanctuary: The area from where liturgical functions are led.  The word "chancel" comes from the word cancelli, meaning "lattice work," once used to rail off the choir, where the religious would sit on long benches to sing the responses at Mass and chant the Divine Office, from the nave, where the congregation sits.

The rise of Renaissance architecture saw the disappearance of the choir area, the bringing forward of the sanctuary, and the general disappearance of the rood screens. The sanctuary was, instead, separated from the nave (as they should be today if there is no rood screen or iconostasis) by altar rails at which communicants knelt to receive the Eucharist.

Shrine: A shrine is a building or a place that is dedicated to one particular type of devotion that is limited to commemorating an event or a person.

Tabernacle: Liturgical furnishing where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved.

Transept: In medieval times, it became necessary to increase space near the chancel to accommodate large numbers of clergy, the choirs, or members of religious orders. The result was a space between the chancel and the nave that extends beyond the side walls, giving the church a cruciform floor plan—meaning that it is cross-shaped when viewed from the air.

Triptych: A picture or relief carving on three panels, usually hinged together side by side.

Vestibule:  The anteroom of a church between the outer doors and the church edifice proper.