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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Typical Early Christian/Byzantine apse with a hemispherical semi-dome.
Triple apse of Basilica di Santa Giulia, northern Italy.
East end of the abbey church of Saint-Ouen, showing the chevet), Rouen, Seine-Maritime.
A simple apse set into the east end of an English parish church, at Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire.
The decorated apses of the Cathedral of Monreale, Sicily.
This article is about an architectural feature; for the astronomical term see apsis. For the rock band, see Apse (band). Or you may mean the acronym APS.

In architecture, the apse (Greek αψις (apsis), then Latin absis: "arch, vault"; sometimes written apsis; plural apses) is a semicircular recess covered with a hemispherical vault or semi-dome. In Romanesque, Byzantine and Gothic Christian abbey, cathedral and church architecture, the term is applied to a semi-circular or polygonal termination of the main building at the liturgical east end (where the altar is), regardless of the shape of the roof, which may be flat, sloping, domed, or hemispherical.



The epithet "apsidal" may be applied to the exedra of classical architecture, a feature of the secular Roman basilica, which provided the initial prototype for Early Christian churches. The apse in the Roman basilica was often raised (as the sanctuary generally still is) as a hieratic feature, the "tribuna", that set apart the magistrates who deliberated within it. Where an apse is raised by steps, especially if it contains a throne, it can be architecturally referred to as a tribune, though this term is rarely used in discussing churches.

The triple apse of an Orthodox church.

The apse as a semicircular projection (which may be polygonal on the exterior, or reveal the radiating projections of chapels) may be roofed with a semi-dome (also called a half-dome) or with radiating vaulting. A simple apse may be merely embedded within the wall of the east end. Eastern orthodox churches may have a triple apse, which is usually a mark of Byzantine influence when it is seen in Western churches.

Smaller subsidiary apses may be found around the choir or at the ends of transepts. These proliferating apses are common in later Byzantine architecture and the Ottoman architecture that developed from it. The term "abse" tends to be reserved for those at the liturgical east end, with these further spaces called "exhedras" or "absidal openings". A tetraconch is a church on a central plan with four abses, one in each direction. An exedra or apse may be reduced in scale to form a niche within the thickness of walling; a niche does not reveal its presence by projecting on the exterior.

The interior of the apse, especially the semi-dome, is traditionally a focus of iconography, bearing the richest concentration of mosaics, or painting and sculpture, towards which all other decoration may tend.

Related features

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the south apse is known as diaconicon and the north apse as prothesis. Various ecclesiastical features of which the apse may form part are drawn together here:



The presbytery (or sanctuary), directly to the east beyond the choir is the High Altar, where there is one (compare communion table). This area is reserved for the clergy. The word derives from the Greek presbuteros meaning "elder".

Choir or quire

The choir lies between the altar sanctuary and the nave.


The word "chancel" derives from the French usage of chancel from a Late Latin word cancelli meaning "lattice" (Online Etymology Dictionary). The grating in question separated the chancel from the nave, thus "chancel" refers to the part of a church near the main altar used by the priests and open to the choir.


In the beginning of the 13th century in France, the apses were built as radiating chapels outside the choir aisle, henceforth known as the chevet (French, "headpiece"), when the resulting structure was too complicated to be merely an "apse". Famous northern French examples of chevets are in the Gothic cathedrals of Amiens, Beauvais and Reims. Such radiating chapels are found in England in Norwich and Canterbury cathedrals, but the fully-developed feature is essentially French, though the Francophile connoisseur Henry III introduced it into Westminster Abbey.


The word "ambulatory" refers to a curving aisle in the apse that passes behind the altar and choir, giving access to chapels in the chevet. An "ambulatory" ("walking space") may refer to the arcade passages that enclose a cloister in a monastery, or to other types of aisles round the edge of a church building, for example in circular churches.

See also


  • Joseph Nechvatal, "Immersive Excess in the Apse of Lascaux", Technonoetic Arts 3, no3. 2005

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

There is more than one meaning of Apse discussed in the 1911 Encyclopedia. We are planning to let all links go to the correct meaning directly, but for now you will have to search it out from the list below by yourself. If you want to change the link that led you here yourself, it would be appreciated.


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