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Romanesque nave of the abbey church of Saint-Georges-de-Boscherville, Normandy, France has a triforium passage above the aisle vaulting
Schematical illustration of a plan view of a cathedral. Colored area: Nave

In Romanesque and Gothic Christian abbey, cathedral basilica and church architecture, the nave is the central approach to the high altar. "Nave" (Medieval Latin navis, "ship,") was probably suggested by the keel shape of its vaulting. The nave of a church, whether Romanesque, Gothic or Classical, extends from the entry — which may have a separate vestibule, the narthex — to the chancel and is flanked by lower aisles separated from the nave by an arcade. If the aisles are high and of a width comparable to the central nave, the structure is sometimes said to have three naves.

Though to a modern visitor the nave seems to be the principal part of a Gothic church, churches were sometimes built as funds became available, working outward from the liturgically essential sanctuary, and many were consecrated before their nave was completed. Many naves were not completed to the initial plan, as tastes changed, and some naves were never completed at all. In Gothic architecture, the precise number of arcaded bays in the nave was not a material concern.

The height of the nave provides space for clerestory windows above the aisle roofs, which give light to the interior, leaving the apse in shadow, as at the abbey of Saint-Georges-de-Boscherville. The architectural antecedents of this construction lay in the secular Roman basilica, a kind of covered stoa sited adjacent to a forum, where magistrates met and public business was transacted.

Late Gothic Fan vaulting (1608, restored 1860s) over the nave at Bath Abbey, Bath, England Suppression of the triforium offers a great expanse of clerestory windows.

In Romanesque constructions, where a gallery was required to allow passage above the aisles, an addition to the elevation of the nave was inserted, called a triforium. In later styles the triforium was eliminated, the aisles lowered and great expanses of stained glass took the place of the clerestory windows, as at Bath Abbey (illustration, left).

The Early Renaissance nave of Brunelleschi's San Lorenzo, Florence, built in the 1420s

The crossing is the part of the nave that also belongs to the transepts that intersect its space. The crossing may be surmounted by a tower or spire, or by a dome in Eastern churches, a feature that was reintroduced to the West at the Renaissance, first in Filippo Brunelleschi's San Lorenzo (illustration right). Brunelleschi restored the original Roman form of the basilica and consciously revived Roman details, such as the flat coffered ceiling. Clerestory windows still light San Lorenzo's nave, setting apart in dimness the crossing, with its small dome. In other contexts, lanterns and openings above the transept might bathe the crossing in more light instead. The crossing may be further distinguished from the nave by the rhythm of its architecture: wider-spaced piers supporting the higher vaulting of the transepts.

The nave was the area reserved for the non-clergy (the "laity"), while the chancel and choir were reserved for the clergy, and a rood screen (cancellus) separated the sanctuary from the nave. Rood screens were swept away by Protestant reformers in the 16th century. Fixed pews in the nave are a comparatively modern, Protestant innovation. Screens were used to separate the more sacred areas of the cathedral and keep out the unwashed and unholy.

Record-holding church naves

See also

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

NAVE, ecclesiastically considered, that part of a church appropriated to the laity as distinguished from the chancel, the choir or the presbytery, reserved for the clergy. In a 14thcentury letter (quoted in Gasquet's Parish Life in Medieval England, 1906, p. 45) from a bishop of Coventry and Lichfield to one of his clergy, the reason for this appropriation is given. "Not only the decrees of the holy fathers but the approved existing customs of the Church order that the place in which the clerks sing and serve God according to their offices be divided by screens from that in which the laity devoutly pray. In this way the nave of the church ... is alone to be open to lay people, in order that, in the time of divine service, clerics be not mixed up with lay people, and more especially with women, nor have communication with them, for in this way devotion may be easily diminished." The word "nave" has been generally derived from Lat. navis, ship. Du Cange (Glossarium, s.v. " Navis") quotes from the Chronicon Moriniacense, of the 12th century, as to the popular origin of the name, Exterius etiam tabernaculum, quod ecclesiae navis a populo vocatur .... Salmasius in his commentary on Solinus (1629) finds the origin in the resemblance of the vaulted roof to the keel of a ship, and refers to Sallust (Jugurtha, 18.8) where is noticed a similar resemblance in the huts (mapalia) of the Numidians. The use of the word navis may, however, be due to the early adoption of the "ship" as a symbol of the church (see Skeat's note on Piers Plowman, xl. 32). The Greek van, Attic v€ds (valav, to dwell), the inner shrine of a Greek temple, the cella, has also been suggested as the real origin of the word. This derivative must presume a latinized corruption into navis, for the early application of the word for ship to this part of a church building is undoubted.' Architecturally considered the nave is the central and principal part of a church, extending from the main front to the transepts, or to the choir or chancel in the absence of transepts. When the nave is flanked by aisles, light is admitted to the church through clerestory windows, some of the most ancient examples being the basilica at Bethlehem and the church of St Elias, at Thessalonica, both of the 5th century; numerous churches in Rome; and in the 6th century the two great basilicas at Ravenna; in all these cases the sills of the clerestory windows were raised sufficiently to allow of a sloping roof over the side aisles. When, however, a gallery was carried above the side aisles, another division was required, which is known as the triforium, and this subdivision was retained in the nave even when it formed a passage only in the thickness of the wall. In Late Gothic work in England, the triforium was suppressed altogether to give more space for the clerestory windows, and roofs of low pitch were provided over the side aisles.

The longest nave in England is that of St Albans (300 ft.), in which there are thirteen nave arches or bays on each side; in Winchester (264 ft.) there are twelve bays; in Norwich (250ft.) fourteen; Peterborough (226 ft.) eleven; and Ely (203 ft.) twelve bays. Most of these dimensions are in excess of those of the French cathedrals; Bourges is 300 ft. long, but as there are no transepts this dimension includes nave and choir. Cluny was 230 ft. with eleven bays; Reims is 235 ft. with ten bays; Paris 170 ft. with ten bays; Amiens 160 with ten bays; and St Ouen, Rouen, 200 ft. with ten bays. In Germany the nave of Cologne cathedral is only 190 ft., including the two bays between the towers. The cathedral at Seville in Spain is Zoo ft. long, with only five bays. In Italy the cathedral at Milan is 270 ft. long with nine bays; at Florence, 250 ft. long with only four bays; and St Peter's in Rome 300 ft. long with four bays. On the other hand, the vaults in the nave of the continental cathedrals are far higher than those in England, that of Westminster Abbey being only 103 ft. high, whilst the choir of Beauvais is 150 ft. The result is that the naves of the English cathedrals not only are longer in actual dimensions, but appear much longer in consequence of their inferior height.

1 Vessels resembling boats or ships are familiar in medieval art and later. Thus "Incense-boats" (navettes) somewhat of this shape are found in 12th-century sculptures. By the 16th century they approximated still more closely to a model of a ship. A large vessel, also in the shape of a boat or ship, and known as a nef, was used at the table of princes and great personages to contain the knives, spoons, &c. Some very elaborate examples of these survive, such as the 15th-century nef of St Ursula in the treasure of the cathedral at Reims, and that of Charles V. of France in the Musbe Cluny. A 16th-century nef, adapted for use as a cup, is in the Franks Collection at the British Museum. (See DRINKING VESSELS.)

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Simple English

[[File:|thumb|right|230px|A plan view of a cathedral: the coloured area is the nave]] [[File:|thumb|right|230px|Nave with substantial aisles: a 'three-nave' church, St Helen Witton in Northwich, Cheshire.]] The nave is where the congregation sits in a church. It usually has long benches, called 'pews', or separate chairs.

Naves are found in humble Saxon churches, and in grand Romanesque and Gothic Christian Abbeys, Cathedrals, and Basilicas.

The nave is the central approach to the high altar, the main body of the church. 'Nave' (Medieval Latin navis, "ship") was probably suggested by the keel shape of its vaulting.[1] The nave of a church goes from the entry to the chancel. It is flanked by aisles separated from the nave by an arcade.[2] If the aisles are high and of a width comparable to the central nave, the structure is sometimes said to have three naves.


  1. Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. "nave".
  2. Nave definition from Accessed 2010-01.20.

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