Parts of a Medieval Cathedral

This page describes the different parts of a cathedral. All cathedrals are different but generally follow a common design plan. Below is a plan of a cathedral showing the layout of the main church and cloisters. The numbers highlight areas of interest in the layout and more information about each area is provided below.

The Chapter-house  is where the Dean and Chapter met to discuss the running of the cathedral. The Chapter-house is usually built on the east side of the cloister and consists of a large single room commonly octagonal (8 sides) in shape. Some chapter-houses are different and the example at Hereford has 10 sides while the one at Abbey Dore had twelve sides. The roof of the chapter-house is commonly supported by a single central column and the ceiling is often elaborately vaulted and decorated.

 

The cloisters are rectangular covered walkways around a central garden or garth. They were used by the occupants for exercise, study and movement under cover between the different parts of the cathedral. The construction of the ceilings of many cloisters can be very complex. The cloisters at Gloucester are a good example of complex architecture and have fine fan vaulting. Cloisters are usually sited on the south side of the nave where it is naturally sunnier and warmer, but some cathedrals have cloisters to the north due possibly to building constraints. The Chapter-house usually leads off the eastern side of the cloisters.

 

The West Front of a Cathedral is often highly decorated with carvings of saints and other historical figures. In medieval times the stonework of west front would have been painted with bright colours. In the centre of the west front is the large west doorway, the main entrance to the cathedral.

 

Entering through the west doorway you come into the nave of the cathedral . The nave occupies the area of the cathedral up to the crossing . The word nave comes from the latin word navis for ship because this is what the structure of the building looked like. To the north and south of the nave are the aisles and . The nave columns shown as black circles on the diagram above separate the aisles from the nave.

 

At the centre of the cathedral is the crossing . The crossing is directly below the central tower of the cathedral and at the corners of the crossing are usually four huge columns that support the weight of the tower. To the north and south of the crossing are the transepts and . The transepts give the cathedral its cross-like shape. The transepts add extra strength to the building needed to support the weight of the tower and provide space for additional altars. Transepts vary in the distance that they extend from the crossing and at some cathedrals extra transepts are built further to the east of the church (shown above ).

 

Key

1Chapter-house
2Cloisters and Garth
3West Front
4Nave
5North Aisle
6South Aisle
7North Transept
8The Crossing
9South Transept
10Choir
11Eastern Transepts
12Presbytery
13Retro-choir
14Lady Chapel
15North Porch