The Catholic Sanctuary and Ecclesiastical Architecture

In several threads on this forum I have seen some debate in regards to the traditional form and structure of churches. I have created this thread to provide some information on architectural traditions and practices in the Latin Church.

I would first like to present some diagrams and information on the evolution of the Sanctuary. I hope you all find it helpful, and feel free to correct anything that you feel needs correcting.

My sources mostly came from The Catholic Liturgical Library and the Catholic Encyclopedia.

The Sanctuary in the Patristic Age of the Church

The first diagram is of the sanctuary of an Eastern church, which retains similar form and function to the churches of the Patristic era. Like churches of the west, the most common orientation of the church is towards the East- symbolizing hope for the return of Our Lord, and the turning away from the Old Covenant and Mosaic Law towards the New Covenant and Law established by Christ. The structure of the church is highly symbolic- the sanctuary represents Heaven; the Nave is the earth and the faithful of the Church; the Narthex are the non-Catholics and catechumens waiting to enter into the Church (both literally and symbolically).

In the center of the Sanctuary is the Altar, the Eucharistic Table, which is always oriented East- even in circumstances where the church building does not match that orientation, the Altar, and hence the Liturgical celebration, will still do so. A notable feature of the Eastern/Early Altar is that it is freestanding (which allows the entire Altar to be incensed).

In the rear of the Sanctuary is the apse, known in the East as the High Place, the Seat of God the Father. In some Eastern traditions, and the early traditions of the West, the Apse houses the Sedes episcopalis, the Cathedra or Bishop’s Throne, and seats for his attendants- in Byzantine tradition, the Throne is found along a wall in the Nave. The tradition comes from the judicial halls and basilicas of pagan Rome, where the apse was reserved as a place of honor for the seat of the presiding magistrate. If the church is small and space limited, it is permissible to place the Altar in the apse, but this is not the general practice.

Separating the Sanctuary from the Nave is the Iconostasis, a wall of icons, up to four levels high. There are three entrances in the Iconostasis- the two side doors are entrances for the deacons and acolytes, while the celebrating priest or bishop enters through the center- the Royal or Holy Doors, symbolic of the Gate of Heaven. The Readings of the Liturgy are proclaimed outside the Iconostasis in the Nave, as the Word of God was given to the faithful on earth. The Iconostasis does not separate the congregation in the Nave from the Liturgical action in the Sanctuary- rather it serves as a mystical bridge that unites the Divine to the faithful, Heaven to earth. The Iconostasis is really a later development in the Eastern churches, alien to the West and indeed to the Early Church. The more ancient tradition had barriers separating the Sanctuary from the Nave similar to the medieval Choir Screen or Communion Rails of the West.

Image of an Eastern Sanctuary

The Sanctuary in the Early Middle Ages

By the 1100s the changes had been introduced into Western churches. The Sanctuary in Cathedral and monastic churches was lengthened to provide space for choirs composed of the clergy and religious, which were previously been positioned in the Nave.

The Altar in this Sanctuary remains freestanding. Erected above the Altar is the ciborium- a canopy, often in the form of a dome or cupola, resting on four pillars. Running between the pillars are rods, on which hang curtains made of precious fabrics. The curtains are drawn at various times during the Mass, enclosing the Altar and celebrant. In later centuries the Altar curtains will fall into disuse, though suspending curtains directly behind and to the sides of the Altar will remain a common practice for some time (the rear curtain is often called the Altar Screen). In some traditions, the pillars of the ciborium are surmounted by candles or lamps, which light the Sanctuary on Solemn Feasts.

Separating the Sanctuary and Choir from the Nave is the Transenna, or Choir Screen (the term Rood Screen comes from the large cross often found on top of the Transenna)- a high, transparent grille, usually made of wood. The Choir Screen was found in the great monasteries and Cathedrals of Europe until around the sixteenth century. It functions in much the same way as the Eastern Iconostasis, but with some notable differences. Some Screens are built with standing room on top, where on certain occaisions prayers and readings are be sung.

Image of a Medieval Sanctuary with choir and freestanding Altar

The Sanctuary in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance

While in the past the apse of the church, especially in Cathedrals, was usually reserved for the Throne of the Bishop, the Late Middle Ages saw the Altar being moved further back in the Sanctuary, taking the place of the Cathedra in the apse. The Altar curtains had developed into the elaborate reredos, enriched with iconography, statues and decorative ornament- in effect becoming a wall which the Altar was placed against (in some churches the Altar was actually placed against the back wall of the Sanctuary). In time ledges would be added for candles and reliquaries, leading to an increase in the length and decrease in the depth of many Altars.

The Altar Canopy remained a fixture in Latin churches. The Caeremoniale Episcoporum mandates that a canopy or baldachinum be suspended above the Altar. This can take the form of a structure resting on pillars, like the ciborium; alternatively it can be hung from the ceiling by a chain or fixed to the back wall or reredos above the Altar. While intended for all Altars in the church, common custom only had the baldachinum erected above the Altar of the Blessed Sacrament and the High Altar of the church (which in later centuries often became the same).

Since the Altar is now found in the Apse, the Cathedra moves to a new position of prominence near the Altar on the Gospel (North) Side of the Sanctuary. Like the Altar, it also becomes a common practice to place a canopy above the Throne.

The Sanctuary from the Fifteenth Century Onwards

The Sanctuary now takes on the form common to the churches of our own time. The High Altar now commonly occupies the apse or back wall of the Sanctuary. In Cathedrals the throne is now to be found along the Gospel side of the Sanctuary, close to the Altar. There are also several new developments to touch on.

After multiple Altars became common in churches, the Blessed Sacrament was reserved on a secondary Altar. But in more recent times it has come back to the High Altars (although in many Cathedrals a side Altar or chapel continued to house the Blessed Sacrament). The term Tabernacle was once applied to the Altar of the Blessed Sacrament, but it is used for the vessel or chamber placed atop the Altar that contains the pyx and chalice. An even more recent practice has all the Altars in a church with Tabernacles.

With the Reformation and Counter-reformation, came outside influences on the structure of the church. In many parish churches, and even some Cathedrals, the choir (now increasingly filled with the laity) was moved to a loft or balcony at the back of the Nave. Pews have been introduced so that the congregation can sit for parts of the Mass. The Choir Screen is largely non-existent, the Nave has expanded into the space that would have been occupied by the choir, and separating the Sanctuary from the Nave is the famous Communion Rail.

Image of a Traditonal Latin Church

I hope the above posts have helped shed some light on the evolution of the Catholic Sanctuary. I have tried to keep it as short as possible, and in doing so I must admit that I have generalized in some ways, and failed to mention various other Liturgical practices and traditions of the Latin Church that deserve to be mentioned.

In truth, prior to the Council of Trent there was a surprising amount of diversity in Liturgical tradition. Older practices were retained in some areas far longer then others. Cultural and regional custom played a major role in the Liturgy and in church architecture. For example, Southern Europe kept the early tradition of placing the choir in the center of the Nave well into the Middle Ages and Renaissance. In areas of Italy there is an even more ancient practice of placing the choir behind the Altar, while in Northern Europe choirs can be found in elevated positions behind grilles. While the Cathedra was not commonly found at the side of the Sanctuary until the Late Middle Ages, the arrangement was not unfamiliar in Italy in the 700s and 800s. There also existed great difference between the form of the small parish churches and that of the great Cathedrals.

Awsome post Caesar! Very informative.

Thank you :slight_smile:

This is an interesting rendering of the sanctuary of an early Medieval church.

In the foreground is the Choir Screen (which I will write about in more detail later) with secondary Altars flanking the gate. Behind the screen is the choir, with a Rood mounted on a beam spanning the width of the choir. Beyond the crossing (where the nave and transept meet) is the Altar area, raised on a series of steps, with benches for the sacred ministers and servers near the High Altar itself. In the very East end of the church there appears to be another Altar, which could by the Lady Chapel.

Here is another images, which I posted the link to in an earlier post, which shows the Throne and seats for the bishop’s attendants positioned behind the High Altar. Another feature of this image that is worth noting is that the choir is placed in a slightly sunken area, to provide a clearer view of the Altar from the nave. Also, in addition to the Choir Screen there is a Communion Rail that surrounds the Altar and steps.


Thank you for this research you have done.

As a side note, how are things going for you? You have one more year before you head off to College/University/Seminary. Know that I continue to pray for you and your vocation:). Feel free to PM me so this thread doesn’t get off topic.

Brenda V.

Thanks for info.

One of the most distinguishing features of medieval churches is the Choir Screen. Variations of the transenna were common from the early Church until the seventeenth century. Since the early days of the Church there has been a tradition of veiling the sacred mysteries by screening the Altar off from the congregation, which is derived from the liturgical practices of the Jewish Temple.

Contrary to common belief, the Latin Church has never made use of the Eastern tradition of the Iconostasis, although both the Iconostasis of the East and the Choir Screen of the West possessed a common origin. The original Screen was a barrier similar to the Communion Rail found Latin churches, separating the nave from the sanctuary with a gate to allow the passage of the celebrant and assisting deacons and acolytes. The image below is a reconstruction of the transenna of seventh century monastery at Melec in Austria.

In early churches the choir, composed mostly of laymen, would have been found on either side of the nave, but as choirs (especially in monastic and cathedral churches) became dominated by the clergy and religious they were moved into the sanctuary, partly in order to emphasize the important liturgical role they played. To accommodate them the sanctuary was enlarged and the Altar moved further back from the nave. The screen itself became enlarged and associated with the medieval Rood.

Above is an image of the medieval Rood Screen. The transenna has been merged with the later practice of placing a large cross (the Rood) atop a beam spanning the width of the chancel arch at the entrance to the sanctuary, with candles or lamps placed along the beam. This particular screen, like many in medieval Europe, is large enough to have walking space along the top, enough for a gallery or loft overlooking the nave. It was from the center of this loft, beneath the Rood, that sermons would be preached, Papal and Episcopal decrees read, and various readings and prayers intoned on certain occasions (it is thought that these lofts were the origin of the raised pulpit). The loft was also used for Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, and in cathedrals for Episcopal blessings.

The most common forms of the Choir Screen either have grilles or windows, which allowed the laity to see through into the sanctuary. However in monastic and cathedral churches where a large number of clergy and religious would use the sanctuary for Mass and the Divine Office, the screen was often solid to provide them with privacy and security. In smaller churches and chapels curtains were sometimes used in place of the screen (even in some larger churches which had a proper transenna, the Altar itself would often be curtained off from the rest of the sanctuary at times during the Mass). Choir Screens were usually wooden, though stone and marble screens are not rare; smaller, grille-like screens of the late-middle ages and renaissance (such as the one below) were made of metal or gold.

The Protestant Reformation condemned the use of the Choir Screen and, though many have survived, they are not often found in Catholic churches built after the seventeenth century (although some Anglicans make use of them).

Here is the screen in the Sistine Chapel:

And the famous Rood Screen of St. Etienne Du Mont in Paris:

Great thread. Thanks!

This first image of yours is how several cathedrals in Mexico are arranged, including the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City and the cathedral of Puebla. The high altar stands in the forward part of the nave, the choir stands toward the rear, and a gated walkway connects the two. In addition to numerous side chapels, there are altars behind the choir (the first altar one sees upon entering the church) and in the apse. Typically, according to Mexican custom, Masses will often be offered at each altar simultaneously. Masses celebrated by the Archbishop are, of course, celebrated at the high altar, since the cathedra is found within the choir. At the time for reception of Holy Communion, gates are opened in the central walkway and the people enter from either side to approach the altar.

The first little Episcopal church I attended had a rood screen.

Beautiful pictures, Caesar.

Interesting information. You dont see that arrangment very often in North America. You don’t happen to have floorplans of those cathedrals do you?

[quote=JKirkLVNV]The first little Episcopal church I attended had a rood screen.

Beautiful pictures, Caesar.

Ah, so this was High Church or Anglo-Catholic?

If you don’t mind me asking, was the screen used for any specific liturgical functions, or was it merely a piece of ornamentation and largely ignored? Was there a communion rail too? And how “open” was it (ie. was it a solid wall, or did it have windows or a grille?)?

Wow! What a lot of fascinating information! And beautiful pictures/drawings, too. Thank you!!!:thumbsup: :thumbsup:

No, it wasn’t merely ornamentation. It was one with the commuion rail. It in no way impeded a view of the altar, though.

Would you mind explaining that a little more? I am just curious about the use of the screen by the Anglicans.

Also, why do you not go to a Anglican Use parish? You have mentioned before that you would prefer the Tridentine Mass in vernacular, and the Anglican Use of the Roman Rite comes from an Anglican liturgy that is basically the Tridentine Mass in Renaissance English, although simplified a little.

There’s not one in Las Vegas or anywhere near here! I WOULD attend one if I could. Here’s a list (not certain how comprehensive it is, since more Anglicans are converting, as well as their priests) of the ones in the US. I doubt if any Anglican/Episcopal churches in Vegas will now be converting, as the former “bishop” of Nevada is Katherine Jefferts Schorri, who was elected in 2006 as “presiding bishop” and “primate” of the entire Episcopal church in the US!

Some of these parishes have beautiful pictures, particularly Our Lady of the Atonement.

The rood screen of the little church was basically a “post and beam affair.” It looked somewhat like Our Lady of the Atonement’s, but was much simpler. Go to their link, Caesar, and look at how a new church CAN be built. You’ll be amazed.

I havent had much experience with the Anglican Use, or the Anglo-Catholics for that matter- my former city had all Low Church Anglicans, and most of the conversions to Catholicism come from the High Church types. It is interesting and I am glad that the Church allowed them to keep their Liturgy (brilliant move on the part of Cardinal Ratzinger).

Some of these parishes have beautiful pictures, particularly Our Lady of the Atonement.

The rood screen of the little church was basically a “post and beam affair.” It looked somewhat like Our Lady of the Atonement’s, but was much simpler. Go to their link, Caesar, and look at how a new church CAN be built. You’ll be amazed.

Indeed. Those are very nice churches and there is no reason why more like those cannot be built.

I think that we can learn from some of the medieval traditions, including the Choir Screen, and these traditions could very easily be applied to new churches.

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