Day 101 – Mrs. Flusche’s Super Basic Primer on Church Architecture (Part VI)

Thursday, June 25, 2020 –

Today we take a side trip down some really old (OLD!) Church architecture terms. We are going to cover: a portico, the atrium, a porch, the bema, and the cathedra.

You probably are scratching your head at most (all??) of these terms. Well, honestly today’s Church’s do not have any of this stuff except for maybe a porch. All of today’s architectural vocabulary is way “out of fashion” for these modern-fangly Churches. Actually, some of it was out of fashion for even Gothic Churches, but it is important to cover the more ancient Churches on the off chance you travel back in time or fall through a wormhole.

So for today I am going to depart from our standard graphic we have been building on and use a totally different image: the layout of OLD St. Peter’s Basilica.

Portico: this comes from the Latin word porta, which means gate. A portico is basically a gate with a roof at the entrance of a building. In the case of an ancient Church, the portico was the gate to the atrium or cloister.

Atrium: in ancient Churches, the atrium was a walled courtyard before the Church entrance. Most (all?) Churches today do not have an atrium, but you will still see them at monasteries or cloisters.

Porch: many Churches, mine included, have a front porch. Gone are the days of the fancy portico and atrium. Instead, we have replaced them with a porch, sometimes covered, sometimes not.

Bema: long, long ago Churches were really people’s houses where Christians gathered to hear Mass. As it became safer to have Mass in public rather than in a person’s home, the Church building was “born” and it was a bit box-shaped. From there, as the numbers of Priests and religious grew, the area for them to sit and do their Priestly “stuff” needed to grow.

Thus, the advent of the bema. It was a raised area for the altar and all the Priests. The box-shaped building suddenly grew out to the North and South sides, creating a sort of T-shape for the building, a “beam” across the T, if you will. Today we call this area the sanctuary, and in most Churches it is still raised.

Anyhow, you get the idea. Eventually the “T” would become transepts and the East wall would get pushed back and complete the basics of what we know as the cruciform layout.

See the big chair in the center? THAT’s the cathedra!

Cathedra: in Latin, this word means chair. So, it is the CHAIR of the Bishop. You will find a cathedra in a Diocesan Cathedral. You can tell it is the Bishop’s chair because it is big and has his coat of arms on it. Sometimes you find the cathedra behind the altar, sometimes it is to the side, as in the National Basilica. For our diocese, it is located right behind the altar.

Side note: do NOT ever sit in the Bishop’s chair unless you are the Bishop.

Tomorrow is a break day—an incredibly special break day—but I will be back on Saturday with more vastly underused architectural terms. We are going to go over some of the big-ticket items in a sanctuary, then it is onward and up, up, up! That’s right! We are getting close to building the walls and windows of this grand Cathedral!

Heart of Jesus, Tabernacle of the Most High, have mercy on us!

Plan of Old St Peter’s Basilica, Wikipedia.com
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