Layout of a Typical Catholic Church

Religious statues are common decor inside Catholic churches.
... Hemera Technologies/ Images

The crucifix is a prominent religious symbol in Christianity and is seen in religious art, architecture, jewelry and clothing. The symbol represents the suffering of Jesus Christ and his subsequent resurrection. The layout of the typical Catholic Church stems from the shape of the crucifix and is laid out in what is known as the cruciform plan. The plan is present in Catholic churches throughout the world and serves as a sense of continuity within the Catholic faith.

1 History of the Cruciform Plan

In 313, the Roman Emperor Constantine declared that Roman citizens were free to chose their religion and worship the deity of their choice in the Edict of Milan. The religious tolerance that emerged after this decree allowed Christianity to develop further than ever before. Christians needed a space to congregate for worship, educational purposes and to promote their sense of community. The Roman architectural idea of a basilica, meaning a construction with wide open spaces, appealed to the Christians and they began constructing churches with open spaces to accommodate their activities and community. Eventually, the cruciform plan was adopted.

2 Layout and Worship

The crucifix-shaped layout of the Catholic church enables worship and services to be conducted easily. The entryway to the church is the narthex; the church portals are located here. The nave, or center aisle is an elongated rectangle and pews are located to each side. During processions, ceremonies or masses, people walk up the nave to the altar. The crossing is where the transepts and nave intersect. A dome is often featured above the crossing. The altar is located in the front of the church and is the focal point; it is where the priest performs the Eucharist and typically consists of a stone table.

3 Symbolism

The cruciform plan symbolizes Jesus' suffering and sacrifice. Historically, the narthex has been separated from the rest of the church by pillars or doors in order to represent the worshipper's need to separate himself from the outside world. The nave serves as the vehicle that transports the worshippers into the church for religious services.

4 Religious Art

Stained glass windows, mosaics, tapestries and statues are present in Catholic churches. All feature religious scenes with Jesus, Mary and the saints; the imagery is meant to evoke worship and religious spirituality. The art in Catholic churches can be brightly colored, such as the stained glass windows, or more subdued, such as seen in statuary.

Natalie Chardonnet began writing in 2006, specializing in art, history, museums and travel. In 2010, she presented a paper on those subjects at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research. Chardonnet has a Bachelor of Arts in art history and a minor in Italian studies from Truman State University, in addition to a certificate in French from Ifalpes University in Chambery, France.