The Chapels                        
Chapels were places of worship and could be as large as a country church or as small as a niche in a wall.  In some places, chapels were small church-like rooms or buildings built into castles and gates, or on estate properties, and owned by the church, a secular family, or an institution.  Guilds might build chapels into their meeting halls or a city into its entry-gate, or gentry might build chapels into their castles or manor houses.  These chapels might be owned outright by the family, but were always sanctioned and supervised under the local bishopric and subordinate to the local churches and cathedrals. In monasteries, small niche chapels lined the church walls along the nave, the transepts, and even in the presbytery.

[Castle Ruins, the chapel, Goodrich, England]

Chapels were dedicated to particular saints and sometimes important persons, as with memorial chapels where the visitor was encouraged to pray for the benefactor’s soul.  Niche chapels in monastic churches might contain a relic of the saint (such as a thread from an apostle’s cloak or a martyr's finger bone), or might have painted depictions of the saint or the symbols associated with that saint, such as the pig and St. Anthony.  These paintings or relics, then, were displayed in canopied niche chapels in the church, perhaps illuminated by a candle, oil lamp,  or colored-glass lantern.

Larger chapels might include space for many pilgrims at once, and a large shrine, with more important relics, to the saint to whom the chapel was dedicated.  They might also include the admonition that penitents must remove their shoes before entering or maintain silence.  The pilgrim or visitor was encouraged pray at these chapels, and to make offerings and requests to the saints to whom the chapels were dedicated.


Saints, chapels, and shrines could all be associated with the workings of miracles.  The monks, in fact, would encourage this by enthusiastically copying and distributing the stories of saints and the miracles associated with the relics owned by the monastery. Relics, and the miracles associated with them, were an extraordinarily important component of the monastic church.  Relics attracted pilgrims (and their coins), and the patronage of the wealthy.  A monastery with valuable relics would be esteemed by association, and it was not uncommon for there to be squabbles over ownership of reliquaries, or even outright theft between institutions.

[Zara, sarcophagus of San Simeone, Dalmatia, Austro-Hungary]
Chapels were similar to chantries in appearance, and both might be built into a church niche, on the church grounds, or into the church itself.  But chapels and chantries had very different functions.  Chapels were associated with particular saints and were a place the general population could go (or, if it were a private chapel, a particular group or family) to offer prayers and make requests of that saint for health, safety, and happiness.  Chantries were associated with particular people or families, and built with the particular intent to provide a place for a priest to say memorial masses for that person or family.  Chantries included altar tables, and the basic idea was that with each Mass sung, the soul of the chantry builder would be brought closer to heaven.

Copyright (c) Richenda Fairhurst and, 2007  All rights reserved. No commercial permissions are granted.  Keep author, source and copyright permissions with this article.