The North-South Transepts                       
The first buildings used for Christian worship reflected the time and place in which they were constructed.  These ‘churches’ were basically meeting rooms, or family homes, especially in Rome, where Roman widows were among Christianity’s first and most powerful converts.  These widows hosted meetings in their homes, served as teachers themselves, and hosted itinerant Christian teachers in their homes (there were not yet Christian clergy in the way we understand it today).  Early Christians gathered together wherever they could, openly when times were good, and as the number of Christians grew the church began to consolidate its own political, social, and spiritual identity and sought to express and propagate that identity. 

The square or round or dirt-floor meeting place, the manor home, the synagogue, the places that had accommodated early worshippers, became churches built in shapes and with characteristics recognizable by all members of the wider Christian community, both to the East (the Byzantines) and the West (the Romanesque Church).   

[Peel, St. Germains Cathedral, Isle of Man, England, southern side with cloister & cloister wall]

By the middle ages, the western church was built in the shape of the Christian Cross and consisted of two rectangles, one built west (the nave) to east (the presbytery), and the other built north and south (the transepts).  The two rectangles crossed each other at the Quire (choir) and were probably first built to accommodate growing numbers of Christian religious, monks and nuns, who participated in the divine services.  Transepts, then, symbolized Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection, but on a practical level, they also provided more room as the churches and monasteries not only grew in members, but also in wealth and political influence. 

Churches used this extra room not only to accommodate a large monastic choir, but also used the space for benefactors' tombs, saints' shrines, chapels, and later, chantries.  Transepts allowed access to sacred places, such as in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  They also housed cupboards (aumbrys) and storage chests for books, ceremonial plate, and vestments. 

[Grotto of the Nativity, Bethlehem, Holy Land, (i.e., West Bank)]
Wealthier, influential churches, in fact, had need of more room still, and some churches had a second set of transepts which were used as chantries or to house relics or even for additional northern or southern altars.  Other additions extended the walls of the nave, expanded the Narthex, and added towers (formerly used only for defensive purposes) and spires (originally simply bell-cotes).  Post-reformation churches and cathedrals could be very elaborate, yet they still owed their core shape to the medieval,  north-south transept church.

[The cathedral, side, Cologne, the Rhine, Germany]


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