Stories in the stones of a Roman church

Vocabulary lessons from a visit to an ancient church in Rome.

Remo Casilli/Reuters
Pope Francis leads the Te Deum prayer at the Church of Jesus in downtown Rome.

A number of years ago I reviewed a remarkable book for the Monitor: “The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church,” by Margaret Visser. It is a detailed study of how a physical building embodies faith – of the meaning of the architecture in all its detail. The church on which the author focuses is St. Agnes Outside the Walls, in Rome. It was built in the 7th century to honor a young girl martyred in 305 at age 12. 

After finishing the book, I made a note-to-self to visit the church someday. As it happened, “someday” came one afternoon a few weeks ago, on the last leg of a visit to Italy.

Rereading the book in preparation, I was struck by how full it is not only of references to architecture and history but of etymology – explanations of the metaphors behind the specialized terms used in ecclesiastical architecture. Here at last is some guidance for those who don’t know a nave from a narthex.

Let’s start with church itself. Ms. Visser explains that the word’s roots are in Greek – from kyriakon, “the house of the Lord.” Church, with its cognates in other Germanic languages, referred first to a building but then was extended to refer to the people within as well.

The Romance languages worked in reverse on this point. They started with another Greek word, ecclesia, which first meant a group of people, and then extended it to the building where they worshiped. It became the French église and the Spanish iglesia, for example. Ecclesia also shows up in the English ecclesiastical and in any number of places or streets named “Eccles.”

The nave of a church is that main space down the middle. The word comes from the Latin navis, or ship. Some churches have wooden ceilings that evoke the inverted hull of a ship. Christianity began among seafaring peoples, and “the journey” is part of the Christian experience.

An aisle – one of the long, narrow spaces on either side of the nave – is a “wing,” ultimately from the Latin ala. (The sense of aisle as a way through sections of seating arose from confusion with alley, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.)

The apse is the typically curved space behind the altar that joins up two aisles into a U-shaped processional space. Apse is from the Greek haptein, “to grab”; the idea is that the apse “grabs” the two aisles.

The mysterious narthex originally meant “fennel stalk” in Greek. No kidding. Visser describes it as a sort of proto-Tupperware: “In the ancient Mediterranean world, a section of a very large fennel stalk was commonly used as a container.... A perfume box ... could be made out of a section of a hollow fennel stalk.” Early Greek Christians adopted the word to refer to the transitional space between street and church – the vestibule, to use a more generic term.

The narthex of a church is typically rather dim, Visser notes. But then the door to the church proper swings open, and the real journey begins.

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