Art and Church Architecture Terms

Here you can find a list of Art and Church Architecture Terms that can be useful to know if you are planning to visit Italy.

Acanthus. The acanthus leaf was used as a decorative motif on the Corinthian capital and later on the Composite capital. The form is a stylized version of the plant’s long, slender leaves and pointed flowers.

Aedicule. Small structure intended to house a sacred image or statue. It may also be a niche set into the external wall of a building.

Altar frontal. Decoration of the front of an altar table, often either a relief sculpture or inlay. Usually made of marble but precious materials such as ivory or silver may also be used. Sometimes called antependium.

Altar panel. Large painting of a religious subject, situated above an altar in a church.

Alto-rilievo (High relief). Technique of sculpting in which the figures are considerably raised or detached from the background. In a bas-relief the figures are only slightly raised from the surface.

Amber. Derived from Arabic, amber is a fossilized resin, reddish-yellow in colour and more or less transparant. It has been used from ancient times to make trinkets and jewellery.

Antependium. Altar frontal.

Apse. A semi-circular or polygonal projection of a building, with a half dome or conch (bowl-shaped vault). In churches it is at the end of the central nave (sometimes also at the end of the side naves or transept) and houses the main altar and the choir.

Apsidiole. A small projecting apse forming part of the main apse. A typical element of Gothic and Cluniac architecture.

Arch. An architectural structure supported by columns or pilasters.

Architrave. The lowest of the three main elements of an entablature. Also a moulded frame around a door or window.

Art Nouveau. Highly decorative artistic style, popular at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Heavy use is made of ornamentally curving lines and shapes derived from flower and plant motifs.

Ashlar. Large square block of stone usually used as quoins on the outer corners of buildings decorated with rustication.

Atlas. Male version of a caryatide, a sculpted figure used instead of a column to support an entablature. Also called telamon.

Attic. Decorative architectural element situated above the cornice of a building and concealing the roof from view.

Baptismal font. Usually made of stone or marble and of various shapes, containing the holy water used during the ritual of baptism (baptistery).

Baptistery. Religious building of circular design where the baptismal font is housed. Usually built beside or in front of a church or cathedral.

Baroque. Style of art popular in Italy and throughout Europe in the 17th century. It consisted of rich and elaborate detail and complex design.

Base or basement. Lowest part of a building on which the entire structure rests. Also the lowest element of an order supporting the shaft of a column.

Basilica. In ancient Rome the basilica was a public building which served several purposes of an institutional nature, both civil and religious.

Bas-relief. Alto rilievo.

Baths. Roman baths consisted of a complex of buildings which were used as public baths and meeting place.

Battlements. A form of indented parapet around the top of castles and towers which may either be defensive or decorative.

Bay. Space limited by two adjacent weight-bearing structures (columns, pilasters etc.).

Bell tower (Campanile). Structure in the shape of a tower, often incorporated into the outer wall of a church, though it may also be free-standing. The church bells are housed in the upper section.

Bottega. Room or rooms inside a building, opening onto the street and used for either a commercial activity or as an artist’s or craftsman’s workshop.

Bracket. Corbel.

Bronze. Metal resulting from the fusion of copper and tin, occasionally with the addition of other metals. Used for figurines and statues.

Byzantine art. Figurative art which came into being around the 4th century A.D. in the eastern.

Roman Empire. It is the name given to Rome and also the corresponding phase of that civilization, characterized by an autocratic form of government.

Campanile. Bell tower.

Cantoria. Choir gallery, usually raised, for the choir of singers in a church.

Cardo. Latin term for the main road running in a north-south direction through a town or city and crossing the decumanus which ran from west to east.

Carroccio. The carroccio was a large wagon with four wheels drawn by oxen and symbolized the independence of the city.

Cartoon. A charcoal drawing made on card used in the making of large works of art, especially frescoes.

Cathedral. The main church of a bishopric. The bishop officiates at the religious ceremonies and practices his spiritual teachings here.

Càvea. Semicircular area of a Roman theatre or amphitheatre occupied by rows of seats for the public.

Cenacolo. Derived from the Latin coenaculum – a room where one ate. Subsequently the term used for the room where Christ and his disciples ate the Last Supper and consequently paintings representing this scene.

Chapel. The name derives from the oratory in Charlemagne’s palace at Aquisgrana in Germany, where the cape of Saint Martin of Tours was housed. In the nave of a church it represents a niche containing an altar dedicated to a saint.

Chapter house. Large room in a cathedral or monastery where the chapter (governing body) met to discuss and decide on matters concerning the religious community.

Chasuble. Outer vestment worn by officiating priest at mass.

Chisel (Cesello). The cesello is a small chisel with a rounded tip used for engraving images or decorations on metal and stone.

Choir. Section of a church situated behind the main altar, furnished with stalls and intended for members of the choir.

Choir stalls. Canopied and carved seats for the choir and officiating clergy in a church.

Cloister. Internal courtyard of a monastery or convent with a portico of slender columns supporting a roof and resting on a low wall.

Coffered (Caissoned) ceiling. Square or polygonal panels set into a ceiling and often decorated with ornamental motifs.

Commesso. Decorative pattern on a large, flat surface – usually a floor – consisting of the inlay of small unevenly shaped and variously coloured stones.

Composite order. An order of Roman architecture characterized by a capital – much used in triumphal arches – consisting of acanthus leaves and large volutes.

Corbel. Architectural element which projects from a wall and supports beams and cornices.

Corinthian order. Architectural order which originated in Corinth around the 5th century B.C. The Corinthian capital is decorated with acanthus leaves from which small volutes emerge.

Cornice. Horizontal decorative element found where the wall meets the ceiling. Also the uppermost main division of an entablature.

Cornucopia. Vase in the shape of a horn, filled with fruit and decorated with flowers. A classic symbol of abundance.

Crosier. Staff, resembling a shepherd’s crook, carried by bishops and abbots as a symbol of office.

Cross window. Divided into four sections by a mullion and a transom.

Crypt. Underground chamber or vault, usually beneath the presbytery of a church and used for burial or sometimes as an oratory.

Decumanus. Cardo.

Dentils. A series of small rectangular blocks, similar to a row of teeth, decorating Corinthian, Ionic and Composite cornices.

Dome (Cupola). Curved or spherical vault (may also be semi-circular with an oval section) mainly found in religious buildings.

Dressing. Stone surface of a building, worked to a finish, whether smooth or moulded. Also the decorative stonework around any of the openings.

Drum. Dome.

Enamel. A siliceous substance made from a mixture of feldspar, quartz, carbonate and sodium chloride. Used to decorate ceramics and metals.

Entablature. Arrangement of three horizontal members – architrave, frieze and cornice – supported by columns or pilasters.

Extrados. Outer curve of an arch with a structural or purely decorative function (arch).

Ex-voto. Object, often a small painting, offered to a saint to express gratitude.

Flamboyant Gothic. Style of Gothic architecture which came into being at the end of the 14th and beginning of the 15th centuries.

Fòndaco. Store/Warehouse. In the early Middle Ages the term signified a building used not only as a hotel but also as a trading centre for merchants during their period of residence in foreign countries.

Fresco. A technique of painting which consists of applying diluted paint to fresh, damp lime plaster.

Frieze. The middle of the three main elements of an entablature. A horizontal band with cornice above and architrave below.

Gallery. A long room or corridor, usually on the upper floor and extending the full length of a building. In church architecture, an open upper storey over an aisle.

Gipsoteca. A collection of plaster moulds used to produce series of statues, bas-reliefs, medallions etc.

Gothic. Style which influenced first architecture and later painting, sculpture and the minor arts.

Graffiti. A decorative design made by scratching the plaster of a wall, or the surface of a stone, metal, ceramics or layer of painting, to reveal the contrasting colour of the background.

Grezzo. The base, raw material to be used in producing an item; also painting, sculpture etc. in unfinished, ‘roughed out’ stage.

Grotesque. Derived from the term grotto which was used in the 16th century to describe the ruins of the Domus Aurea (Nero’s palace in Rome). It describes painted or stucco decoration in a style frequent in ancient Rome which represented imaginary and fantastic motifs (plants interwoven with mythical or semi-human and animal figures).

Herm. A tapering pilaster which, in ancient Greece, was sculpted with the head of a god (usually Hermes).

High-relief. Alto rilievo.

Icon. Religious image painted on a panel, typical of Byzantine religious and artistic culture (Byzantine).

Inlaid work. Technique of inlaying pieces of stone or wood (marquetry) of different colours to create a design or picture.

Intrados. The inner curve or underside of an arch. Also known as a soffit.

Kneeling windows. Typical feature of Renaissance buildings, the window is framed by columns, entablature and tympanum, all resting on two corbels or brackets.

Lantern. Crowning element of a dome, usually circular or polygonal, admitting light to the interior of the building.

Lesene. Pilaster-strip.

Lintel. Outer edge of an arch which may be purely decorative or structural in function.

Loggia. Part of a building, or sometimes an entire structure, open on one or more sides, with a roof supported by pilasters or columns.

Lunette. Semi-circular space decorated with frescoes or mosaics usually situated above doors or windows where the vault joins the walls.

Macchiaioli. Group of Italian impressionist painters who used a technique of ‘spots’ (macchie) of colour.

Mannerism. A highly formalized and elegant form of art which came into being in 16th-century Italy. With Mannerism, methodical use of the principles of variety and complexity developed into an extrovert display of artistic virtuosity.

Marquetry. Technique consisting of the inlay of ornamental woods, metals, ivory and other decorative materials, arranged to form designs and patterns.

Matronèo. Internal loggia or gallery, usually above the side naves of early Christian or Romanesque churches, reserved for women.

Medallion. Small bas-relief, often made of metal.

Monochrome. Used to describe a figurative image executed in a single colour, or shades of a single colour.

Monolithic column. A column made from a single block of stone, rather than in several sections.

Mosaic. Decorative design covering a large, flat surface – often a floor – made of inlay arranged in a regular pattern according to the form and colour of various stones used.

Moulding. Decorative feature added to an architectural element which may be simple or enriched in design.

Mullion. Window divided into two vertical parts by a small column or pilaster. Frequently found in Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance buildings.

Nave. The main body or central aisle of a church which may be enclosed by walls (church with a single nave), by columns or by pilasters (church with three or five naves where the central one is usually higher and wider).

Niche. Aedicule.

Oculus. Oval or circular opening or window in a wall or dome.

Opus tassellatum. Type of floor made entirely from small square-shaped pieces of marble and stone, usually of different colours.

Oratory. Chapel or other building belonging to a church or monastery, used either for private worship or associations of brethern.

Order. Architectural style defined by the type of column and entablature. The column is divided into three main elements: the base, shaft and capital.

Ovulo. A convex moulding in the shape of a quarter circle which forms a horizontal band: usually a decorative member in a Corinthian or Doric cornice.

Panel. Decorative element of various shapes and material (marble, stone, bronze, wood) which has been sculpted, carved or painted with figures or scenes and used on doors, walls or cornices.

Perspective. Technique of representing three-dimensional space on a flat or relief surface giving a sense of depth.

Pilaster-strip. Flat column, slightly projecting from a wall. Has a purely decorative function.

Pillar. Vertical structural member which bears a load – arches, architraves or vaults.

Pinnacle. Element which crowns a façade, dome etc.

Plan. Horizontal layout of a building. Churches often have the form of a cross with two sections at right angles to each other.

Polychrome. Item made with, or decorated in several colours.

Polyptych. Painting or panel in more than three sections which are hinged together. Three paintings or panels are known as a tryptych. These paintings often formed altar panels.

Presbytery. Area of a church around the main altar. Reserved for the clergy, it is separated from the central nave by a balustrade.

Projection. Architectural element projecting from the wall of a building (frieze, balcony, bracket, butress etc.).

Pulpit. Elevated platform or reading desk in a church (occasionally also located externally) from which a sermon is preached.

Reliquary. Urn or container for the relics of a saint or martyr.

Ribbed vault. A form of cross vaulting in which the weight of the segments is evenly distributed over raised stone ribs.

Rock crystal. A kind of quartz of transparant and neutral appearance, used before glass was developed to make household articles and ornaments.

Romanesque. A style of the figurative arts – especially sculpture – and of architecture which flourished throughout western Europe from the end of the 10th century until the middle of the 12th century (in Italy until the early decades of the 13th century).

Rosette. A circular design or ornament which resembles a formalized rose; may be painted, sculpted or moulded.

Rotunda. A round building often covered with a dome. A large round room or hall, generally in the centre of a building.

Rustication. A method of treating masonry. Large, rectangular blocks of stone project from the wall with deeply emphasized joints. Lightly hewn blocks are known as ‘boasted’ or ‘droved’ ashlars.

Sacristy. Room attached to a church for the storage of sacred vessels and vestments. Usually also a robing room for the clergy.

Sarcophagus. Coffin in stone, marble or other material. Roman sarcophagi were decorated with bas-relief sculptures on the sides.

Seraph. Angel belonging to the highest order in the celestial heirarchy, the seraphim. Often depicted surrounding the figure of God in adoration.

Serliana. A triple opening. The central part is arched, while the two lateral sections have a straight upper frame.

Spandrel. Triangular surface between the vault of a dome and the supporting elements. Also the triangular surface, with curved sides, between two adjacent arches and the horizontal moulding above.

Stained glass. Coloured or stained glass used especially in church windows to form figures or decorations. The colour is derived from metalllic oxide added during manufacture.

Street bench. Stone seat built into the base of the external wall of some palaces and residences.

Tabernacle. Niche or aedicule in the shape of a small temple containing a sacred image. Also used for the ciborium, receptacle in the centre of the altar for the Sacrament.

Tapestry. Large tapestries usually portraying historical events, legends and figures.

Telamon. Atlas.

Terracotta, glazed. Pottery or china decorated with a vitreous finish obtained by combining silica (found in clay) and lead oxide. The pottery thus becomes impermeable and lustrous.

Tower-house. A tall, fortified house which was quite common from the 11th to the 13th century. It provided protection and defense for the head of important families and his supporters against enemies.

Transept. Transverse nave in a cruciform church, crossing the main nave at the level of the presbytery.

Trefoil. Three-lobed opening or arch.

Tribune. Area consisting of the presbytery and apse of a church.

Truss. A triangular load-bearing structure used to support the roofs of churches and other buildings. The beams are usually made of wood, though they may also be steel or concrete.

Tympanum. Vertical triangular space, plain or with relief decoration, between the slopes of a roof and the horizontal cornice of a temple or other building with a pediment.

Urn. The ashes of the deceased are kept in a funerary urn after cremation. Also a container for relics of a saint.

Vault. Arched roof of a building or part of a building.

Via Crucis. The fourteen Stations of the Cross representing the most important events in the passion and death of Christ.

Wunderkammer. During the Renaissance wealthy and learned men collected works of art, natural phenomena and scientific and tecnical objects in a study or series of rooms. The collection was not governed by any strict criteria and was intended to reflect the owner’s encyclopedic knowledge.

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