Narthex: Definition & Overview

Narthex: Definition & Overview
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  • 0:00 What Is a Narthex?
  • 0:35 History of the Narthex
  • 1:12 Variations on the Narthex
  • 2:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Study the history and design of the architectural feature of early churches called the Narthex. Then, test your understanding about early church design and religious culture.

What Is a Narthex?

The narthex is an enclosed porch or meeting area just inside the Western entrance of a Christian church. It was a designated in the early Christian era, probably between the third and fourth century, for those who were not allowed to enter the main worship area, the nave, but who still wanted to hear the sermon. Technically, the narthex as defined by function disappeared in the late medieval era, although modern churches still use the term, slightly inaccurately, to describe the meeting area outside the nave.

History of the Narthex

In the early Catholic and Byzantine Churches, the Christian churches based in either Rome or Constantinople, only the baptized members of the congregation were allowed into the worship area, a sacred space called the nave. Therefore, the narthex was built for catechumens and penitents. Catechumens were the recent converts awaiting confirmation. Penitents were those who had sinned and were fulfilling a penance, an outward expression of repentance, until the Church deemed they were forgiven. Catechumens and penitents were not allowed inside the nave until they were officially recognized by the Church as members.

Variations on the Narthex

The typical narthex was covered and located inside the church building. Here is an example of a covered narthex.

Sant

This is Sant'Agnese fuori la mura, a 7th-century Catholic church in Rome that covers one of the entrances to the city's catacombs and holds the remains of Saint Agnes. In this photograph, the covered narthex is clearly visible as a part of the front section of the building.

Now let's look inside the narthex of the Hagia Sophia, originally built in the 6th century in Constantinople, which is modern-day Istanbul.

Interior view of the narthex in the Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia represents the Eastern tradition of early-Christian art, called Byzantine, and is considered the perfect reflection of byzantine styles. The narthex is very typical as a wide area outside the nave but still inside the church.

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