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Church History Forum: church architecture

by Catherine Frakas 01 Dec 2001

church architecture QUESTION from Dean Rose October 17, 2001 What is the etymology of the word narthex and how did it become associated with early Christian architecture?
ANSWER by Q & A Staff on September 17, 2001 Dear Dean,
The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary gives the etymology as Late Greek narthex, from Greek, giant fennel, cane, casket and a date circa 1673. (note: a fennel is a type of herb)
I have also found the Greek word translated box.
For the information of other readers, the narthex is the name give to a small entrance or porch at the west entrance to a church. Formerly, it was the name given to the entrance to ancient temples. It was originally separated from the nave by a railing or screen of columns. The narthex was a vestibule for the penitents and catechumens who in the early Church were not admitted to the main body of the church during Mass. By the 13th century, the narthex as a separate architectural feature was fast disappearing.
As regards the narthex as a feature of church architecture, it was an early development of the basic oblong/circular shape of church buildings.
I quote from Catholic Encyclopedia: Ecclesiastical Architecture

Roughly speaking, all ecclesiastical architecture may be said to have been evolved from two distinct germ-cells, the oblong and the circular chamber. The earliest improvement on the crude form of the oblong chamber with its rectangular annex… was to throw out a semicircular apse at the end of the chamber opposite the door…Outside the boundary of this space, however it may have been marked, the general body of the faithful would have their place, and at the lower end of this chamber, or in some kind of ante room or narthex, or possibly even in an outer court, would he placed the catechumens and -- when ecclesiastical discipline was sufficiently developed -- the penitents.
In the entry for Narthex we read:

With the growth of unrestricted entry into the churches, the narthex served no further ritual purpose after the 13th cent. The deeply recessed portals of Gothic cathedrals are derivatives of the narthex. See also Catholic Encyclopedia: Narthex
As to why the word narthex is used for this area of the church building, it may simply be as a result of being a box-shaped structure.
Another possibility is, it may be because of the resin-producing herb known in ancient Greece as Narthex. When the stem of this herb is lit, it has the ability to burn for several hours, on account of the resin it contains.
I found this interesting because I have discovered during my research that in many Orthodox churches in particular, the narthex is where the worshippers come to light a candle before an icon, before attending Mass in the main part of the church.
Whether this is the origin of the use of the word narthex for this part of church architecture, I can't say. But I think the box definition is more likely.
Thanks Dean
God bless,
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