What is a Narthex? Why is it so important in church design? The Narthex is the entry space for worship. It is a space where all the worshippers gather together before and after service.
The Catholic Bishops define the term in their publication, Built of Living Stones: “The narthex is a place of welcome—a threshold space between the congregation's space and the outside environment. In the early days of the Church, it was a 'waiting area' for catechumens and penitents. Today it serves as gathering space as well as the entrance and exit to the building. The gathering space helps believers to make the transition from everyday life to the celebration of the liturgy, and after the liturgy, it helps them return to daily life to live out the mystery that has been celebrated."
Other denominations use other terms. The Baptist General Convention of Texas refers to the space as a Foyer, with a minimum of 2 square feet of space for each seat in the worship center, and approximately ¼ of the square footage of the worship center. Other denominations call the entry area a Gathering Space or a Vestibule - the term Narthex is used here to describe that special space particular to churches and worship communities in every denomination.
For more than fifty years, Heimsath Architects has designed religious buildings for many different denominations. No matter the religious affiliation, it is clear that the Narthex is a key element in church design. In 1965 the firm was commissioned to update military religious buildings for the US Corps of Engineers. The New Unit Chapel plan illustrates how the Narthex accesses many places simultaneously, in this case the Chaplain’s offices and an Activity Room. Preparation for worship, however is still the main focus. Even the garden becomes a welcoming image, a memorable feature in the transition between the outside world and the worship environment.
Prototype Chapel for the US Corps of Engineers -- This study shows early examples of the increased size and prominance of the Narthex.
Quite aside from being the place to greet the minister and pick up a bulletin, the Narthex groups the congregation and is the ideal place to show the service aspects of a church. With the congregation moving through the space both entering and leaving, there is an ideal place to reach out through posters or personal contact for forthcoming events – a blood drive, a school fundraisers, or whatever is active. It is a place for the public statement of a church.
A word of caution in placing the Narthex. Too often the placement of the Narthex, the entry to the Sanctuary, is not coordinated with the placement of parking. Often the Narthex is in the front of the church facing the street, the parking is in the back of the church where there is ample room. Few people want to park in back a walk the distance of the church to enter the Narthex in the front of the church. Rather they will enter whatever corridor is available, sometimes the classroom corridor.
The placement of parking behind the church was unavoidable at St John’s Lutheran Church in Boerne Texas. Heimsath Architects solved the problem by designing the Narthex as a link space – connecting entrance from the street or rear parking. Note that a garden element bathes the Narthex with light!
The plan for St. John Lutheran Church in Boerne, Texas shows the central location of the Narthex as it links the parking and street entrances.
The plan of St. Albert of Trapani in Houston is also designed to connect the back parking area and the street frontage. To heighten the transition to worship, the design includes an additional transition space for the worshipper before entering into the Sanctuary, the arch form recalls the 13th century world of the patron saint.
A ceremonial archway marks the transition into the worship space at St. Albert of Trapani in Houston, Texas.
UPDATE: Ben Heimsath's blogpost "Why is a Nathex Such a Big Deal?" gives a historical persepctive on why we need a narthex for modern ministry.