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Side aisle of the Abbaye aux Dames (Caen, 1050 AD)

Side aisle of the Abbaye aux Dames (Caen, 1050 AD)

What is an aisle?

An aisle (you pronounce it EYE-yull) is the part of a Roman basilica or a medieval Christian church that goes down the side of the nave, between the columns and the wall.

What’s a basilica?
Parts of a church
All our medieval Europe articles

Why did churches have aisles?

Usually people stood mainly in the nave, and they used the aisles for walking around, so they wouldn’t disturb the people who were participating in the Mass. Sometimes there were people selling snacks or souvenirs in the aisles, too. On a holiday if the church was very crowded, people would stand in the aisles, too.

What’s the nave?
The Christian Mass

Floor plan of Chartres Cathedral

Floor plan of Chartres Cathedral

Seeing an aisle on a floor plan

Here is a floor plan of Chartres Cathedral, looking down at the church as if you were floating over it. You can see the two rows of columns, and the side aisles, and the apse at the other end.

More about Chartres Cathedral

And then there’s double aisles…

Some big churches had double aisles – two aisles next to each other, with a row of columns separating them. Check out a church with double aisles. Sometimes people say that a church with double aisles has “five naves” – a big nave in the middle, and two small naves (or aisles) on each side.

More about double aisles

Learn by doing: visit a church and check out the aisles there

Aisles in Roman basilicas

Aisles in medieval cathedrals

Bibliography and further reading about the history of architecture:

Arches to Zigzags: An Architecture ABC, by Michael J. Crosbie (2000). Shows what an arch is, or a gable, or an eave. For younger kids.

Eyewitness: Building, by Philip Wilkinson, Dave King, and Geoff Dann (2000). Lavishly illustrated, like other Eyewitness books for kids, and with good explanations of most architectural terms.

City: A Story of Roman Planning and Construction, by David Macaulay (1983).

What’s an Apse?
What’s a Nave?
What’s a transept?
What’s a basilica?
What’s a cathedral?
Romanesque architecture
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