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In Romanesque and Gothic Christian abbey, cathedral basilica and church architecture, the nave is the main body of the church. It provides the central approach to the high altar. The term nave, from medieval Latin navis (ship), was probably suggested by the keel shape of its vaulting. The nave of a church, whether Romanesque, Gothic or Classical, extends from the entry — which may have a separate vestibule (the narthex) — to the chancel and may be flanked by lower side-aisles separated from the nave by an arcade. If the aisles are high and of a width comparable to the central nave, the structure is sometimes said to have three naves.
The earliest churches were built when builders were familiar with the form of the Roman basilica, a public building for business transactions. It had a wide central area, with aisles separated by columns, and with windows near the ceiling, later called the clerestory. Old St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, built in the 4th century on the orders of Roman emperor Constantine I and replaced in the 16th century, is an early church which had this form.
The term nave may have arisen (apart from the shape of the church resembling a ship, as mentioned above) because the ship represented the church: the ship of St. Peter. The nave, the main body of the building, was that part of the church set apart for the laity, whereas the chancel was reserved for the clergy.
The chancel, or choir, was a space which developed from the apse, a semicircular recess (a feature taken from the Roman basilica) containing the sanctuary in early churches. The size of the chancel increased over time. In medieval churches the nave was separated from the chancel by the rood screen; these, being elaborately decorated, were notable features in European churches from the 14th to the mid-16th century.
Medieval naves were divided into compartments, the repetition of form giving an effect of great length; and there was often a marked verticality. In the Renaissance, in place of dramatic effects there were more balanced proportions.
- Longest nave in Denmark: Aarhus Cathedral, 93 metres (305 ft).
- Longest nave in England: St Albans Cathedral, St Albans, 84 metres (276 ft).
- Longest nave in Ireland: St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, 91 metres (299 ft) (externally).
- Longest nave in France: Bourges Cathedral, 91 metres (299 ft), including choir where a crossing would be if there were transepts.
- Longest nave in Germany: Cologne cathedral, 58 metres (190 ft), including two bays between the towers.
- Longest nave in Italy: St Peter's Basilica in Rome, 91 metres (299 ft), in four bays.
- Longest nave in Spain: Seville, 60 metres (200 ft), in five bays.
- Longest nave in the United States: Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York City, United States (Episcopal), 70 metres (230 ft).
- Highest vaulted nave: Beauvais Cathedral, France, 48 metres (157 ft) high but only one bay of the nave was actually built but choir and transepts were completed to the same height.
- Highest completed nave: Rome, St. Peter's, Italy, 46 metres (151 ft) high.
- Highest completed vaulted nave: Cathedral of Milan, Italy, 45 metres (148 ft) high.
- Abbey, with architectural discussion and groundplans
- Cathedral architecture
- Cathedral diagram
- List of highest church naves
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