6. The Narthex, or Ante-Temple
Antiquities of the Christian Church
CHAPTER IX. Of Churches and Sacred Places
6. The Narthex, or Ante-Temple
This was the outer division of the church within the walls. It was called ante-temple*; portiais, portico*, and ferula*, from its oblong or dromical shape. It was an oblong section of the building extending across, and occupying the front part of the interior of the house. It was entered by three doors leading from the outer porch. From the narthex there were also three entrances. The main entrance was in the middle directly opposite the altar, and opening immediately into the nave. Two smaller doors upon each side appear to have opened into the side aisles*, from which the nave was entered by doors on the north and the south.
The doors consisted of two folding leaves, and after the eleventh century were often ornamented with bronze and with carved and embossed work. The several classes of worshippers entered the nave at different doors, which were called "the priest's door," "the men's door," etc.
The vestibule*, appropriately so called, and situated without the walls, was allotted to the catechumens and penitents. Heretics and unbelievers were also allowed a place here. The council of Laodicea, c. 57, denied this privilege to heretics and schismatics. But the fourth council of Carthage, c. 84, directed that no bishop should forbid one, whether gentile, heretic, or Jew to attend the first service – usque ad missam catechumenorum.
The portico or outer court*, included the halls and colonnades which constituted the outer or front part of the narthex, and was used for various purposes, analogous to those of a modern committee-room and vestry. Here also the bodies of the dead were deposited, and vigils kept around them until their interment.
The primitive Christians were accustomed to wash before entering the church as a symbol of the purity becoming that holy place. For this purpose, in process of time, the vessel or font of water which was used in this rite was introduced into the narthex or porch. Formerly it was situated without. This vessel of water was called *, cantharus, nymphacum, etc. and is often mentioned by ancient authors. The use of holy water has been derived by some from this usage of the primitive church. This superstition began at some time subsequent to the ninth century.
The baptismal font came into use on the introduction of infant-baptism as baptisteries fell into disuse, and when the neglect of stated seasons of baptism had rendered the larger baptisteries needless.
The following extract from Jamieson is inserted as a recapitulation of the principal points of interest connected with the foregoing topics, pp. 108–111.
"The spot chosen for the site of a new church was generally an elevated piece of ground, consecrated by being the burying-place of a martyr, – the primitive Christians deeming a church built over the remains of those who were faithful unto death, a more suitable memorial of their excellencies, than a monumental pillar erected to their honor. It accordingly received their name, which was inscribed on the front of the edifice. The church was approached through a spacious area, in the middle of which was a fountain, in which every one, as he entered, washed his hands – an act intended for a significant memorial of the purity of heart that alone can constitute an acceptable worshipper. The entrance was formed by a longitudinal porch, within which kings laid down their crowns, soldiers their arms, and magistrates or judges the insignia of their office. At one end of it stood poor strangers, or such of that destitute order as, from their distress being recent and sudden, were allowed to make known their wants by asking alms of their brethren, – while on the opposite side were stationed gross offenders, who, being excommunicated, and deprived of the privilege of entering the church, implored on their bended knees, and with all the agony of remorse and the deepest affliction, the prayers and sympathies of the faithful. The interior of the building – which was often in the form of a cross, or an eight-sided figure, but most generally of an oblong shape, resembling that of a ship, – was divided into different compartments, corresponding to the different classes of hearers that composed the primitive church. The penitents – under which term were included all offenders who had made some progress in their course of discipline, – occupied the first place on passing from the porch. Next to them were those new converts who were preparing for baptism, – while the body of the church was filled by the congregation of the faithful, – widows and young women by themselves, – the men with their sons, the women with their daughters, sitting apart from each other, either on opposite sides of the church, or, as was frequently the case, the male part of the audience remained on the ground floor, while the females had a gallery appropriated for their use. At the further end, opposite the main entrance, was the pulpit, or elevated bench, from which the minister read the Scriptures and exhorted the people; and immediately behind this was the place set apart for celebrating the communion, – the consecrated elements of which were deposited on a plain moveable table, covered with a white cloth. Here and there were niches in the walls, sufficiently large to hold one or two persons, each of which was furnished with a copy of the Scriptures, for the use of those who might choose to retire in the intervals of public worship, to read and to meditate in these little recesses. Besides this provision, invaluable in those days, when books were all in manuscript and costly in price, texts of Scripture appropriate to each class of hearers were inscribed on that part of the wall that lay immediately contiguous to the place they occupied in the church, and were so selected, as to be perpetual remembrancers of the temptations incident to their age, of the duties belonging to their condition, and the motives and encouragements to stedfastness in faith and virtue. Thus, to let one example suffice, over the space assigned to the young women, was engraven in large characters this passage of Paul, 1 Cor. 7:34: "There is difference between a wife and a virgin; the unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy in body and in spirit." For the benefit of those who could not profit by such means of christian instruction, the custom was latterly introduced of decorating the walls of churches with pictures of the scenes and characters of sacred history. Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit, – Joseph sold by his brethren, – David encountering Goliah, – Solomon dedicating his temple, Mary and the infant Jesus, – the Saviour expiring on the cross, were delineated to the eye, – intended, like historical paintings, to keep in remembrance the persons and events they were meant to represent, and especially to enable the illiterate to read that in the picture which they had not education enough to do in the book. It was towards the end of the third century when this innovation crept into the church; and although, doubtless, it sprang from a pious and well-meaning zeal for the instruction of the ignorant, yet it was an imprudent measure, productive of the worst consequences, and tending to accelerate the superstition which was then advancing with gigantic strides over the whole christian world. Up to that period, the church had kept itself pure and inviolate from the sanction of any sensible representations either of God or of man; and in the only instance recorded, prior to this date, of anything approaching to a human figure being hung up in a church, the pious father who discovered a painting of Christ on a curtain when travelling through a little village of Palestine, got admission into the sacred edifice, and tore the drapery in pieces, being horror-struck at the daring sin."
Tertull. De Orat. c. 11: Euseb. h. e. x. c. 4: Chrysostom, Horn. 52 in Math, in Ps. 111: Synes. ep. 121: Pelicia, torn. 1. p. 133.
(* denotes Greek text in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)