Vestibule and narthex originally had separate functions, although they are often interchangeable terms in modern church architecture.
In many Catholic Church buildings there are frequently areas which are referred to by the pastor or parishioners as the “narthex“or the”vestibule.“While most people use these terms interchangeably, they were originally separate architectural spaces with different functions.
What is a vestibule?
A vestibule was originally intended to be a covered room it was just outside the main doors.
The Catholic Encyclopedia explains that “the purpose of the vestibule, at least in Western Europe, was not to provide a place of rest for penitents, but to muffle outside noise. In medieval times, Italy held firmly to the simple open chamber with a sloping roof. North of the Alps, however, the vestibule developed into a projecting structure united with the main building, reminiscent of Syrian churches.
Many churches in the city of Rome have these exterior vestibules lined with large columns.
This area was also called the “Paradise”, in reference to a “paradise gamewhich was held in this region in the Middle Ages.
What is a narthex?
Most often called the “gathering space“In modern churches, this area of the church is inside the main doors, but is immediately before entering the main part of the worship space.
Historically, it was a place outside or inside the church building and it was the place where the catechumens stood, who were not yet admitted into the Church. They were not yet part of the Body of Christ through baptism and had to wait until Easter to come through the doors and unite with the rest of the congregation.
This physical separation was a visible sign that they were not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church, and the narthex was where the rite of baptism would begin. The priest would then ceremoniously lead the catechumens into the church and onto the baptismal font.