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What is the nave in a Catholic church?


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Philip Kosloski - published on 12/01/22

The nave is the central part of a Catholic church and has much symbolism associated with its name.

The nave is the part of a Catholic church that most are familiar with, as it is the location where the people of God sit, stand and kneel during liturgical services.

Interestingly, there is much symbolism behind this location, associated with its name.

Why is it called a “nave”?

The word “nave,” is derived from the Latin word navis, meaning, “ship.” The nave is therefore a “ship,” where the people of God assemble.

The use of this word is deliberate, as it is meant to portray the reality that the Church is a ship, protecting those inside it from the waves and storms of the world.

In a commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, the medieval commentator Rabanus says the following with regard to Jesus calming the storm at sea:

The sea is the turmoil of the world; the boat in which Christ is embarked is to be understood as the tree of the cross, by the aid of which the faithful, having passed the waves of the world, arrive in their heavenly country, as on a safe shore, whither Christ goes with His own.

Rabanus on Matthew 8:23-27

Sometimes the Church is called the “Bark of Peter” (“bark” being another word for boat or ship), in reference to Peter being the captain of the ship, leading us to salvation.

The Church is also compared to the Ark of Noah, and Baptism is viewed as the “saving water” that cleanses our soul.

In many European churches this comparison is visually evident.

Architects constructed the ceiling over the nave in a vaulted fashion, exposing the wooden beams, which resembled the reversed look of a ship’s keel.

Furthermore, inside the nave can sometimes be found a pulpit that is made to look like a ship. This accents the symbolism and visibly puts the priest as the pilot of the congregation, leading them to distant shores.

Last of all, it has been said that the exterior flying buttresses of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris represent oars, and further visualize this image of the Church as a ship who brings her people to safe harbors.

The next time you enter the nave, bless yourself with holy water and imagine yourself inside a mighty ship, being led by God to heavenly shores.

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