The Nave is the central aisle of a basilica church, or the main body of a church (whether aisled or not) between its western wall and its chancel. It is the zone of a church accessible by the laity.
The nave 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. It provides the central approach to the high altar.
The term nave is from medieval Latin navis (ship). A ship was an early Christian symbol. The term may also have been suggested by the keel shape of the vaulting of a church. In many Scandinavian and Baltic countries a model ship is commonly found hanging in the nave of a church, and in some languages the same word means both ‘nave’ and ‘ship’, as for instance Danish skib or Swedish skepp.
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. Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is an early church which had this form. It was built in the 4th century on the orders of Roman emperor Constantine I, and replaced in the 16th century.
The nave, the main body of the building, is the section set apart for the laity, while the chancel is reserved for the clergy. 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 bays, the repetition of form giving an effect of great length; and the vertical element of the nave was emphasized. During the Renaissance, in place of dramatic effects there were more balanced proportions.
Medieval naves were generally divided into many bays, or compartments, producing the effect of great length by the repetition of forms.
The standard medieval division of the nave wall into ground-floor arcade, tribune (a vaulted gallery space over the side aisles), optional triforium arcade (a blind or open arcade between the tribune and clerestory), and clerestory became more flexible during the Renaissance, so that frequently—as in San Lorenzo (Florence; 1421–29) by Filippo Brunelleschi—the tribune and triforium are eliminated, and the nave wall is divided only into arcade and clerestory.
During the Renaissance, the nave also was divided into fewer compartments, giving a feeling of spaciousness and balanced proportion between the height, length, and width. Extreme, dramatic effects, such as the marked verticality of the Gothic in cathedrals such as Reims (begun c. 1211), gave way to a more rationally designed nave space in which no single directional emphasis or sensation was stressed;
St. Paul’s Cathedral in London (1675–1711), rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666, provides a fine example.