HomeThe Transept and its Upper Levels in the High Medieval Church

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The Transept and its Upper Levels in the High Medieval Church

Le transept et ses espaces élevés dans l'église du Moyen Âge central

Towards a New Functional Approach (Architecture, Decor, Liturgy and Sound)

Pour une nouvelle approche fonctionnelle (architecture, décor, liturgie et son)

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Published on Thursday, October 30, 2014


This conference is jointly organized by the Catholic University of Angers (Faculty of Humanities) and the University of Lausanne (Department of History of Art). It aims to analyse in greater detail the spaces of the transept and to explore their relation(s) with the choir / heart of the church. This two-day international and interdisciplinary symposium will work towards bringing together and assessing the results, often dispersed, of past and present research, building upon debates involving specialists from multiple backgrounds and finishing with a round table which will propose a summary of the papers and explore further insights into new research directions.



The studies of Carol Heitz on Carolingian westworks have shown that this specific space, the upper level of which communicates with the nave through large tribunes, used to have a liturgical function, generally associated with the feast of Easter. Similarily, from the second quarter of the 10th Century onwards, the Gorze and Fleury reform initiated liturgical innovations necessitating the reconstruction or transformation of churches, which entailed rearranging or enlarging chapels at the eastern or western part of the building.

The fact that, in the reformed churches, these renovated liturgical spaces opened on the nave or the choir from a tribune, allowed for some categories of celebrations – the nature of which is not always clearly identified – to provide the occasion for part of the choir monks to stand in these upper levels and respond by their singing to the rest of the community gathered lower down. This architectural typology was shared by many monastic churches as well as cathedral churches in the wake of the reform, without being ubiquitous: for example, clunisian churches usually lacked tribunes overlooking the transept.

As to the upper levels of the transept, their function is not necessarily cultual (e.g. Cuxà), and if they sometimes communicate with the rest of the church (e.g. Saint-Chef), they are also likely to remain separate (Aoste). In some cases, where these upper levels are especially elaborate and open (e.g. Bayeux), the possibility of their use by the laity for a show of power cannot be discarded.

Throughout the High Middle Ages, the development of the East end of churches – enlarged choir with long transepts and a flowering of lateral chapels, sometimes with matching upper level – coincides with the partial or total abandonment of the West end. Occasionally, as at Saint-Remi of Reims or at the cathedral of Rouen, the East even assumes some of the functions devolved to the West. This reflects a process of hyper-sacralisation of the East end of the church, which was already noticeable in the 10th Century but was encouraged to grow under the Gregorian Reform, because it allowed a unification of the ecclesial space, a valorisation of the eucharistic celebration by concentrating the liturgy around the main altar, as well as a more distinct spatial separation of clergy and laity. A rood screen separates the celebrants in the choir from the assembly in the nave. A barrier or differences in levels may prolong, in the transepts, the limit of the area reserved for the clergy.

In a similar way to the architecture and the liturgy, the painted and/or sculpted decoration of the church reinforces the axial West-East dynamic across the ecclesiastical building, and serves to showcase the most sacred parts of the building: the richly decorated East frequently offers a contrast to the nakedness of the nave. At the same time, the decorative elements of the transept may function as the revealing agent for other paths of circulation, for example a transversal pathway uniting both ends of the transept (e.g. Château-Gontier).

In this spirit, we would like to interrogate the manner in which the transept and its upper levels contribute to the valorisation of the sanctuary, valorisation which can be made apparent by the visual effects of the decor as well as by the sound of singing from the upper levels, and which is embodied in the architecture of the tribunes for all to see.

Frame and directions of research

Papers should deal with the origins of this phenomenon in the Carolingian period and its development throughout the High Middle Ages. No geographical limits have been set for this international conference: if upper levels in the transept appear more frequently in some areas than in others, their absence in some contexts or locations may also be a source of interest.

In order to ensure an interdisciplinary dimension to this conference, we appeal to every domain of Medieval studies: historians, art historians, specialists of liturgy, construction specialists, archæologists, musicologists, etc., are invited to contribute to a better understanding of the function of tribunes, and of the modalities of interaction between central liturgical spaces, peripherical spaces and the ecclesial building.

Papers may deal with this central topic following a wide range of approaches, which may belong, but are not limited, to the following:

  • Typology of building rearrangements in the space of the transept
  • Place of the laity and the clergy in the use of the transept and its upper levels
  • Customary liturgy and ceremonies associated with these spaces
  • Consequences of reform(s) and of their specific liturgy on the architecture of churches
  • Role of the decor in revealing the function of these spaces
  • Decor, ritual and sound as performative factors involved in the defining of relations between spaces within the church on the one hand, and of relations between the coexisting communities, the observing and the observed, on the other hand.

Practical details for paper proposal

Proposals are for 20-minute papers and should not exceed 300 words, either in French or English. They will be accompanied by a short curriculum vitæ. Both documents should be sent jointly to barbara.franze@unil.ch and nathalie.leluel@uco.fr

before the 15th of December 2014.

The conference will take place at the University of Lausanne on Monday, the 20th of April and Tuesday, the 21st of April 2015.

Results of the CFP will be announced on the 19th of January 2015 at the latest.

Scientific committee

  • Barbara Franzé, University of Lausanne (Switzerland)
  • Nathalie Le Luel, Catholic University of Angers (France) 


  • Université de Lausanne
    Lausanne, Switzerland (1015)


  • Monday, December 15, 2014


  • Interdisciplinarité, réforme, transept, tribune, espace élevé, liturgie-architecture, liturgie-décor


  • Barbara Franzé
    courriel : barbara [dot] franze [at] unil [dot] ch
  • Nathalie Le Luel
    courriel : nathalie [dot] leluel [at] uco [dot] fr

Information source

  • Barbara Franzé
    courriel : barbara [dot] franze [at] unil [dot] ch


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« The Transept and its Upper Levels in the High Medieval Church », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Thursday, October 30, 2014, https://calenda.org/303622

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