chapel, subsidiary place of worship. It is either an alcove or chamber within a church, a separate building, or a room set apart for the purpose of worship in a secular building. A movable shrine containing the cappa, or cloak, of St. Martin was first called a cappella; hence a sanctuary that is not called a church. Though the churches of the early Middle Ages possessed only the single altar of the apse, chapels became necessary with the increase of relics and of devotions at altars sacred to numerous saints. At first they appeared as minor apses, flanking the main apse. After the 10th cent., in order to accommodate the increasing number of pilgrims, a complex series of radiating chapels was developed behind the high altar. In the 13th cent. chapels were added to the side-aisle bays of choir and nave. In England the strongly projecting transepts provided the favored space for a relatively small number of chapels. In France the Lady Chapel (dedicated to the Virgin) is the central chapel of the chevet and is sometimes larger than the others, while in England it occurs directly behind the high altar. Peculiar to English cathedrals are the small chantry chapels, mostly of the 14th and 15th cent., either built and endowed by individuals for their private Masses or serving to enclose the tombs of bishops and other churchmen. From the early Middle Ages, members of royalty had the right to an independent private chapel. Such are the separate building of the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris; St. George's Chapel at Windsor; and Henry VII's magnificent chapel at Westminster, London. In addition, there were royal mortuary chapels, the most celebrated being that of Charlemagne (796-804), at Aachen, since converted into a cathedral. Numerous lords of medieval castles and manor houses established private chapels, over which episcopal jurisdiction was enforced as completely as possible. The two main chapels at the Vatican are the Pauline Chapel (1540), designed by Antonio da Sangallo for Paul III, and the Sistine Chapel (1473), built by Sixtus IV and celebrated for its great fresco decorations by Michelangelo and other masters. Two of the most famous French modern chapels (built in the 1950s) are the chapel at Vence designed by Henri Matisse and the one at Ronchamp by Le Corbusier; both are freestanding buildings.

A chapel is a holy place or area of worship for Christians, which may be attached to an institution such as a large church, a college, a hospital, a palace, a prison or a cemetery, or may be free-standing and unattached to another building.

Architecturally, a chapel may be a part of a large church set aside for some specific use or purpose: for instance, many cathedrals and large churches have a "Lady Chapel" in the apse, dedicated to Saint Mary; parish churches may have such a "Lady Chapel" in a side aisle, or a "Blessed Sacrament Chapel" where the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist are kept between services, for the purpose of taking Holy Communion to the sick and housebound and, in some Christian traditions, for devotional purposes.

In Roman Catholic Canon Law a chapel, technically called an "oratory" is a space dedicated to the celebration of services, particularly the Mass, which is not a parish church. This may be a private chapel, for the use of one person or a select group (a bishop's private chapel, or the chapel of a convent, for instance); a semi-public oratory, which is partially available to the general public (a seminary chapel that welcomes visitors to services, for instance); or a public oratory (for instance, a hospital or university chapel).

The word chapel is in particularly common usage in England, and even more so in Wales, for many non-Anglican Protestant church buildings; and in Scotland and Ireland many ordinary Roman Catholic churches are known to locals as "the chapel".

Chapels may be non-denominational when part of a non-religious institution. However in England, where the Anglican Church is established by law, even chapels which are in use by multiple denominations or even different religions (such as hospital or prison chapels) are usually consecrated by the local Anglican bishop when constructed.


The earliest Christian places of worship are now often referred to as chapels, as they were not dedicated buildings but rather a dedicated chamber within a building, such as a room in an individual's home.

The word "chapel" is derived from a relic of Saint Martin of Tours: traditional stories about Martin relate that while he was still a soldier, he cut his military cloak in half to give part to a beggar in need. The other half he wore over his shoulders as a "small cape" (Latin capella). The beggar, the stories claim, was Christ in disguise, and Martin experienced a conversion of heart, becoming first a monk, then abbot, then bishop. This cape came into the possession of the Frankish kings, and they kept the relic with them as they did battle. The tent which kept the cape was called the capella and the priests who said daily Mass in the tent were known as the capellani. From these words we get the names "chapel" and "chaplain".

This appears as well in the Irish language in the Middle Ages, as Welsh people came with the Norman and Old English invaders to the island of Ireland. While the traditional Irish word for church was éaglais (derived from ecclesia) a new word, ceipéal (from cappella) came into usage.

In English history, "chapel" was formerly the required designation of the churches of nonconformist faiths, which is to say, any Protestant churches outside of the established Church of England. It is a word particularly associated with religious practice in Wales and rural regions of England. As a result, "chapel" is sometimes used as an adjective in the UK to describe any non-Anglican Protestant ("I'm Chapel.").

Proprietary chapels

A proprietary chapel is one that belongs to a private person. They are anomalies to the English ecclesiastical law, have no parish rights, and can be converted to other than religious purposes, but a clergyman may be licensed there. In the 19th century such proprietary chapels were common, but they had practically ceased to exist by the 20th. There is one in Avonwick in Devon, and also in Bath (Christ Church, Julian Road); one formerly in London was St John's Chapel, Bedford Row.

Modern usage

While the usage of the word "chapel" is not exclusively limited to Christian terminology, it is most often found in that context. Nonetheless, the word's meaning can vary by denomination, and non-denominational chapels (sometimes called "meditation rooms") can be found in many hospitals, airports, and even the United Nations headquarters.

Common uses of the word chapel today include:

  • Side Chapels - a chapel within a cathedral or larger church.
  • Lady Chapels - these are really a form of side chapel, but have been included separately as they are extremely prevalent in the Roman Catholic church and the Anglican Communion. They are dedicated to the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
  • Ambassador's Chapels - originally created to allow ambassadors from Catholic countries to worship whilst on duty in Protestant countries.
  • Bishop's Chapels - in Anglican and Roman Catholic Canon Law, Bishops have the right to have a chapel in their own home, even when travelling (such personal chapels may be granted only as a favor to other priests)
  • Chapels of Ease - constructed in large parishes to allow parishioners easy access to a church or chapel.
  • Summer chapels - A small church in a resort area that functions only during the summer when vacationers are present.
  • Wayside chapels - Small chapels in the countryside

Another usage of the word "chapel", peculiar to some Protestants, is to an event rather than a place. For example, some institutions of learning hold worship services that are referred to simply as "chapel," as in, "I'm going to chapel tonight."

Notable chapels

Chapel Year Location
Brancacci Chapel 1386 Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, Italy
Cadet Chapel 1963 United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, USA
Contarelli Chapel 1585 San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, Italy
Duke Chapel 1930 Duke University, Durham, USA
Eton College Chapel 1440-c.1460 Eton College, Eton, Berkshire, England
Heinz Memorial Chapel 1938 University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, USA
King's College Chapel, Cambridge 1446 Cambridge University, Cambridge, England
Lee Chapel 1867 Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia, USA
Magi Chapel 1459-1461 Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence, Italy
Medici Chapels 16th-17th centuries Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence, Italy
Naval Academy Chapel 1908 United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, USA
Niccoline Chapel 1447-1449 Vatican Palace, Vatican City
Palatine Chapel 786 Aachen Cathedral, Aachen, Germany
Palatine Chapel 1132 Palazzo dei Normanni in Palermo, Sicily, Italy
Pauline Chapel 1540 Vatican Palace, Vatican City
Pettit Memorial Chapel 1907 Belvidere, Illinois, United States
Queen's Chapel 1623 London, England
Rosslyn Chapel 1440 Roslin, Scotland
Rothko Chapel 1964 Houston, USA
Sainte-Chapelle 1246 Ile de la Cité, Paris, France
Sassetti Chapel 1470 Santa Trinita, Florence
Sistine Chapel 1473 Apostolic Palace, Vatican City
St. George’s Chapel 1348 Windsor Castle, England
St. Joan of Arc Chapel 15th century Relocated to Marquette University, Milwaukee, USA
St. Paul's Chapel 1766 New York, USA
LLandaff Oratory 1925 Van Reenen, South Africa
Chapelle du Saint-Marie du Rosaire 1949 Vence, France
Theodelinda Chapel 15th century Monza Cathedral, Italy
Thorncrown Chapel 1980 Eureka Springs, USA

See also

  • In Britanny (France) each village even very small, has is own chapel. Nowadays, they are only in service once a year for the local "pardon" which celebrates the saint to whom the chapel is dedicated. To permit some pretty of them to be better known, in the area of Pontivy, each summer, modern art is presented in a twenty of chapels. See details on :
  • Church (building)
  • Sacri Monti
  • Corpse road


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