In church architecture, a gallery is an upper story over an aisle or ambulatory. It is normally open onto the nave through rows of supporting columns, just as the aisles are on the ground floor. In the East, the gallery was reserved for women, as its Greek name (hyperoon gnaikonitidos, “women’s gallery”) implies. It is more common in Eastern churches than in Western churches, where women and men were separated by area but not by story. The Latin matroneum means only “place of the women.” The Arabic word is ustuwan.
The gallery corresponds structurally to the upper story of a two-storied columned hall or a stoa (detached colonnade) such as those bordering public squares and gymnasia in ancient Greece and was called a stoa diple. It is found in secular Roman basilicas such as that in Fano (Vitruvius De architectura, 5.1.6) and in the forum of Leptis Magna, North Africa. The Great Basilica, the synagogue of Alexandria (destroyed in A.D. 116), was called a diplostoon and thus likely possessed galleries, which were reserved for women.
The gallery is not restricted to a specific type of church structure. It was taken over from the secular basilica and very likely spread chiefly from Constantinople and possibly also Alexandria. The relatively early examples of the gallery in Palestine are misleading, because they were commissioned by the emperor and were planned in Constantinople (Deichmann, 1959). The early local architecture of Palestine provides no examples of galleries. From the fifth and sixth centuries onward, the gallery was a regular feature of Eastern churches and synagogues.
Next to Asia Minor, Egypt was the area where galleries were most widespread. They are documented above all by the great Upper Egyptian monastery churches of Dayr Anba Shinudah and Dayr Anba Bishoi, where they were, in fact, genuinely needed in order to accommodate the great number of nuns belonging to these monasteries (Leipoldt, 1903, pp. 93, 153-55). By contrast, the churches belonging to exclusively male monasteries, such as the large lauras of Scetis at Wadi al-Natrun and Kellia, did not possess galleries. The gallery is, furthermore, a feature of town churches but apparently not of churches at the great pilgrim centers such as Abu Mina, where there is no sure evidence of the existence of a gallery.
The galleries were entered by means of stairs, which in important and carefully designed churches connected with the narthex or vestibule (see below). In Syrian churches, the side wings of the narthex were frequently developed into staircase towers. In churches in Constantinople the stairwells protruded from the body of the building on both sides of the narthex. As a rule, in Egypt, there was only one staircase, which was often simply attached externally to one side of the church.
Since only the gallery on that side could be reached, a footbridge was needed to link it to the gallery on the opposite side. This footbridge was normally placed over the return aisle. It subsequently became a canonical requirement, for it can be found from the fifth century onward, even in churches that have no galleries. Nevertheless, the presence of a staircase does not always imply the existence of a gallery.
In most cases, the stairs led only to the roof, which can be assumed to have been flat over the side aisles. The columns of the gallery are smaller than those of the nave and are, for obvious technical reasons, axially erected upon the nave columns. Some churches have piers (pillars or other supports) in place of columns. In the church of Dayr Anba Bishoi, windows seem to have provided the only view of the interior from the gallery (Grossmann, 1969, pp. 158ff.). Windows may also have been used in small pier churches made from mud bricks. In churches with columns, cancelli were inserted between them as parapets. In the Church of Saint Mercurius in Dayr Abu Sayfayn the spaces between the columns are provided with a full-height grille.
After the introduction of the dome in Egypt, the gallery fell into disuse because it was technically difficult to construct in mud brick, especially because of the required height. In older churches where it was retained, the space was used to set up subsidiary altars, and the women were placed in a new area in the lower part of the church, the bayt al-nisa’ (“house of women”).
- Butler, A. J. The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt, Vol. 1, 2nd ed. London, 1970.
- Christern, J. “Emporerkirchen in Nordafrika.” In Akten des VII. internationalen Kongresses für christliche Archäologie. Trier, 1965-1969.
- Deichmann, F. W. “Empore.” In Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, Vol. 4, cols. 1255-63. Stuttgart, 1959.
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- Grossmann, P. “Die von Somers Clarke in Ober-Ansina entdeckten Kirchenbanken.” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts—Abteilung Kairo 24 (1969):144-68.
- Grossmann, P.; J. Koscink; G. Severin. “Abu Mina. Elfler vorläufiger Bericht. Kampagnen 1982 und 1983.” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts—Abteilung Kairo 40 (1984):123-51.
- Leipoldt, J. Schenute von Atripe. Leipzig, 1903.
- Orlandos, A. K. Basilik», pp. 196-202, 379-85. Athens, 1952. Rave, P. O. Der Emporenbau in romanischer und frühgotischer Zeit, 19-35. Bonn, 1924.
- Sukenik, E. L. Ancient Synagogues in Palestine and Greece. London, 1934.