A chapel is a holy place or area of worship, sometimes small and attached to a larger institution such as a large church, a synagogue, a college, a hospital, a palace, a prison or a cemetery, sometimes large 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, Gothic cathedrals typically have a "Lady Chapel" in the apse, dedicated to Mary; parish churches may have a "Blessed Sacrament Chapel" attached to the main church where the Eucharist is kept between services.
In the Catholic Canon Law a chapel, technically called an "oratory," is a space dedicated to the celebration of services, particularly 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 Catholic churches are known to locals as "the chapel."
Chapels are generally non-denominational when part of a non-religious institution.
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 house.
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."
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 Catholic church. 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 Catholic Canon Law, bishops have the right to have a chapel in their own home, even when travelling (such personal chapels are 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."