Church architecture: Wikis


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The 800-year-old Church of Termunterzijl in the north of the Netherlands

Church architecture or ecclesiastical architecture refers to the architecture of buildings of Christian churches. It has evolved over the two thousand years of the Christian religion, partly by innovation and partly by imitating other architectural styles as well as responding to changing beliefs, practices and local traditions. Christian architecture encompasses a wide range of both secular and religious styles from the foundation of Christianity to the present day, influencing the design and construction of buildings and structures in Christian culture. From the birth of Christianity to the present, the most significant period of transformation for Christian architecture and design was the Gothic cathedral.

Both theological and practical influences on church architecture have included pagan and secular buildings and those of other faiths. Buildings were at first adapted from those originally intended for other purposes but, with the rise of distinctively ecclesiastical architecture, church buildings came to influence secular ones which have often imitated religious architecture. In the 20th century, the use of new materials, such as concrete, as well as simpler styles has had its effect upon the design of churches and arguably the flow of influence has been reversed.



The history of church architecture divides itself into periods, and into countries or regions and by religious affiliation. The matter is complicated by the fact that buildings put up for one purpose may have been re-used for another; that changes in liturgical practice may result in the alteration of existing buildings; that a building built by one religious group may be used by a successor group with different purposes and that new building techniques may permit changes in style and size.

The first period is that during which the Christian faith was illegal and, in principle, church building did not take place. In the very beginning Christians worshipped along with Jews in synagogues and in private houses. After the separation of Jews and Christians the latter continued to worship in people's houses. Some of these were at the top of several storey houses; others were covered courtyards. One of the earliest of adapted residences is at Dura Europa, built shortly after 200 AD, where two rooms were made into one, by removing a wall, and a dais was set up. To the right of the entrance a small room was made into a baptistry.

Early Christendom

During the period of Roman persecution of Christians, most regular worship took place privately in homes. Armenia became the first Christian nation during the year 301 A.D, soon followed by the country of Georgia, becoming the worlds second Christian nation. With the victory of the Roman emperor Constantine at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312AD, Christianity became a lawful and then the privileged religion of the Roman Empire. The faith, already spread around the Mediterranean, now expressed itself in buildings. Their architecture was made to correspond to civic and imperial forms, and so the Basilica, a large rectangular meeting hall became general in east and west, as the model for churches, with a nave and aisles and sometimes galleries and clerestories. Pagan basilicas had as their focus a statue of the emperor; Christian basilicas replaced the emperor with God as king of heaven. At the east end was placed the altar behind which sat the bishop and his presbyters in an apse.

A second stage was the remodelling of the Basilica to produce the porch church or Vollwestwerk. The legalisation of the faith enabled people to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land and in particular to Jerusalem. Over time, there developed a pattern of services during Holy Week following the last week of the life of Christ culminating in the Way of the Cross, sometimes known as the Via Dolorosa from the place of trial to the Calvary, the place of crucifixion. Over the presumed site of the Calvary a Church, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built. At its east end was the presumed place of burial. At the west end was the Calvary. The procession would end with the pilgrims mounting the steps on one side of the west end of the Church to the place of crucifixion and then demounting on the other side. Two staircases, supported by twin towers, thus became necessary for this form of worship. This pattern was widely imitated and twin west towers can be seen in many churches and cathedrals in Europe, notably Westminster Abbey in London, even where the purpose of the towers had long gone.

The period witnessed the division of the empire in the fourth century AD and then its collapse. East and West, Rome and Byzantium (the name of Constantinople, the modern Istanbul) went their separate ways. The final break was the Great Schism of 1054, but the divergence had begun long before that. Orthodox churches were often modelled, as to their plan, on an equal armed cross - the so-called Greek cross. Their interiors were marked by the division of the building by the iconostasis a screen on which were hung sacred pictures and which divided the altar from the body of the Church.

Medieval West

Participation in worship, which gave rise to the porch church, began to decline as the church became increasingly clericalised; with the rise of the monasteries church buildings changed as well. The 'two-room' church' became, in Europe, the norm. The first 'room' the nave, was used by the congregation; the second 'room, the sanctuary, was the preserve of the clergy and in which the Mass was celebrated. This could then be only seen, through the arch between the rooms, as from a distance, by the congregation, and the elevation of the host, the bread of the communion, became the focus of the celebration. Given that the liturgy was said in Latin, the people contented themselves with their own private devotions until this point. (Because of the difficulty of sight lines, some churches had holes cut strategically in walls and screens, called 'squints' through which the elevation could be seen from the nave.) Again, from the twin principles that every priest must say his mass every day and that an altar could only be used once, in religious communities a number of altars were required for which space had to be found, at least within monastic churches.

Apart from changes in the liturgy, the other major influence on church architecture was in the use of new materials and the development of new techniques. In northern Europe, early churches were often built of wood, for which reason almost none survive. With the wider use of stone by the Benedictine monks, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, larger structures were erected.

The 'two-room' church, particularly if it were an abbey or a cathedral, might acquire transepts, effectively arms of the cross which now made up the groundplan of the building. The buildings became more clearly symbolic of what they were intended for. Sometimes this crossing, now the central focus of the church, would be surmounted by its own tower, in addition to the west end towers, or instead of them. (Such precarious structures were known to collapse - as at Ely - and had to be rebuilt). Sanctuaries, now providing for the singing of the offices by monks or canons, grew longer and became chancels, separated from the nave by a screen. Practical function and symbolism were both at work in the process of development.


1180 AD to 1700 AD

Since before the 4th century A.D., Christians have come together to worship in a building dedicated to that purpose. According to the New Testament, the practice of meeting together is an important part of the Christian faith – “let us not give up the habit of meeting together… instead, let us encourage one another all the more…” (Heb. 10:25). An interesting period was between the birth of Christian humanism as a self-conscious philosophical tendency in Europe in the early 12th century to the late Reformation period in the 17th century (1180 AD to 1700 AD). According to historian James C. Russell[citation needed], this period was crucial in the development of Christianity in Europe, and the changing nature of the faith and its architectural design proved to be extremely influential to the world of religious architecture in general.

Christian Humanism began in the 12th century with the principle of commonality among all Christians as its basic ethos. Correspondingly, according to David Ross[citation needed], this period of church design (1180–1275) marks the first flowering of dedicated church architecture. This era, referred to as Gothic, featured churches that were built to appear that they were "reaching for the sky", as a symbolic expression of religious aspiration (stretching toward heaven). At this time Church architecture had to symbolise Christian belief to a population that could generally not read or write. Carvings and statues had a role to play to people who could not read for themselves, which further allowed church architecture to tell a story. As a result it was in this period that religious symbolism became an important part of church design. Further, as most dwellings were little more than mud huts, the construction of the church from stone served to set it apart as a building of extraordinary significance. Therefore Christian Humanism emphasised the unity and equality of all Christians, and architecture played a significant role in allowing Christians from all walks of life to come together in comfortable (and occasionally even splendid) surroundings.

In the book Architecture in Communion (Ignatius Press, 1998), author and Catholic church architect Steven J. Schloeder notes that Gothic sensibility was rooted in the teachings of Dionysius the Areopagite, and was a theological rather than stylistic initiative:

"The Gothic cathedral as an expression of the heavenly Jerusalem was not an attempt at “stylistic” or aesthetic expression. Nor was it a theatrical presentation enabled by the evolving technology of the age. Instead it was a very real religious image —at least in the mind of Abbot Suger of St.-Denis, the builder the first “Gothic” building —of the celestial city on earth, “a spectacle in which heaven and earth, the angelic hosts in heaven and the human community in the sanctuary, seemed to merge.”[1]

In the early 16th century Martin Luther and the Reformation brought a period of radical change to church design. Prior to the Reformation, translations of the Bible into local languages were rare and illicit; in the West the authorised version was in Latin, the language of worship, scholarship and the law courts. Comparatively few works of literature were written in the vernacular until the advent of printing in the fifteenth century. Nevertheless, the denial of the right to produce Bibles in local languages was an instrument of control both papal and by princes so that access to the word became a hallmark of Reformation thinking and preaching more prominent. Pulpits had always been a feature of Western churches (and had been much prized by the friars) but they now came to replace the altar as the primary focus. In England stone altars were removed (and trashed)and replaced by a single wood table. However while the birth of Protestantism led to massive changes in the way that Christianity was practiced (and hence the design of churches), Catholic churches retained an emphasis on the symbolic.

According to Duncan Stroik[citation needed], late in the Reformation period, there was a shift across all denominations to an emphasis on "full and active participation". In the Roman Catholic Church this was achieved through an emphasis on "emotional exuberance", which meant that even those members of the congregation who were unfamiliar with the ceremony could still be deeply moved. With the onset late 16th century, exquisite marble statues adorned the churches, and gold fittings combined with superb stained glass windows in a celebration of the faith. In contrast, in Protestant churches the altar and tabernacle were often removed, and a communion table and pulpit replaced the altar. Despite the apparent disparity, both denominations sought to provide for fundamentally the same purpose: to allow the worshippers to feel close to God.


In England, Saxon churches still survive in some places but with the Norman conquest, increasingly the new Romanesque churches, often called Norman in England, became the rule. These were massive in relation to the space they enclosed, their walls pierced by windows with semi-circular arches. Internal vaulting used the same shaped arch. Unsupported roofs were never very wide. Yet some of these buildings were huge and of extraordinary beauty. The Abbey church of St. Mary Madgalene at Vézelay in Burgundy and Durham Cathedral in England are two very different examples of this form.

The next development was due to the mobility of the master masons whose work this was. They followed the Crusades and built their own churches in the Holy Land, most notably the Church of St. Anne in Jerusalem. However they also noticed that the local Muslim architecture deployed the much more flexible two-point or Gothic arch. The semi-circular arch was heavy and, in spite of this, resulted in weaknesses when two barrel vaults intersected. The 'gothic arch' on the other hand was stronger and could be used to make for wider unsupported spaces.

Salisbury Cathedral completed 1265 AD.

Thus there came to Europe, first the narrow, lancet window, often found in pairs or triplets, called in England the Early English style (here seen at Salisbury cathedral). Examples of parish churches include Eaton Bray in Bedfordshire and West Walton in Norfolk; it is most commonly found in the south eastern counties. The style was spare,simple and monastic in character with little carving The period is reckoned by Pevsner to run from about 1190 to 1250. In spite of its name the style was at one time called the French style and it is to be found all over the British Isles.

By the late thirteenth century more daringly ornate styles of tracery were tried - the so-called Decorated, dating from 1290 - 1350. Initially geometric, using circles as well as the two point arch, it derived from the French Rayonnant style. However, it slowly became more daring and flowing; the name curvilinear has been ascribed to it. Windows became larger, increasing the number of mullions (the vertical bars dividing the main part of the window) between the lights; above them, within the arch of the window, the tracery was formed using shapes styled 'daggers' and 'mouchettes', trefoils and quadrifoils; completely circular rose windows were made, incorporating all manner of shapes. More formal reticulated (netlike) tracery can also be found, as in Wells cathedral. Exotic forms included the ogee arch, in which the curves of the arch are reversed in the upper part thus meeting at an acute angle at the apex; others included so-called Kentish tracery with its insertion of spikey points between the rounded lobes of trefoils and quatrefoils. Larger windows inevitably weakened the walls which were now supported by large exterior buttresses which came to be a feature. Columns forming the arcades within churches of this period became more slender and elegant, the foliage of the capitals more flowing. Examples of the earlier form include the choir and chapter house of Westminster Abbey and the north transept of Hereford cathedral; later forms include the nave of York Minster. The octagon at Ely, a timber framed lantern tower over the crossing, demonstrates the adventurousness of the developed style. But it can be seen in parish churches from Snettisham and Aylsham in Norfolk to Beverly in Yorkshire and Madley in Herefordshire. There were undoubtedly many more examples but many were replaced by later developments.

Ornate two-storey "Perpendicular"-style south porch of 1480 at Northleach, Gloucestershire

Finally, the Perpendicular style (so-called because the mullions and transoms were vertical and horizontal) allowed huge windows, often filled with stained glass. The style, so described runs from about 1330, initially in parallel with the Decorated style, until 1530. Sometimes criticised as over formal, the spaces allowing for glass were huge. Another feature was that doorways were often enclosed by squared mouldings and the spaces between the moulding and the door arch - called spandrels were decorated with quadrifoils etc. Ornate stone ceilings, using so-called fan vaulting, made for huge unsupported spaces. King's College Chapel, Cambridge has magnificent specimens of these. Meanwhile, the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral has an unsupported stone ceiling approximately 30 feet by 80 feet, using a star formation of lierne vaults and bosses.

The late mediaeval period saw an unequalled development in church architecture in England. Walls became thinner; solid buttresses became more elegant flying buttresses surmounted by pinnacles; towers, often surmounted by stone spires became taller, and more decorated, often castellated; internal pillars became more slender; unsupported spaces between them wider; roofs, formerly safely steeply pitched became flatter, often decorated with carved wooden angels and a bestiary, where they were steep they were supported by carved hammer beams; windows occupied more and more of the wall space; decorative carving more freely flowing; figures multiplied, particularly on the west fronts of cathedrals and abbeys. Finally with the cessation of the wars with the French and the apparent ending of the Wars of the Roses with the return of Edward IV in 1471, there was more money around so that new buildings could be put up and existing buildings enlarged. "Hardly had such towers risen on all sides; never had such timber roofs and screens been hewn and carved..." (Harvey) This is the period of the building of wool Churches like Long Melford and Lavenham and of King's College Chapel in Cambridge.

The interiors of mediaeval churches, apart from their many altars and stained glass (which, of course can only be properly seen from inside) had their purpose made visually plain by the almost universal presence of roods, huge figures of the crucified Christ, high above the congregation, mounted on a rood loft at the chancel arch -with steps to enable the priest to climb up; something which no one could miss. A wooden rood screen beneath might have painted on it figures of the apostles and angels.

With the reign of Henry VIII all of this was to be first put in question and then to come to a shuddering halt. On his death, and the accession of Edward VI almost all of the internal decoration was to be destroyed. The chantries and guilds which supported them became illegal or their functions taken from them. Images were removed, Saints' days massively reduced. The Churches echoed to the sound of hammer blows as stone altars and images were smashed, glass broken, font covers and roods and their screens torn town and burnt. Thereafter they became empty places on weekdays and those who had formerly been benefactors were more wary, given the changes of direction of governmental policy which was to last more than 150 years. They spent their money on great houses instead[citation needed].

Eastern Orthodoxy

St. Basil's Cathedral is one of the world's most famous churches. For details about Orthodox church architecture, see Byzantine architecture and Russian architecture.

East and west began to diverge from each other from an early date. Whereas the basilica, a long aisled hall with an apse at one end, was the most common form in the west, a more compact centralised style became predominant in the east. These churches were in origin 'martyria' focused on the tombs of the saints who had died during the persecutions which only fully ended with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine. They copied pagan tombs and were roofed over by a dome which symbolised heaven. The central dome was then often surrounded by structures at the four points of the compass producing a cruciform shape - these were themselves often topped by towers or domes. The centralised and basilica structures were sometimes combined as in the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul). The basilican east end then allowed for the erection of an iconostasis, a screen on which icons are hung and which conceals the altar from the worshippers except at those points in the liturgy when its doors are opened.

The centralised form was to influence Islamic architecture, as for example the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Umayyad Great Mosque mosque in Damascus.

A variant form of the centralised church was developed in Russia and came to prominence in the sixteenth century. Here the dome was replaced by a much thinner and taller hipped or conical roof which, it is said, originated from the need to prevent snow from remaining on roofs. One of the finest examples of these tented churches is St. Basil's in Red Square in Moscow.

The Renaissance

The cessation of church building in many Protestant countries was not paralleled in the Roman Catholic Church. On the contrary a new phase of church design emerged, based upon classical culture. Around them in Rome, and elsewhere, lay the ruins of classical buildings with their columns and entablatures and gables. The temples of pagan Rome were to be the models for the new churches. These, instead of having long vaulted naves and aisles, had a centralised plan.

Along with the interest in antiquity, art flourished. Mercantile benefactors supported both sacred and secular projects. The rise of the theatre and the opera provided another external source of ideas for the Church. If the congregation had become passive observers, as was the case, there must be something for them to see. The focus of the liturgy had traditionally been the elevation of the Host at the Mass. Extra-liturgical devotions such as the exposition of the reserved sacrament became more important. If the church was a sort of theatre, then the rest of the building could emphasise this element of seeing. If this is coupled with the more and more exotic forms of architecture of the 17th and 18th centuries, known as Baroque then we have a new kind of church, there to provide distant vistas, with a scenic progression along the horizontal axis. An examples of this can be seen in the Wallfahrtskirche, in Innen, Germany. In the St. Johann Nepomuk Kirche in Munich, the process reaches the extreme sometimes known as Rococo.

The auditory church

In the seventeenth century, across Western Europe, a return was seen towards the single room church in which everything could be seen. In Protestant countries these were somewhat simple and, among the finest examples, from an architectural point of view were the churches of Sir Christopher Wren. This was a one room design in which altar and pulpit were both visible. Churches were to be sufficiently small, including galleries, so that all could see what was taking place. Chancels were suppressed, screens were deemed unnecessary obstructions. Buildings had three defined centres: the font - by the door, the pulpit and reading desk, and the altar. Within Lutheranism similar principles obtained. The Prinzipalstück ideal was of an oblong building without a chancel with a single space at the east end combining all liturgical acts: baptism, service of the word and communion. These ideas, with variations, were to affect the building of nonconformist chapels in seventeenth century England. Galleries increased the capacity without increasing the distance between worshipper and preacher.

Gothic Revival

The growth of cities in the nineteenth centuries necessitated a huge growth in church building. This was a period of interest in the history of the Church and a search for authenticity. Buildings based upon classical models were dismissed as pagan. Instead, looking at the medieval churches around them, it seemed plain that Gothic was the style. Large churches, often much too large, were built in England mostly according to some version of these ideas. (Civic buildings, including town halls and even water pumping stations followed the same fashion) Gothic-style church buildings were erected by Anglicans,as by Methodists Congregationalists and Baptists alike, many of whom abhored the beliefs of the originators of Gothic architecture. Some of the building was highly competitive: the grandiose Roman Catholic Church at Cheadle by A.W.N.Pugin (1812-1852) outshines its more modest mediaeval Anglican counterpart. Bishop Blomfield's churches in London were more of a standard issue: all include a tower, chancel, nave, all with two-point arched windows and doors.

Holy Trinity Cathedral, Parnell, Auckland. Late 20th century. The modern facade hints at features of the elevation of the older wooden Gothic cathedral just visible behind it.

In some places, the style survived well into the 20th century.

The nineteenth century was also saw the rebuilding of mediaeval churches and their alleged restoration to mediaeval purity. Since many had been added to over the period from the Conquest to the Reformation, decisions had to be taken as to which was the right period. Thus, architects such as George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) replaced Perpendicular windows with speculative lancets, often with slight justification. Stained glass, lost at the Reformation, was replaced by Victorian designers, often with Biblical scenes. Churches, which had been once very light, became darker again. Only when the Liturgical Movement began to make its influence felt was there any relief from the conviction that there was only one style for churches.


The idea that worship was a corporate activity and that the congregation should be in no way excluded from sight or participation is owed to the Liturgical Movement. Simple one-room plans are almost of the essence of modernity in architecture. In France and Germany between the first and second World Wars, some of the major developments took place. The church at Le Raincy near Paris by Auguste Perret is cited as the starting point of process, not only for its plan but also for the materials used, reinforced concrete. More central to the development of the process was Schloss Rothenfels-am-Main in Germany which was remodelled in 1928. Rudolf Schwartz, its architect, was hugely influential on later church building, not only on the continent of Europe but also in the United States of America. Schloss Rothenfels was a large rectangular space, with solid white walls, deep windows and a stone pavement. It had no decoration. The only furniture consisted of a hundred little black cuboid moveable stools. For worship, an altar was set up and the faithful surrounded it on three sides.

Corpus Christi in Aachen was Schwartz's first parish church and adheres to the same principles, very much reminiscent of the Bauhaus movement of art. Externally it is a plan cube; the interior has white walls and colourless windows, a langbau ie a narrow rectangle at the end of which is the altar. It was to be, said Schwartz not 'christocentric' but 'theocentric'. In front of the altar were simple benches. Behind the altar was a great white void of a back wall, signifying the region of the invisible Father. The influence of this simplicity spread to Switzerland with such architects as Fritz Metzger and Dominikus Böhm.

After the Second World war, Metzger continued to develop his ideas, notably with the church of St. Franscus at Basel-Richen. Among other notable buildings is the chapel at Ronchamp by Le Corbusier (1955). Similar principles of simplicity and continuity of style throughout can be found in the United States, in particular at the Roman Catholic Abbey church of St. Procopius, in Lisle, near Chicago (1971).

A theological principle which resulted in change was the decree Sacrosanctum Concilium of the Second Vatican Council issued in December 1963. This encouraged 'active participation' (in Latin: participatio actuosa) by the faithful in the celebration of the liturgy by the people and required that new churches should be built with this in mind (para 124) Subsequently, rubrics and instructions encouraged the use of a freestanding altar allowing the priest to face the people. The effect of these changes can be seen in such churches as the Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedrals of Liverpool and the Brasília, both circular buildings with a free-standing altar.

Different principles and practical pressures produced other changes. Parish churches were inevitably built more modestly. Often shortage of finances, as well as a 'market place' theology suggested the building of multi-purpose churches, in which secular and sacred events might take place in the same space at different times. Again, the emphasis on the unity of the liturgical action, was countered by a return to the idea of movement. Three spaces, one for the baptism, one for the liturgy of the word and one for the celebration of the eucharist with a congregation standing around an altar, were promoted by Richard Giles in England and the United States. The congregation were to process from one place to another. Such arrangements were less appropriate for large congregations than for small; for the former, proscenium arch arrangements with huge amphitheatres such as at Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago in the United States have been one answer. The present and recent past are always less easy to categorise.

Since the late 1990s architects have begun to recover and renew historical styles and "cultural memory" of Christian architecture. Notable practitioners include Dr. Steven Schloeder, Duncan Stroik, and Thomas Gordon Smith.

See also


General information
  • Bühren, Ralf van: Kunst und Kirche im 20. Jahrhundert. Die Rezeption des Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzils (Konziliengeschichte, Reihe B: Untersuchungen), Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh 2008 (ISBN 978-3-506-76388-4)
  • Bony, J:!The English Decorated Style Phaidon, Oxford 1979
  • Davies, J. G.: Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship, London: SCM 1971
  • Giles, Richard: Repitching the Tent, Norwich: Canterbury Press 1996
  • Giles, Richard: Uncommon Worship, Norwich: Canterbury Press 2004
  • Graham-Dixon, Andrew: A History of British Art Chapter 1, London: BBC Books 1996
  • Harvey, John: The Mediaeval Architect, London: Wayland 1972
  • Howard F.E. The mediaeval styles of the English Parish Church Batsford London 1937
  • Pevsner, Nikolaus: The Buildings of England (series), Harmondsworth: Penguin 1951-1974
  • Schloeder, Steven J.: Architecture in Communion, San Francisco: Ignatius Press 1998
  • "Ecclesiastical Architecture". Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2007-02-18. 
  1. ^ Steven J. Schloeder, Architecture in Communion: Implementing the Second Vatican Council through Liturgy and Architecture. (Ignatius Press: 1998): 196. ISBN 0898706319.

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