When you view the outside of a church building, what do you see?  The features on the exterior of the church can help to determine the architectural style of the church…which may tell you something (or a lot) about the inside(s).

An architectural style is a reflection of “external influences that shape the materiality, method of construction and form of a building, helping it to be identified and characterized in both historical and design terms” per archisoup.com.  Further, these styles have developed chronologically with changes in beliefs, cultures, availability of building materials and with advances in engineering and building methods. 

Some exterior features of a church building, to take notice of, that can provide indicators of an architectural style:

FormTall with a tower/steeple? Is “verticality” apparent? Low-rise without a steeple? Cross on top?
Floor PlanRectangular? Square? Oval? Rounded? Octagonal? Other?
OrientationEast-West axis? Entry door to the West?
MaterialWood? Stone? Brick? Poured-concrete?
Façade (front)Columns? Flat or raised elements? Triangular pediment? Steps / stairs?
Tower/SteeplePart of the façade? Over the crossing (center)? More than one? Stand-alone campanile? Dome(s)?
DoorsSingle? Double? Decorative? Frame rounded at top or pointed?
WindowsMany or few? Rounded at top or pointed? Stained-glass with images or plain? Rose window? Grills? Tracery?
StatuesIn niches on the façade? Stand-alone shrines? Patron saints?
Other adornmentsShape of columns? Tops of columns (capitals)? Gargoyles? Decorative stone / brick work? Date?
Landscape / gardenNatural? Tended/shaped? Contains shrines, grottoes, other?
Exterior Architectural Features

See information about church architectural styles and examples at https://churchwonders.com/architecture-and-symbolism/church-architecture-styles/

All of the exterior features of a church will provide indications of the architectural style which can provide clues as to what is inside of the church, as well as to what the practices of the church are like.  The exterior design can even hint at the make-up of the church community.

For example, red-brick church buildings are seen in many regions of the U.S. These structures can be of several architectural styles, or a mixture of styles.  Many of these churches built in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, fall  into the Neoclassical / Revivalist category which incorporate various elements of historical architectural styles, but were built more recently.  Red-brick churches of this period are commonly seen with predominantly Gothic or Romanesque features.  A church with a tall steeple, long rectangular base and smaller, rounded-top window openings is indicative of the Romanesque style which was perpetuated in the 11th to 12th centuries; but, in a “mixed-style” church, the façade may have a column and portico design of the Classical motif along with the Romanesque features.   A Gothic-style brick church will likely show use of the Gothic (pointed) arch in the windows, doors and rooflines. The church may provide a sense of uplift in the way the features are structured.  There may even be some gargoyles near the roofline!   Neoclassical churches may incorporate stained-glass windows depicting Saints of meaning for the community, or scenes from the life of Jesus as illustrated by the Mysteries of the Rosary – the windows can “shine a light”, along with the architectural style, on the liturgical practices, ethnicity or social history of the community.  A Neoclassical / Revivalist design built of red-brick around the turn of 20th century will be more likely to be the home of a parish with a history that it would like to perpetuate, i.e. the community values tradition.

As another example, a church with smooth gray concrete walls, minimal window openings and unique geometric or curved design is indicative of a Modern style of architecture.  These structures are recently built, i.e. in the second half of the 20th century.  The structure may be single-story or have a soaring, concrete-formed steeple.  External adornment will be sparing, but the overall profile may be memorable. The shape of the base may be squarish, octagonal, hexagonal or round, and less likely a long rectangular shape.  Inside, one is likely to encounter a centripetal floor plan where the pews surround the main altar table either fully or in a semi-circular, stadium-like arrangement.  One would expect such a structure to house a parish with liturgical practices more reflective of a post-Vatican II dogma which encouraged more active participation by the laity in liturgical services with less physical separation of the congregation and clergy.  The community is likely to reflect more progressive ideas while honoring the traditions and sacredness of the ancient Catholic faith.

Of course, church structures and community practices are not always in alignment as practices can change over time unlike the building itself.  For example, some structures may reflect more traditional architecture, but the community practices may be more modern; and sometimes building styles are constructed to reflect other interests, such as that of a large donor or that of the surrounding buildings’ architecture.  For example, one is less likely to encounter a newly built Neoclassical-style church in a modern urban setting, as the church will more likely be built in a style similar to other nearby buildings.  That said, external clues often reveal the internal character of the church community and its practices.  As Denis McNamara wrote, “The art and architecture are intended to be a part of the liturgical rite with the symbolism of a place where God dwells and acts with his people.”

So, the next time you approach a church, pause for a moment to survey the structure and try to identify the architectural style.  Consider what the features of the style may indicate about the interior of the church, the history of the building, the liturgical practices of the parish, and the make-up of the community.  Then, go inside and evaluate your hypothesis while you actually interact with the community via participation in the liturgy and conversations with the parishioners before/after the service.   This exercise will not only enhance your knowledge of church architecture, it will also augment your participation in the liturgy via a better understanding of the symbolism and design incorporated into the building itself.


Archisoup.com  https://www.archisoup.com/

McNamara, Denis R. Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy. Chicago: Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2009.

Williams, Peter W. Houses of God. Region, Religion and Architecture in the United States.  Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Hampton, Roy A. III. German Gothic in the Midwest: The Parish Churches of Franz Georg Himpler and Adolphus Druiding. U.S. Catholic Historian published by Catholic University of America Press, 1997. 51-74.  https://www.jstor.org/stable/25154572?seq=1

Images from https://commons.wikimedia.org

St Vincent DePaul Catholic Church – Author: Andrew Jameson

St. Joseph Church – Author: Nheyob