Church architecture is a specialized area of building design that incorporates religious, spiritual and symbolic elements into the architectural style. Per archisoup.com, “architectural style is a collection 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.” Architectural styles have developed chronologically over the centuries with changes in beliefs, cultures, availability of building materials – along with advances in engineering and construction methods.
Until Christianity was “legalized” in the early fourth century with the conversion of Constantine, Christians did not meet publicly, but rather in “house-churches”. As visible devotion became acceptable, worship spaces were designed like the Roman basilica which was used for business and courts of law. The basilica exterior was a relatively simple rectangular structure with a flat roof and flush side-walls. The building had an apse at one end, and a central aisle (nave) with side aisles separated from the nave by columns. The standard façade adornment was a singular triangular pediment with supporting columns. The inside of the basilica was more decorative, and the Christian adaptation even more so, as it was to be a receptacle for the Eucharistic celebration. As such, the structure of early Christian churches was designed to facilitate focus and movement from the west-end entrance to the main altar on the eastern end within an apse which would concentrate all the focus to the altar beneath.
The early Christian basilica would give way to the Byzantine design under the emperor Justinian and the signature dome of the period. Church styles proceeded chronologically, with overlap, through the centuries from Romanesque, to Gothic then Renaissance and to Baroque/Rococo in the eighteenth century. One could say that all subsequent churches were built upon some variation of the earlier styles – with the exception of the Modern style using concrete and steel which has enabled some completely unique designs.
The following are the main architectural styles of churches as outlined by Seamus Gaffney in Church Architecture: A Brief Survey. Accompanying the list are the predominant periods when the styles were used and some indicative features of the style.
|Style : Period||Predominant Features||Related Churchwonders.com Page|
|Classical: 7th c. B.C. to 4th c. A.D.||strict adherence to classical orders, symmetry, proportion, rows of columns|
|Byzantine: After 4th century||massive domes, hanging architecture, Byzantine-Greek cross floor plan, mosaics|
|Romanesque: 11th-12th centuries||rounded arches, heavy walls with minimal openings, large apse, central tower and adjacent towers|
|Gothic: 10th-14th c.||pointed (Gothic) arches, tall, thin columns, rib vaults, flying buttresses, stained-glass windows incl. rose window|
|Renaissance: 15th c.||revival of ancient Roman forms incl. the column and rounded arch, domes, proportion, harmony|
|Baroque: 17th – 18th centuries||constant movement, highly decorated, curves, contrasting light/dark, bright colors, twisting elements, gilding|
|Rococo: late 17th to mid 18th centuries||“Light-Baroque”, curves, scrolls and shells, paler color schemes, gently flowing movement|
|Neoclassical / Revivalist: late 18th – 19th centuries||symmetry and geometric form, hulking facades, columns, “mixture” of styles|
|Modern: started in the 20th century||simplicity, starkness, steel, glass, smooth formed-concrete, inventive and unique designs|
Of course, the architectural style is only a part of what makes a building feel like a church. Liturgical symbolism built into the church features and artwork are also critical to making a building “feel like a church”.
See https://churchwonders.com/2020/10/15/experiencing-church-virtually/ for more about how architecture and art contribute to the sacredness and ambiance of a church.
It is also important to note that many churches, even if built in the early centuries, are a “mixture” containing elements of more than one architectural style. For example, the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is at its heart a Romanesque church with rounded arches, three towers and a large apse built mostly in the 11th and 12th centuries – until a Baroque exterior was grafted on the western side in the 18th century. A newer example of mixed styles is the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. which was completed in 1920. The interior of the structure is full of Byzantine-style mosaics and domes enclosed by heavy walls and rounded arches of the Romanesque style.
The following pages summarize each of the main church architectural styles, as well a provides some examples built in the style.
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Davies, J.G. Temples, Churches and Mosques. New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1982.
Gaffney, Seamus L. Church Architecture: A Brief Survey. The Irish Monthly, 1952. 236-242
Hiller, Carl E. Caves to Cathedrals. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1974.
Images from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/: Public Domain
Sta. Maria Toscanella from The Story of Architecture. Charles Thompson Mathews. 1896. Appleton & Co, NY.
Parthenon, Athens, Greece
St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, Italy
Reims Cathedral, Reims, France
St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, Italy
Saints Peter and Paul Church, Krakow, Poland
Asam Church, Munich Germany
Images from other sources:
St. Patrick’s Cathedral- Author: NJC Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption – Author: self