Church Architecture: Styles & Design

Instructor: Megan Criss
In this lesson, we will explore basic elements of the architecture and style of churches. More specifically, Christian churches and the most common components of their design. We will also learn the difference between commonly confused terms associated with the word church.

Christianity and Architecture

Christianity is one of many religions that host sacred places for forms of worship. Just as each religion in the world is unique, so, too, are their forms of basic architecture. Christian churches have distinctive elements that will be covered throughout this lesson.

Chapel, Church, or Cathedral?

You have probably heard the terms church, chapel, and cathedral before, and while we know they are all terms in Christianity, do we know the difference between them? These words are very common in Christianity and for the purpose of this lesson, need to be clearly defined. The words church and chapel as we know them now both came into the English language during the 13th century.

Church refers to the entire religious space where the congregation gathers; in other words, the entire architectural space. The word chapel usually suggests a smaller space such as a room within a church or a non-religious building such as a hospital or university.

Chapels and churches can be widely applied throughout Christianity; however, a cathedral is very different in its function when compared to a church or chapel. Architecturally, cathedrals are usually very grand and lofty, with tall ceilings, buttresses, columns, stained glass windows, sculptures, and great attention to detail inside and out. Cathedrals also fulfill the role of being the seat of the bishop and act as a place where chapters gather, not just for Sunday service, but multiple times daily. They tend to be located in larger cities versus small towns.

Elements of Churches

One of the most recognizable features of a church from its outward appearance would be the steeple. The steeple is a tall, pointed tower that sits atop a church, often crowned with a spire. Traditionally, steeples functioned as signal of strength on top of the church, with defined architectural lines pointing upward as if reaching to the heavens in its symbolism. This feature also functioned to give more visual appeal to churches that would otherwise be quite square and short. Steeples, while adding an element of beauty, also served their towns as a reference point and a place marker of sorts.

Another iconic element of Christian churches was the addition of church bells. Church bells are located inside the steeple, oftentimes within a part of the steeple called the belfry. The belfry sits on top of the tower (the bottommost part), and houses the bells in a semi-enclosed space. On top of the belfry would be the lantern, a small section that houses light. Atop that is the spire. Historically, bells rang to tell townspeople that church was about to begin. Bells were also used to alert and warn of emergencies.

Example of a steeple; from bottom to top it includes tower, belfry, lantern, and spire

You'll see crosses when entering most Christian churches. In Catholicism, depictions of Christ on the cross are knows as crucifixes, which will also be found in a lot of the building and interior design. Many other Christian churches simply use a bare cross in their designs. A good example of the incorporation of crosses into building design and style would be through the use of stained glass windows. Stained glass is used to tell stories, depict scenes, and show symbolic figures like the cross. These elements also add a splash of color to the church. When the sun filters through the windows, they shine colorful light within the church.

Interior Components of the Church

Within churches, you'll find an area from which services and masses are held; this area is the sanctuary. Inside the sanctuary are sections like thechancel and nave. The chancel is traditionally located in the front of the sanctuary, where the homilies or sermons are given. The placement of the chancel determines the direction the pews will face. Pews are seats within the nave where the congregation sits during services.

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