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Church (building)

April 29, 2021

Church (building), a building designed for worship for groups of Christians. It may be small and simple, just large enough to hold a neighborhood congregation; or it may be huge and complicated, containing different spaces for various religious activities and observances, as in a grand cathedral. All churches are built for sacred purposes, but because many branches of Christianity exist, no single type of church building predominates. Some Christians worship with little ceremony, some with elaborate ritual; some make use of statues and paintings, some do not. Thus, churches vary in appearance, having been planned to suit one or another kind of religious practice.


In general, two types of plans predominate: the basilica, processional in form, with a long axis running from a centered doorway to the altar at the other end of the building; and the centralized church, of circular or polygonal plan, with one large central space, usually with a dome overhead. The two basic shapes are combined in many different ways, and either one can be modulated to a crosslike form by the addition of projecting wings, either in the form of a Greek cross (with arms of equal length) or a Latin cross (with one longer arm, the nave). Elaborate churches may have separate rooms for baptism, for treasures and relics, for robing the clergy, and for administration. They may also have more than one altar and subsidiary chapels.


Churches also vary according to the period in which they were built, that is, by architectural style; styles of the past have often been revived and reinterpreted. The earliest Christian meeting places were converted houses called titulae. After Christianity was legitimized by the Edict of Milan in 313, basilicas and centralized churches sprang up quickly in the next 50 years throughout the Roman Empire. The major ones were built over the most sacred shrines; the places of the crucifixion and entombment of Christ in Jerusalem and the grave of St. Peter in Rome, for example. At Christ’s tomb a circular, domed structure was built (still partly preserved), and nearby was a basilica; the two are now combined in one building, known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The original Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, replaced by the present church during the Renaissance, was a huge processional basilica with projecting wings—transepts—forming a Latin cross in plan. The domed, centralized form persisted in the Byzantine and Slavic East, where medieval churches, small in scale, often took the form of five domes arranged on a Greek cross plan.


In the Western, Latin world the basilica evolved first into Romanesque (11th-12th century) and then Gothic (12th-15th century) churches. These were vaulted, that is, roofed with arching sheets of stone, the Romanesque with arches and vaults of semicircular form, the Gothic with pointed elements (see Arch and Vault). The Romanesque church was largely the result of monastic influence, which concentrated the forces of church building in well-to-do communities of monks, especially in France. Major churches were erected by monastic architects along the great pilgrimage routes that ran from northern Europe south to Spain and to Rome. In the creation of the Gothic style the merchants in the emerging cities, together with powerful ecclesiastics, played the crucial role. The first fully characterized Gothic structure was the Royal Abbey of Saint Denis, outside Paris, built in the middle of the 12th century; it was the creation of the great ecclesiastical administrator Abbot Suger. By the 14th century most European cities, including those in the British Isles, had a Gothic cathedral, a vast and intricate structure with spacious windows of stained glass, and entranceways and roofs encrusted with a profusion of sculpture.


Renaissance churches (15th century onward) were constructed in Italy and then north of the Alps. Like all Renaissance art, these churches were born of a study of classical Roman antiquity, and thus they are composed of lucid arcades, files of columns, and domes, all assembled in a restrained and elegant harmony in strong contrast to the spirited elaboration of forms in the medieval north. In the 16th and following centuries a kind of Renaissance style was carried overseas by the Roman Catholic orders, in particular by the Jesuits. At the same time, the Protestant churches of the Reformation, which at first tended toward a simplified medieval type, gradually adopted Renaissance principles.

The last original church style before modern times was the baroque, an opulent and emotionally charged style that appeared in Rome about 1600 in direct response to the teachings of the Counter Reformation; it is particularly popular in the Latin world and in Roman Catholic parts of Germany and central Europe.


In England a subdued neoclassical style appeared in the 17th century; basilican meetinghouses were built with tall, pointed steeples, a combination much favored in North America. In the 18th century this became known as the Georgian style. In other Christian countries both medieval and neoclassical styles persisted, and by the end of the 19th century most Christian areas had churches in a variety of historical styles—some survivals, some revivals. The Gothic Revival predominated in the design of new churches. Architects continued to rely on eclectic revivals until the advent of modern art and architecture. Religious communities tend to be conservative; hence the adoption of modern forms came about slowly, the old ones being comforting, familiar, and functional.


Some congregations and church officials, however, took the plunge, and by the end of the 19th century nontraditional churches began to be built in Europe and the United States. They bore no resemblance to past designs. Plain geometric shapes, free of all historical associations, were ingeniously assembled into houses of worship. Partly because of increasing familiarity with machines and machine-made objects, the new churches became accepted by many. The technology of building was changing rapidly, and steel and concrete made new shapes possible. The centralized church was revived, with its altar placed in the middle of the congregation. By the end of the 20th century, churches in contemporary architectural modes had become commonplace. This acceptance has included a new interest in church art, and modern sculpture, mosaics, stained glass, and weaving (see Tapestry) have taken their places in the new buildings. Outstanding examples of contemporary church architecture include the Pilgrimage Church of Notre-Dame-du-Haut (1950-55) in Ronchamp, France, by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier; Coventry Cathedral (1954-62) in England by Sir Basil Spence; and Saint John’s Abbey Church (1953-67) in Collegeville, Minnesota, by the Hungarian-American architect Marcel Breuer. The manner of religious observances has changed, as has church design, perhaps most radically in the case of drive-in churches.

See also American Art and Architecture; Architecture; Baroque Art and Architecture; Byzantine Art and Architecture; Early Christian Art and Architecture; Gothic Art and Architecture; Latin American Architecture; Modern Art and Architecture; Neoclassical Art and Architecture; Renaissance Art and Architecture.

Contributed By: William L. MacDonald

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