Church Architecture – Churches are places where people deliberately come together to build community, support one another and find strength for the challenges of daily life. Some are grand soaring edifices, others simple rooms, but all of them are places where believers seek to communicate with God and with one another in a way that is meaningful for them. Church architecture encompasses a broad spectrum of architectural styles from the ancient pagan basilica through modern buildings designed to reflect secular sensibilities. The history of church architecture is complex and reflects both the cultural evolution of Christianity as well as the changing liturgical practice.
Early church buildings largely followed the plan of the Roman basilica; this comprised an atrium (courtyard), a narthex (vestibule) at the west end, a nave with side aisles and a central bema for seating the congregation, and a semi-circular or square apse reserved for clergy. Later a transept was often added, extending the nave on a north-south axis and providing space for a choir or cathedra. In the 12th century this evolved into an eastern termination of either a lower apse, which is characteristic of Italy and Germany, or, as at Norwich Cathedral, a high vaulted apsidal end with a group of projecting radiating chapels known as a chevet.
The question that arises in the study of church architecture is to what extent and how architectural form should be determined by its liturgical function. Different periods show a variety of attitudes; for example, the Renaissance preference for centralized form promoted an architecture of merit that was largely undetermined by ritual requirements, while the baroque and 19th-century revivalism showed a greater determination to express liturgical function in architectural form.
Many churches were built on a large scale and were the property of wealthy local patrons; this may have resulted in an accretion of chantry chapels, tombs, memorials and fittings reflecting the particular interests of the donor. In some instances this may be evident in a unified design scheme, but in many other cases a clear articulation of the patron’s particular vision has been lost with the passage of time and the building’s subsequent changes.
Internally, a carefully conceived architectural scheme might also exist; this might be evident in the mosaic vaults of Orthodox churches or in the stained glass windows of medieval and Gothic structures. In more recent times, however, some churches have been designed without any unified architectural scheme and are simply functional spaces to accommodate the needs of the particular religious community. These new designs are frequently criticized for being more like museums than places of worship. Yet, the fact is that, for most of their history, churches have been very much designed to be a place where believers could gather in peace and in a spirit of contemplation. For that reason they remain an important cultural element in the world today. Michael DeSanctis is a professor of Fine Arts and theology at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania and a design consultant to Catholic parishes involved in construction or renovation of their church buildings.