Many people want to live forever. One metaphorical way to live forever is to gain lasting fame. Many people aspire to fame in their lifetimes, but those names that have persisted throughout the ages have achieved immortality. The names of great thinkers and leaders like Aristotle, Julius Caesar, and Ghengis Khan, as well as religious figures like Jesus, Mohammed, and Gautama Buddha are all well-known throughout the world long after their deaths. But how can humanity itself leave a lasting impression, perhaps even after humanity itself has vanished?
Driven by the desire to build something eternal, we have designed and constructed many impressive monuments to our own greatness. Architecture is one avenue humanity has pursued in our quest for eternal life. From earthen mounds to modern skyscrapers, we have endeavored to use architecture as a way to leave our mark. How has it looked in Christianity?
Early Christianity: houses and basilicae
The very first Christian places of worship were Roman houses. The religion was not necessarily safe to practice in open view, so many people opted to do so indoors, out of the public eye. However, as Christianity became more important, it could move into the public spotlight.
The first churches were modeled after the Roman basilica. One main reason former pagan temples were not used was its lack of indoor areas: pagan rites were performed under the open sky within the gaze of the gods. This openness from the sky and on the sides meant there was no separation between Christian and non-Christian. They also had the unfortunate association with pagan religions.
The basilica is a rectangular building which includes an apse at the closed end. This is a semicircular (sometimes rectangular) protrusion from the building, and that is where the judge would sit. In Christianity, the judge’s seat was replaced by the chancel (the altar and its immediately surrounding area). It is also known as the sanctuary. Most basilicae had a central nave, or direct line of sight to the sanctuary. On either side, there was usually a colonnade, and the area between the colonnade and the outer wall is call an aisle.
When Christianity became the state religion of Rome, it received preferential treatment. While before the pagan temples enjoyed extremely elaborate furnishings, that distinction was now bestowed upon Christian churches. Many early churches are splendid for this very reason.
Developing out of the basilica, the Great Churches and Cathedrals of the Middle Ages are the next great development. The basic shape of nave and apse is still present, but the buildings started to take on the shape of the religion’s symbol, the cross. The part that intersects the main line of the nave is called the transept, and the actual area of intersection is called the crossing. It provided more space for congregants and chapels, and it embedded the Christian symbol directly into the building’s ground plan.
By medieval times, the “two-room” church was standard: the nave was for the congregation and laypeople, and the sanctuary was meant for the clergy. Sanctuaries were elaborate and sometimes have an ambulatory, or a place for a procession to wrap around the sanctuary. Ambulatories often include altars for saints.
Inside the building, the crossing usually rises high and is a main feature. The interior is often richly decorated, confirming the high position of Christianity in medieval Europe. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the sanctuary may be protected from the rest of the interior by an iconostasis, and even in Western traditions there may be a Rood Screen, which visually separates the chancel from the nave. Rood Screens are not solid, though, so the congregation can still see the sanctuary.
Orientation and External Features
For the great churches, reaching high towards God and illustrating the glory and grandiosity of Christianity, the crossing of the transept is the perfect point to place a tower or dome. In Romanesque or Byzantine architecture, the vertically projections are more squared or rounded, but in Gothic architecture, there are sharp-pointed spires. It was common for Gothic buildings to have bigger windows and thinner walls, which led to the development of the flying buttress to better support the weight.
In regards to orientation, there is a tradition that Christ is associated with East. For that reason, the “east end” of the church is usually where the altar is, because the congregation will face that way during worship. The west end is the entrance, symbolizing the congregants entering into Christianity. The western end will often contain twin towers. It should be noted that many churches are not actually laid out on an east-west axis, but the architecture is still called by those directions, whether it is truly east-west or not.
Of course, not all churches can be Great Churches. One tenet of Christianity is to be humble, and it may seem the ornate nature of the Great Churches is a bit boastful. There are many small, local churches that are not so ornate, but they often have many of the same overall architectural features, like a nave, sanctuary, and front tower. They were usually the highest building (including the tower or spire) in a town, as God’s house was not to be surpassed in height. Interiors may be simple wooden pews or they may have more elaborate decorations.
The modern church can be simple or grandiose. The simple ones are often local, but there are large ones that are relatively simple. Many modern congregations do not have the same power that medieval Catholic ones wielded, so they simply cannot afford such grandeur. There are, however, some sweeping, modern churches that utilize modern materials. They may be slick steel and glass structures or imposing concrete edifices. The interiors can be brilliantly lit or emanate a more traditional glow.
What the future holds for Christian architecture is anyone’s guess. With our advances in virtual reality, you may soon be able attend services in your own home and choose the church you want to visit that day. Or perhaps you like to stay grounded in reality and want to visit the world’s Greatest Churches. Whatever it is, we know that the past has left its mark, and, even if humanity were to disappear, some of our grandest churches would be evidence of our existence.