Map of described churches
Churches are buildings where Christians gather and worship God. Initially these were buildings where Christians gathered but as the Christianity became adopted state religion and a tool for governing society, churches turned in exclusive sites of worship with little Christian worship happening outside these buildings.
Basilicas are large and important churches where Pope has given special ceremonial rites. Cathedrals are churches serving as seats of bishops. Chapels are places of Christian worship and fellowship, often they comprise parts of buildings built for other purpose.
St.Peters Basilica, Vatican. Photo: P.Landy, Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-SA-3.0
Throughout the history Christian churches have been the epitome of architecture and arts achievements in Western culture, representing it.
First Christian churches
It is rather hard to name the oldest Christian church as this religion evolved from older Jewish religions and there remain some uncertainties regarding of linkage of some Jewish sects to Christianity.
Judaism and Christianity started to divide during the 1st century AD and Christianity was a clearly distinct religion in 4th century AD. One of the earliest dated churches was located in Syria, Dura-Europos town - in this abandoned town there is found Christian chapel from circa AD 232 - 256.
In 4th century churches are already in Armenia (oldest Christian state in world), Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Greece. Old churches are also in Italy, France, Egypt, Cyprus and some more regions.
Separately should be mentioned the unique rock hewn churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia from 13th century. Carvings and frescoes here show some similarity to Byzantine art.
First really magnificent - and for long time unsurpassed - church is Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. It is built in 532 - 537 AD and well represented the might of Byzantine Empire. Numerous similar style but much smaller size churches over the next centuries were been built in Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria and other countries of this region.
Byzantine style has served as a basis for the development of unique church architecture in Russia. Design of churches over centuries here changed maintaining it's distinct style. Some of notable examples of Russian Orthodox church architecture are Vladimir Dormition Cathedral (Vladimir, 1160), Saint Basil's Cathedral (Moscow, 1555 - 1561) and such miracle of wooden architecture as Transfiguration Church in Kizhi (Republic of Karelia, 1714).
Next magnificent churches were built in Western Europe, signaling the rise of Western culture. Romanic style in architecture merged accomplishments of Roman architecture with Byzantine architecture and was the first architecture style of Western culture with first early examples appearing in 9th century in Germany, France, Switzerland, Spain. Among the original significant examples of this style can be named part of Aachen Cathedral (North Rhine - Westphalia, Germany). Later came such beautiful and impressive churches as Speyer Cathedral (Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany, 1130 - 1106), St. Mark's Basilica (Veneto, Italy, 1094), Angoulême Cathedral (Charente, France, 1110 - 1128).
Important stimulus for further development of architecture were crusades, leading to intense exchange of knowledge and skills between the long-established cultures in Near East and energetic, rising Western European culture. Next style after Romanic style - Gothic - testified the peak of influence of Christianity on Western society. Basilica of St.Denis in Paris (12th century) was the frontrunner of Gothic style, but shortly afterwards there were built some of the most magnificent churches ever built - such as Notre Dame de Paris (Paris, France, 1163 - late 14th century), Amiens Cathedral (Somme, France, 1220 - 1266), Burgos Cathedral ( Castile and Léon, Spain, 1221 - 1567), Cologne Cathedral (North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, 1248 - 1880) and Milan Cathedral (Lombardy, Italy, 1386 - 1965).
Wealth, fierce competition of influential Northern Italian cities and wish to revive "Golden Age" brought the next major style in architecture and other arts - Renaissance. This was achieved with overplus - now the time of Renaissance is seen as the "Golden Age" of Europe.
Important step in development of this architecture was construction of Basilica of San Lorenzo (Florence, Italy, 1419-1480ies). Italy dominated in this style - major accomplishments in church architecture in these times are St. Peter's Basilica (Vatican City, 1506 - 1626), the small but beautiful Tempietto of San Pietro in Montorio (Rome, Italy, circa 1502), magnificent dome of Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence, Italy, 1469) and other churches. Outside Italy there should be mentioned the beautiful Katedrala Sv. Jakova (Šibenik, Croatia, 1402 - 1555).
Baroque and Rococo styles
Baroque style originated as an attempt of Christian church to renew its former significance through emotional and impressive communication of religious themes - using ornate, lush expressions of art and architecture. This opulent style was borrowed by monarchies of Europe which were at their peak of influence - thus nowadays the most well known samples of Baroque architecture are palaces.
Significant Baroque churches are San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (Rome, Italy, 1638 - 1646), Cathedral of San Giorgio (Sicily, Italy, 1693), St Paul's Cathedral (London, United Kingdom, 1668 - 1697), Ottobeuren Abbey with its Rococo interior (Bavaria, Germany, 1737 - 1766), Vienna Karlskirche (Vienna, Austria, 1716 - 1737).
Meanwhile church was the bearer of Western culture to "new lands" - exactly Baroque style churches came to Americas, parts of Africa, Eastern Asia. It is symbolic that one of the first precursors of Baroque was Church of the Gesu in Rome, Italy, built in 1568-1580. This church was the seat of Jesuit order, actively and with great success spreading Christianity around the world. Some magnificent examples of such colonial churches are Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral (Mexico City, Mexico, 1573 - 1813), Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus (Cusco, Peru, 1668), São Francisco Church and Convent (Bahia, Brazil, 1708 - 1755).
Rococo originated in France and has been expressed mainly in interior. Although it is widely believed that Rococo is a decadent, "overspiced" Baroque, in general this style shows more elegance and sophistication than many somewhat tasteless applications of Baroque. This style has been mostly used in other monuments of architecture but here should be mentioned grand Rococo interiors in some Bavarian churches - Ottobeuren Abbey, Wieskirche (1740ies) and Asamkirche in Munich (1733 - 1746).
With the start of Enlightement in the middle of 17th century the importance of Christian church declined. Construction of new churches was not the main item in public expenditure anymore. From the other side - affluence of Europe was growing, especially when started industrialization. In general there were not built grandiose churches anymore, but there was widespread construction of smaller churches, very often with sophisticated architecture, significant effort was put also in restoration of existing churches. There is one notable exception though - in 1882 in Barcelona, Spain there was started construction of one of the largest and most magnificent churches - Sagrada Familia. This building is one of predecessors of Art Nouveau style and architect - Antoni Gaudi - planned that church won't be complete until some centuries of intense work will be gone. Development of computers and construction technologies though promise completion of construction works in 2026.
Outstanding Christian churches
Below are listed some of most important, impressive and beautiful Christian churches of the world. Churches are arranged by region and age when construction started.
Etchmiadzin Cathedral, Armenia.
Butcher, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-3.0.
- Church of the Holy Sepulchre - Palestine, West Bank, Jerusalem. Symbolically one of the most important churches for Christians - located in place where Jesus was crucified and buried. Pilgrimage site since 4th century, church built since 333, rebuilt several times, last time in 1048, since then largely rebuilt.
- Church of the Nativity - Palestine, West Bank, Betlehem. Supposed location where Jesus Christ was born. One of the oldest continuously operating churches, worshipped since circa 100 AD. Current basilica built in 565.
- Larnaca church of Ayios Lazaros - Cyprus, Larnaca. Important late 9th century church, possible site of burial of Lazarus.
- Tokalı Kilise and other rock churches of Göreme - Turkey, Nevşehir. Rock hew churches in unusual cliff formations - fairy chimneys. Churches built here mainly in 9th - 11th century, contain some of the best Byzantine frescoes in world.
- Svetitskhoveli Cathedral - Georgia, Kartli. One of principal Georgian churches, venerated as the location of Christ's mantle. Built circa 1020.
- Santa Sabina - Italy, Rome. One of oldest churches in Europe, built in 422 - 432, numerous items in interiors remain intact.
- Hagia Sophia - Turkey, Istanbul. Former Orthodox basilica, now museum. Possibly - highest achievement of Byzantine architecture, largest cathedral in world for nearly 1000 years. Built in 532 - 537.
- Basilica of St.Denis - France, Paris. First truly Gothic building in world - rebuilt in 12th century, although founded already in 7th century. Burial site of almost all kings of France.
- Canterbury Cathedral - United Kingdom, Kent. Enormous, richly decorated and historically important cathedral, rebuilt numerous times since circa 740, today mainly in Gothic style.
Canterbury Cathedral, United Kingdom.
Hans Musil, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0.
- Aachen Cathedral - Germany, North Rhine - Westphalia. Historically very important church, residence of Charlemagne, place of coronation of 42 kings and queens. Built in 792 - 805, rebuilt numerous times adding new values.
- Speyer Cathedral - Germany, Rhineland-Palatinate. One of most impressive Romanic style cathedrals in world, built in 1030 - 1106.
- Greensted Church - United Kingdom, Essex. Oldest wooden church in world, built circa 1063-1108 AD.
- Duomo of Pisa with Leaning tower - Italy, Tuscany. Impressive monument of European medieval Romanesque architecture. Cathedral started in 1063, rebuilt several times, baptistry - started circa 1153 and the famous leaning belltower started in 1173-1372.
- Santiago de Compostela Cathedral - Spain, A Coruña. Important pilgrimage church with beautiful Baroque facade, main part built in 1075-1128, western facade in 1738-1750.
- Saint Mark's Basilica - Italy, Veneto. Building of unusual beauty and splendour, one of the most important Byzantine architecture monuments, built in 1094.
- Worms Cathedral - Germany, Rhineland-Palatinate. Magnificent Romanesque church from 1110 - 1081.
- Vladimir Dormition Cathedral - Russia, Vladimir. One of most important churches in history of Russian Orthodox Church, built in 1160. Very ornate exterior with iconostas by Andrei Rublev (1408).
- Notre Dame de Paris - France, Paris. 1163 - late 14th century. One of most significant Gothic cathedrals and one of best known monuments of architecture in world.
- Borgund stave church - Norway, Sogn og Fjordane. The most authentic of stave churches. This unusul and beautiful wooden church is built at the end of 12th century and has little changed or rebuilt since then.
- Limburg Cathedral - Germany, Hesse. Most accomplished late Romanic style church, built in circa 1190 - 1235.
- Amiens Cathedral - France, Somme. One of most impressive Gothic churches and churches in general in world. Built in 1220 - 1266.
- Burgos Cathedral - Spain, Castile and Léon. One of the best Gothic style examples, built in 1221 - 1567.
- Westminster Abbey - United Kingdom, London. Royal church of United Kingdom with numerous art values. Built in 1245 - circa 1745, mainly in Gothic style.
- Cologne Cathedral - Germany, North Rhine - Westphalia. Very impressive Gothic cathedral with two 157 metres tall towers, built in 1248 - 1880.
- Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi - Italy, Umbria. Pilgrimage site of global importance, built in 1253.
- Orvieto Cathedral - Italy, Umbria. Splendid and unusual building, built in 1290 - 1591.
- Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence Cathedral) - Italy, Tuscany, Florence. One of most impressive churches in world, the largest building in medieval Europe. Built in 1296 - 1469.
- Rheims Cathedral - France, Marne. One of the best examples of Gothic architecture, end of 13th century.
- Ulm Minster - Germany, Baden-Württemberg. The tallest church in world so far (before the completion of 170 metres high Sagrada Familia in Barcelona) - 161.53 metres. Built in beautiful Gothic forms in 1377 - 1890.
- Milan Cathedral - Italy, Lombardy. One the most impressive Gothic buildings in world, built in 1386 - 1965.
- Katedrala Sv. Jakova - Croatia, Šibenik-Knin. Beautiful Renaissance cathedral, built in 1402 - 1555 without mortar, using joints and stocks made in stone.
- Rosslyn Chapel - United Kingdom, Scotland, Midlothian. Construction of the extremely ornate and symbolically rich chapel started in 1456. Recently gained unexpected popularity due to speculative theories regarding Freemasonry and the Knights Templar.
- St. Peter's Basilica - Vatican City. Best known of four ancient papal basilicas. Most important church in Christian history, with the largest interior of any church. Present basilica built in 1506 - 1626, represents one of the most important pieces of Renaissance architecture.
- Curtea de Argeş Cathedral - Romania, Argeş. Unusual, large cathedral from early 16th century. Resembles mausoleum in Byzantine style, adorned with Moorish arabesques.
- Saint Basil's Cathedral - Russia, Moscow. Very ornate and unusual church built in 1555 - 1561.
- Church of the Gesu - Italy, Rome. Mother church of Jesuit order. Built in 1568 - 1580, one of frontrunner of Baroque style in world with very ornate interior.
- Sârbi Susani Church - Romania, Maramureş. Representative of traditional wooden churches of region, built circa 1639, with conservative construction methods, using ancient ornamentation.
- St Paul's Cathedral - United Kingdom, London. Important representation of Baroque style, built in 1708, one of largest churches in United Kindgom.
- Transfiguration Church in Kizhi - Russia, Republic of Karelia. Unusual wooden church with 22 domes, built in 1714.
- Ottobeuren Basilica - Germany, Bavaria. One of the most ornate Baroque and Rococo buildings in world, built in 1737-1766.
- Sagrada Familia - Spain, Catalonia, Barcelona. Largest and by far - most impressive Art Nouveau church in world, designed by Antoni Gaudi, started in 1882, due to be completed in 2026.
- Church and Convent of San Francisco, Quito - Ecuador, Pichincha, Quito. The largest historical church building in Americas, built in 1550 - 1680. This beautiful structure represents a harmonious blend of Renaissance, Mannerism and Baroque styles. Interior is sumptuous, with much gold and other precious materials.
- Church of the Society of Jesus, Quito - Ecuador, Pichincha, Quito. One of the pearls of Baroque architecture in Americas, built in 1605 - 1765. Very ornate building with gold coated interior.
- Hvalsey Fjord Church - Greenland, Kujalleq. Ruins of the oldest known church in Americas, built in the late 10th century by Vikings. Churchwas built from enormous stone blocks, some up to 5 tons heavy. Fell in disuse in the 15th century.
- Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral - Mexico, Mexico City. Largest and oldest cathedral in Americas, built in lush Renaissance and Baroque style in 1573 - 1813.
- Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos - Bolivia, Santa Cruz. 11 missions of Jesuits built churches in 18th century. Comparatively small sized churches have specific, locally adapted design, are richly decorated and harmonious.
- São Francisco Church and Convent - Brazil, Bahia, Salvador. Baroque church with extremely ornate design, built in 1708 - 1755.
- Las Lajas Sanctuary - Colombia, Nariño. Beautiful Neo-Gothic cathedral, built in 1916 - 1949. Unusual due to its location over deep gorge where apparition of Virgin Mary happened.
- Lalibela churches - Ethiopia, Amhara. 11 monolithic Christian churches hewn underground from cliff in 13th century.
- Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro - Côte d'Ivoire, Yamoussoukro. Largest church in world, one of newest basilicas, built in 1990, 158 metres high.