Category

Churches

Pisa Cathedral. Italy
Pisa Cathedral / Larry Koester, Flickr / CC BY 2.0

WorldBlue Described churches

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Churches are buildings where Christians gather and worship God. Initially, these were buildings for more or less secret gatherings but as Christianity became adopted state religion and a tool for governing society, churches turned into 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 another purpose.

Throughout history Christian churches have been the epitome of architecture and arts achievements in Western culture, representing it.

View across St.Peter's Square, Vatican
View across St.Peter’s Square / Monitotxi, Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Short history

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 the 4th century AD. One of the earliest dated churches was located in Syria, Dura-Europos town – in this abandoned town there is found a chapel from sometimes around 232 – 256 AD.

In the 4th-century churches are already in Armenia (the oldest Christian state in the 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 the 13th century. Carvings and frescoes here show some similarities to Byzantine art.

Byzantine style
Agia Sofia in Monemvasia, Greece
Agia Sofia in Monemvasia, Greece / Pavel69, Flickr / CC BY 2.0

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 the 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. The design of churches over centuries here changed maintaining its 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).

Romanic style
Speyer Cathedral
Speyer Cathedral. / Oliver Dester, Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

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 architectural style of Western culture with first early examples appearing in the 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).

Gothic style
Strasbourg Cathedral
Strasbourg Cathedral. / David Almeida, Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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 (the 12th century) was the front-runner of Gothic style, but shortly afterwards there were built some of the most magnificent Christian churches ever built – such as Notre Dame de Paris (Paris, France, 1163 – the 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).

Renaissance style
Natá Church, Panama
Natá Church in Panama / Editorpana, Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

Wealth, the 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, 1419-1480s). 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, around 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
Santa Maria della Salute, Venice
Santa Maria della Salute, Venice / unknown, pxhere / public domain

Baroque style originated as an attempt of the 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" – these were Baroque style churches which first came to the 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, constructed in 1568-1580. This church was the seat of the 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 the 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 (the 1740s) and Asamkirche in Munich (1733 – 1746).

Later styles
Inside the Panthéon, Paris
Inside the Panthéon, Paris / Alex E. Proimo, Flickr / CC BY 2.0

With the start of Enlightenment in the middle of the 17th century the importance of the Christian church declined. The construction of new churches was not the main item in public expenditure anymore. On the other side – the affluence of Europe was growing, especially when started industrialization. In general, there were not built grandiose Christian 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 the predecessors of the Art Nouveau style and architect – Antoni Gaudi – planned that the 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.

Other articles

Wondermondo has defined several other categories of religious structures:

WorldViolet Top 25 churches

Africa

Lalibela churches

Ethiopia

11 monolithic Christian churches hewn underground from the cliff in the 13th century.

Bete Giyorgis Church in Lalibela, Ethiopia

Europe

Hagia Sophia

Turkey

A former Orthodox basilica built between 532 – 537 AD, it is now a mosque. Possibly the highest achievement of Byzantine architecture, it has been the largest cathedral in the world for nearly 1000 years. Constructed in 532 – 537.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
Sagrada Familia

Spain

Largest and by far the most impressive Art Nouveau church in the world, designed by Antoni Gaudi; started in 1882 and due to be completed in 2026.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence Cathedral)

Italy

One of the most impressive churches in the world, the largest building in medieval Europe. Constructed in 1296 – 1469. Designed mostly in Gothic style, but considered to be one of the first Renaissance buildings.

Florence Cathedral in the night, Italy
Saint Mark’s Basilica

Italy

A building of unusual beauty and splendor, it is one of the most important Byzantine architectural monuments in the world, constructed in 1094.

Saint Mark's Basilica, Venice
Sistine Chapel

Vatican City

In this chapel, the new pope is selected. Constructed in 1473 – 1481 and world-famous due to the frescoes made by such Renaissance artists as Sandro Botticelli, Michelangelo. These frescoes are among the world’s highest achievements in art.

Paintings on the ceiling of Sistine Chapel, Vatican
St. Peter’s Basilica

Vatican City

The most important church in Christian history, with the largest interior of any church. The present basilica was built in 1506 – 1626 and represents one of the most important pieces of Renaissance architecture. Contains the purported grave of Saint Peter.

St.Peter's Basilica, Vatican
Notre Dame de Paris

France

Constructed in 1163 – the late 14th century. One of the most significant Gothic cathedrals and one of the world’s best-known monuments of architecture. One of the first buildings where flying buttresses were used.

Notre Dame de Paris
Saint Basil’s Cathedral

Russia

This group of nine churches was constructed in 1555 – 1561 to commemorate the victories of Ivan the Terrible. This building has left much influence on Russian and world architecture.

St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow in the night
Milan Cathedral

Italy

One of the most impressive Gothic buildings in the world, constructed in 1386 – 1965.

Milan Cathedral, Italy
Westminster Abbey

United Kingdom

Royal Church of the United Kingdom with numerous art values. Constructed in 1245 – roughly 1745, mainly in the Gothic style. One of the earliest representatives of Gothic architecture in England.

Westminster Abbey
Leaning Tower of Pisa

Italy

A bell tower. An impressive monument of European medieval Romanesque architecture, construction started in 1173-1372. Due to weak ground, it started to tilt and the significant tilting has made this structure famous worldwide.

Aachen Cathedral

Germany

The oldest cathedral in Northern Europe. Historically very important church, the residence of Charlemagne, place of coronation of 42 kings and queens. Constructed in 792 – 805, rebuilt numerous times adding new values.

Aachen Cathedral
Cologne Cathedral

Germany

One of the most impressive Gothic-style cathedrals in the world and one of the largest churches in the world. 144.5 m long, two 157 meters tall towers. Built in 1248 – 1880. Most visited landmark in Germany.

Cologne Cathedral, Germany
Amiens Cathedral

France

One of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe. It has the second tallest nave in France (42,30 m) and a very large interior hall – the largest in medieval Europe. Built in 1220 – 1270. Contains an excellent set of Gothic sculptures from the early 13th century. Contains a labyrinth that was installed in 1288. The facade originally was polychrome.

Amiens Cathedral
Chartres Cathedral

France

This church belongs to the most impressive Gothic cathedrals in the world and it is also one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Medieval Europe. The current cathedral is mostly built between 1193 and 1250, but a cathedral has been here since the 9th century at least. Preserved in exceptionally good condition, with all the original stained glass. Two spires – 113 and 105 m high. Adorned with hundreds of sculptures.

Chartres Cathedral
Rouen Cathedral

France

Magnificent Gothic-Renaissance cathedral, one of the great architectural monuments of the world. Constructed in 1202 – 1880. The remarkable tower is 151 m tall and was the tallest structure in the world in 1876 – 1880. The church is 136.86 m long, with a 28 m high nave.

Rouen Cathedral
Siena Cathedral of Santa Maria

Italy

A beautiful building that unites Romanesque and Gothic styles, constructed in 1215 – 1263.

Siena Cathedral, Italy
Santiago de Compostela Cathedral

Spain

A pilgrimage church of huge importance. This Romanesque cathedral is adorned with later Gothic and Baroque additions – beautiful facades and towers. The main part was built in 1075-1128, the gorgeous western facade in 1738-1750.

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral
Winchester Cathedral

United Kingdom

Impressive building, one of the largest cathedrals in the United Kingdom, longest (169.5 m) Gothic cathedral in Europe. The present cathedral was constructed in 1079-1093 in Norman style, rebuilt into a Gothic structure in several periods until the 16th century.

Winchester Cathedral in Hampshire, west front
Reims Cathedral

France

One of the best examples of Gothic architecture, built at the end of the 13th century. Towers are 81 m tall, the interior hall is 138.75 m long. Excellent stained glass and sculptures. The original cathedral was here already in the 4th century AD. The kings of France were crowned here.

Reims Cathedral, France
Exeter Cathedral

United Kingdom

One of the greatest Gothic-style cathedrals in England. The present building was started around 1133 and after several remodelings was built roughly at 1400. Most of it is in Decorative Gothic style with significant parts remaining from Norman times. Contains significant medieval artworks – 50 misericords, unique minstrel’s gallery from roughly 1360, astronomical clock, priceless medieval books. The nave is adorned with the longest vaulted ceiling in England and represents a sight of unusual beauty.

Durham Cathedral

United Kingdom

One of the finest examples of Norman architecture, one of the greatest churches in the United Kingdom. Built by Norman conquerors in 1093-1133, in Romanesque style. It is interesting though that there (before its time) are used some elements of the next – Gothic style. Contains relics of several saints – St Cuthbert, head of St Oswald of Northumbria, Venerable Bede.

Lincoln Cathedral

United Kingdom

Enormous Gothic cathedral, built in 1185 – 1311. One of the most beautiful church buildings in the United Kingdom. For 249 years (1300 – 1549) was considered to be the tallest building in the world, until the 160 m tall spire collapsed. 148 m long building with a unique facade.

Wells Cathedral

United Kingdom

An enormous, beautiful Gothic cathedral, built in 1175 – 1490 in the site of Roman mausoleum and older church. The structure has a very ornate facade, a rich collection of medieval stained glass, and other art values.

Wells Cathedral, Somerset

WorldYellow Recommended books

Cathedrals of the World


A valuable resource for architecture students, travelers, and anyone interested in our religious heritage, Cathedrals of the World takes an exciting journey through Christianity by way of its most impressive architectural creations. Starting with early Christian, Romanesque, and Gothic structures through the Renaissance and Baroque periods to the modern age, this stunning compendium spans the globe, presenting such awe-inspiring monuments as the St. Mark’s Basilica, Westminster Cathedral, Johnson’s Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, and Richard Meier’s Jubilee Church in Rome.

Romanesque: Towns, Cathedrals and Monasteries


Originated by art theorists in the Nineteenth Century, the term “Romanesque” refers to a school of religious architecture and design from the early medieval period. As with all terms that attempt to summarise an epoch, “Romanesque” artificially constructs the notion of one unified style, but as this book makes clear, the Romanesque tendency consisted of many different, eclectic characteristics.


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