Christian Architecture

As the science of building for distinctively Christian activities, Christian architecture has as its principal task to provide accommodation for the different forms of worship. The style of the resulting structures has varied according to the needs and wishes of the worshiping community of believers.

The earliest buildings for Christian worship were the homes of individual believers. When the need was felt for a building set apart as a “church,” a house such as that excavated at Dura- Europos (232) in Syria was adapted for the purpose. A single entrance door in the north wall opens into a vestibule and thence into a court on the east side of which is a portico. In the northwest corner a room containing a cistern has been made into a baptistery* decorated with frescoes. The cistern has become a font with a canopy. Two rooms on the south side have been made into one and a small platform provided for an altar. A room leading off this one may have been used for preparations for the Lord's Supper. The room on the west side of the court may have been used for the instruction of catechumens. This was the period of persecution which varied in intensity and duration from place to place. The Christians in Rome found it safer to worship in suitably appointed places near subterranean burial chambers or catacombs. Thus was established the association of Christian worship with the remains of the faithful departed.

With the publication of the Edict of Milan* (313), the Christian Church led by the emperor himself became an established community worshiping openly. The natural result was the building of magnificent places of worship. The model which was followed was the basilica.* The elevated bishop's throne placed in the apse and surrounded by the seats of the presbyters took the place of the judge's seat in the civil basilica. In front of these stood the altar, below which were often housed the remains of a saint. Beyond this was the main part of the building where the rest of the worshipers assembled.

Besides the basilica two other types of Christian building developed, the baptistery and the martyrium (chapel), housing the tomb or relics of a martyr. Both were constructed with their focal point in the center and not, as in the basilica, at one end. The martyria were often round in shape; in the center was the tomb over which was a dome. These buildings had a considerable effect on the development of church building in the East. The basic plan of a Byzantine church was frequently a combination of a domed superstructure with a squarish basilican plan.

In both East and West the altar became more and more distant from the ordinary worshiper. In the East it became customary to separate the altar from the rest of the church by a massive solid screen (iconostasis), adorned with icons (pictorial representations) of the saints. In the West the basic basilican plan was retained, but as in the East the church was divided by a screen, though not usually solid. The chancel, or room for the clergy, contained the high altar. The nave, or room for the lay people, contained the pulpit and sometimes a second altar. The baptismal font was placed at the back of the nave at the entrance to the church. These arrangements prevailed throughout the Middle Ages and still influence the design of churches today. The links of worship with the faithful departed were strengthened with the establishment of side altars, often containing relics, for the saying of masses for the souls of the founder and his friends.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, immediately preceding the dawn of the Renaissance, the focus of Christian architecture took on the lofty, overpowering exaggerations of the Gothic style: cavernous vaulted arches, flying buttresses, soaring spires. It effected feelings which further distorted church life and worship as a relevant, comforting source of life and thought. At the time of the Reformation the buildings inherited by the Reformers were considerably adapted. The screen was either removed so that the church became one room again, or else it was made into a proper wall and either the chancel or the nave used by the worshiping community. Sometimes each was used by a different congregation when the population increased. In this single-chamber place of worship, the pulpit was placed on one of the long sides and the people gathered around it. The altar was removed and long tables set up when the Lord's Supper was observed. A bracket attached to the pulpit held the basin for the administration of baptism. Not content with adaptation, the Reformers soon began to build new churches and often adopted the circular plan. The congregation faced the center, and the seats were tiered in circular rows. The pulpit was placed near the center, where there was space reserved for baptisms and for the communion table which was set up when the sacrament was observed.

Up to this point Christian architecture was strictly functional. The design and arrangement of a church building reflected the theology of worship. The Eastern iconostasis separated the mystery of the Eucharist from the eyes of the layman. The distant altar, only dimly discerned, made the same point in the churches of the West. The division of the church also reflected the strict separation of clergy from laity. And so the removal of the screen at the Reformation emphasized the unity of the body of Christ, the Church. Likewise, the gathering of the people around the pulpit and the table emphasized the corporate nature of Reformed worship, as opposed to the individualism of the many side altars. The Anglican middle road was seen most clearly in the churches built after the Great Fire of London in 1666. Although the congregation could not gather around the pulpit and table, both were related to each other and to the font in what was clearly one room.

A radical change came over Christian architecture with the Romantic revival of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The appearance rather than the function of a church became determinative. The revived appreciation of the great medieval cathedrals* led to a desire for a “cathedral” in every community. Up to now churches had been built in a contemporary style, but henceforth Gothic became the “right” style for churches. The distant altar was restored to the end of a long chancel because of the vista, and it was further separated from the ordinary worshiper by stalls for the clergy and a robed choir. In Reformed churches a “cathedral” exterior often bore no relation to the interior, where an organ might occupy the apse. A high proportion of existing church buildings were erected during this period.

The twentieth century has been slow to discard this Gothic inheritance, preferring to modernize it. Where contemporary styles of architecture have been adopted, the medieval arrangements of the interior have often been retained. There have recently been signs of radical rethinking of the ways in which the functions of a church building can best be expressed and provided for.

Christian architecture has never been concerned exclusively with church buildings.The house-church at Dura-Europos had a room which may have been used for the instruction of catechumens, and church schools have existed in various forms throughout the Church's history. The early Christians lived together, and this ideal has never been lost. Monasteries and nunneries, retreat houses, lay academies, and church conference centers have been a concern of Christian architecture. The growth of the church hall and the parish house has challenged the position of the church as the principal Christian building in many parishes.

It has been pointed out that the Church can baptize in a river, preach in the open air, and celebrate the Lord's Supper on any table, and many young people are critical of the money spent on Church buildings. It is not without significance that in many lively parishes much of the Church's worship is offered in the houses of the members.

See Archaeology and the Early Christian Church and Art, Christian (especially in relation to Gothic architecture).

E. Short, A History of Religious Architecture (4th ed., 1955); P. Hammond (ed.), Towards a Church Architecture (1962); A. Bieler, Architecture in Worship (1965); J. Rykwerk, Church Building (1966); S.S. Smalley, Building for Worship (1967); K. Lindley, Chapels and Meeting Houses (1969); W. Swaan, The Gothic Cathedral (1969); G. Frere-Cook (ed.), Art and Architecture of Christianity (1972); R. Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture (1975).