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  • Writer's pictureSteve Baker PhD AIA

A Brief History of Catholic Architecture

Catholicism is one of the most predominant religions on the planet. You can find Catholic churches and communities all around the world, and as such, it tends to be the most instantly recognizable sect of Christianity. 

A lot of the Catholic church’s recognizability comes from its architecture. It’s visually distinct and sets itself apart from the churches built by other Christian groups that are part of Christianity. 

However, what many don’t realize is just how old Catholicism and its architecture truly are. It dates back to the earliest days of Christianity after the days of Christ.

As such, the Catholic church has a long and rich history tied to its teachings, customs, and of course, its architecture.

Today, we’re going to give a brief overview of the history of Catholic architecture.

Let’s get started.

Escaping Persecution with Simplicity

While the Catholic church is most recognized today for its grand cathedrals, the earliest parts of Catholic history were quite different.

It wasn’t even legal to have churches at the time. Most early Christians, who would come to be named Catholics, either worshipped in the existing synagogues under Jewish rabbis or congregated in "house churches”. House churches were the homes of church leadership. 

In some cases, churches would be built, but they were kept small and simple, or additions would be made to wealthier households to accommodate the needs of the church without drawing suspicion and persecution.

Commemorating the Dead in 4th Century Rome and Onward

The house church period of Catholic history lasted until roughly the 4th century, and that’s when we first started to see Catholic churches specifically built for public worship coming into existence.

Due to a long history of dealing with persecution, the churches were built on top of the remains of notable Catholic landmarks of that period.

Catholic architecture in an old church.

This includes building the churches atop the homes that were makeshift churches, the burial grounds of Catholics who were persecuted or died without being able to publicize their faith and similar locations. 

This is also when the heavy symbolism of the Catholic church started to take shape in its architecture.

Each part of the church, whether it was a cathedral, parish, or other church building, was designed to focus on community worship

While not quite the grand structures that we think of today, this is when the tradition of building the church around an open central location with necessary rooms being added as offshoots from that central structure.

The concept of using imagery reflecting the sacrament and holy trinity in the church’s architecture also started at this point.

The First Cathedral and the Rise of Grand Catholic Architecture

The first eastern cathedral was built in 301 AD in Armenia, but it wasn’t until the 12th century that the Catholic cathedrals you think of today, with all the traditional Catholic architecture and symbolism in place, started to become the norm. 

These Western cathedrals began to be built in Spain, North Africa, and Rome. 

While the smaller parish churches and similar structures in use since 400 A.D. were made of the strongest material available, cathedrals in 1200 A.D. were almost entirely built of stone with stained glass windows and decorations

Portraying the Holy Trinity and other core concepts of Catholicism through stained glass artwork was standard, and the focus of the church was put on creating a church that resembled heaven as closely as possible.

Of course, that isn’t possible due to the perfection of God’s Kingdom, but each cathedral was seen as an earthly reflection of that beauty. 

Many of these churches still exist today, and they’re historical benchmarks for much of the more traditional aspects of modern Catholic churches.

How Catholic Architecture is Approached Today

Now that we’ve gone through some brief overviews of how the Catholic church started to form its architectural standards, it’s time to talk about how Catholic architecture looks today. 

There are two concepts you’ll notice throughout the church’s earlier history. Its architecture stayed close to the traditions of the church and honored them, but it also focused on growth, as well. 

That remains true to this day.

Even now, a Catholic church is designed around theological themes and the sacrament, it is structurally laid out with a focus on getting the community into one central, open place of worship called the nave, and auxiliary rooms branch off from the nave into smaller areas. 

However, the church has grown immensely by not holding traditions as “law” and locking the church into a standardized architectural design. Those who build new churches are encouraged to enhance and refine existing concepts.

Catholic architecture.

We see this now with improvements to the materials used, the use of technology to create a more interactive mass, and other major advancements.

While many old cathedrals were designed with the idea that churchgoers should all be confined to the nave without much in terms of decoration beyond structural symbolism, building a catholic church today is far more complex. 

In particular, the materials used to construct the church have changed dramatically. While stone and stained glass are still common, brick, wood, various polymers, and even foam are commonly used in a church’s development

These advancements have allowed builders of new church buildings, from small to large, to meet the traditional standards of the Catholic church, improving upon those traditions dramatically. 

This includes stronger structures that can stand the test of time without being grand cathedrals, lower building costs without sacrificing quality, less necessary maintenance, and even more intricate depictions of core Catholic symbolism than ever before.

Getting the Right Contractor to Build Your Catholic Church

While the Catholic church does embrace innovation and technology has skyrocketed that innovation forward, it’s still important to work with a contractor who understands the finer details of Catholic architecture and the symbolism behind those details. 

Baker Architects helps with the construction, furnishing, and remodeling of Catholic churches with a deep understanding of the important themes for worship.

Contact us and start working on your church project today!

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