The towering spires, intricate masonry, and ornate stained-glass windows of a gothic cathedral attest to the vast sums of money and human labor required to construct it. The sheer opulence of such a building reflects a bygone society obsessed with power, authority, and beauty. The smallest details were painstakingly etched into stone, wood, and glass despite the strong probability that the artisans working on such a masterpiece would never live to see it completed. The intricate planning and careful execution of these cathedrals demonstrates that the builders saw them not merely as temporary gathering spaces for the faithful, but conduits for the divine. Within these vaulted ceilings the heavenly host would descend to earth and join with the faithful to worship together as one.
Today, modern church buildings do little to remind believers of the glory of heaven. Contemporary styles often use cheap materials, boring architectural designs, and uninspiring artwork. There’s certainly nothing wrong with a humbly constructed church if that’s all that is attainable for a struggling parish community. However, often the decision to build a bland church building isn’t merely based on monetary considerations, but rather theological understanding (or lack thereof).
In this article, I’d like to argue why a community with the means should always choose traditional architecture over modern styles when constructing a house of worship.
A Church Building Should Reflect the Nature of its Congregants
One reason that church buildings should return to traditional architectural styles is in order to better reflect the nature of Christ’s Body – the Church. The Church is 1) eternal and 2) alive both in heaven and on earth.
The Church is not temporary – it will last forever since it is not bound to our physical universe. It transcends the boundaries of space and time and has members both living and dead. It contains those believers who presently live here on earth, the Church Militant, and those who enjoy the beatific vision in heaven, the Church Triumphant. Eventually, all of the Church will be united in heaven with God after the Final Judgement. Until then, the Body of Christ exists in these distinct realms.
Since Christ’s Body is eternal and transcends space and time, it makes sense that houses of worship should reflect these qualities. The architectural style and material selection of the structure should elicit contemplation of eternity and heaven, our final destination. For example, a stone structure with high, vaulted ceilings and a steeple extending upward parallels the eternal and transcendental nature of the Church. The stone symbolizes eternity, and the high ceilings and steeple represent a “reach” toward heaven. Contrarily, an ordinary cube-shaped building using cheap building materials or a “cutting edge” modern design evokes little scrutiny of the divine realities taking place within its walls. The building could be an office space, a convention center, or concert hall. It looks similar to any other gathering space or venue despite its connection to everlasting and transcendental truths.
Traditional Architecture is Instructive in the Faith
Another reason to return to traditional architectural styles is that the traditional design of a church is theologically-based and instructive in the faith. A conventional cathedral’s beautiful design is not arbitrary. It wasn’t arranged simply to look pretty. The overall layout, stained glass windows, statues, and artwork all serve an edifying purpose.
Let’s review the classic design of a cathedral to discover its theological underpinnings.
The shape of a cathedral resembles a cross when viewed from above. One enters at the foot of the cross and works their way upward as they approach the altar. Near the entrance of the sanctuary is often the baptismal font, symbolizing that one enters communion with the Church through the waters of baptism. Further in is the nave, deriving its name from the latin navis, meaning “ship.” This is where the congregation gathers together in the “arc of salvation.” As Noah’s Arc was the only way to be saved from the waters of the flood, so the Church is the only way to be saved from damnation. To the nave’s sides are the confessionals, reminding us that Christians should deny themselves and take the penitential path, a cleansing journey that grows our virtue and increases our sanctity.
Moving toward the back of the building, there is often a casket of a saint or notable person right before the altar reminding believers that passing through death (symbolically and literally) is a necessary step in becoming united with Christ. Finally at the top of the cross (the very back of the Cathedral) is the altar and the tabernacle. The altar is where the sacrifice of the mass occurs, when bread and wine is transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ, a replication of the Last Supper and Christ’s death on Calvary. The tabernacle is directly behind the altar, and houses the literal body of Christ, or “Word of God” as precluded in the Old Testament Ark of the Covenant.
The layout is not the only theologically significant aspect of a traditional cathedral. Its stained-glass windows act as a veil between the outside secular world and the inside: what God has set apart from the world. Just as holy things are described as veiled in the Old Testament like the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple, the inside of a church should be veiled from the outside. This “veil” symbolizes a separation from the secular world and an effort to keep the contents within pure.
Statues, mosaics, and paintings help to illustrate important stories in scripture. In a traditional cathedral, these images often cover the walls, windows, and ceiling, leaving no space bare. This makes it impossible for one to divert attention away from holy things — even when one becomes distracted during a boring homily or lackluster hymn, their eyes and minds are drawn to the holy images of the Church building, guiding their mind back to God.
The physical aspects of a traditional church aid its congregants in growing closer to Christ by creating an environment rich with Christian symbolism and meaning. Contemporary churches usually fail to convey any theological significance with their design.
Beauty Draws People In
Every year at Chartres Cathedral outside Paris, 1.5 million visitors pay a visit to the 13th-century masterpiece of Gothic architecture . Onlookers of all faith backgrounds ogle at the immensely detailed spires, stained-glass windows, and intricately carved stonework. Even non-religious gather to appreciate the sheer beauty of the past. Chartres is hardly alone, as tens of millions of people travel to Europe each year to appreciate the beauty of its Cathedrals. From St. Peters in the Vatican to St. Stephen’s in Budapest, the stunning architecture, mosaics, and masonry of traditional churches attract travelers from across the world. The numbers speak for themselves: people are drawn to beauty.
Many of these visitors are there solely for the physical beauty and history of these structures, and not for explicit religious reasons; however, as many priests and pastors will admit, getting one’s foot in the door is often half the battle when it comes to evangelism. Beautiful churches do just that. Once inside, people may become curious about what would inspire humans to expend such a vast amount of energy and resources on a building. This seed of curiosity may one day blossom into a full-fledged faith. With millions of visitors at some of the more popular Cathedrals, the number of potential converts adds up if even a small percentage are tilted toward Christianity.
Newer churches built with traditional styles will probably not have the same pull as the most famous cathedrals in Europe, but the principle still applies to a lesser degree. People will still be drawn to the beautiful things around them. They might stop a little longer on their commute to work or Sunday stroll to take in the beauty of their local church, partaking in a brief meditation of the transcendent – a brief moment that God can use to soften a heart toward Himself.
Modern-styled churches that blend into the cityscape around them don’t have the same pull on passersby. There’s no particular reason to venture into a modern church unless you are already committed to going a priori. Contrarily, a beautiful, traditional church might convince someone never planning a visit to wander into its hallowed sanctuary, sparking an interest that God can use to pull them into the fold.
I should clarify that I’m not arguing that congregations of non-traditional church buildings are less faithful or less informed than those of traditional churches. I’m simply pointing out the pros of having a traditional church building, and I encourage those with the authority and means of building churches to construct them in a conventional manner. We should avoid experimenting with the design of such sacred spaces.
What do you think? Do you prefer traditional architecture over contemporary styles in church buildings? Let us know your thoughts.