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Art and Architecture

Church (building)

Greek cross, branches of Christianity, Latin cross, Christian countries, steeples

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Church (building), a building designed for worship for groups of Christians. It may be small and simple, just large enough to hold a neighborhood congregation; or it may be huge and complicated, containing different spaces for various religious activities and observances, as in a grand cathedral. All churches are built for sacred purposes, but because many branches of Christianity exist, no single type of church building predominates. Some Christians worship with little ceremony, some with elaborate ritual; some make use of statues and paintings, some do not. Thus, churches vary in appearance, having been planned to suit one or another kind of religious practice.

Two Basic Plans

In general, two types of plans predominate: the basilica, processional in form, with a long axis running from a centered doorway to the altar at the other end of the building; and the centralized church, of circular or polygonal plan, with one large central space, usually with a dome overhead. The two basic shapes are combined in many different ways, and either one can be modulated to a crosslike form by the addition of projecting wings, either in the form of a Greek cross (with arms of equal length) or a Latin cross (with one longer arm, the nave). Elaborate churches may have separate rooms for baptism, for treasures and relics, for robing the clergy, and for administration. They may also have more than one altar and subsidiary chapels.

Neoclassical Churches and Eclectic Revivals

In England a subdued neoclassical style appeared in the 17th century; basilican meetinghouses were built with tall, pointed steeples, a combination much favored in North America. In the 18th century this became known as the Georgian style. In other Christian countries both medieval and neoclassical styles persisted, and by the end of the 19th century most Christian areas had churches in a variety of historical styles—some survivals, some revivals. The Gothic Revival predominated in the design of new churches. Architects continued to rely on eclectic revivals until the advent of modern art and architecture. Religious communities tend to be conservative; hence the adoption of modern forms came about slowly, the old ones being comforting, familiar, and functional.


MacDonald, William L., M.A., Ph.D.

Former A. P. Brown Professor of the History Art, Smith College. Author of "Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture", "The Architecture of the Roman Empire", and "The Pantheon - Design, Meaning, and Progeny".

Article key phrases:

Greek cross, branches of Christianity, Latin cross, Christian countries, steeples, Georgian style, processional, nave, basic shapes, Gothic Revival, types of plans, basilica, Religious communities, relics, observances, altar, clergy, baptism, general, North America, paintings, England, Architects, familiar, century, architecture, churches, worship, treasures, appearance, building, administration, different ways, combination, rooms, end

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