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The Design and Symbolism of Church Design

Interior of Salisbury cathedral.

From the grand cathedrals of Gothic France to the elegant basilicas of Renaissance Italy, Europe’s churches each tell a story of history and religion. Buildings dating back hundreds of years still dominate the skylines in many towns and cities, with incredible architectural features and designs enjoyed by countless visitors to Europe each year.

Sometimes I’ll take the time to look at the literature at the back of one of these magnificent churches, and quite often there will be a pamphlet describing the design of the church and specific symbolism and history related to the structure or the patron saint it’s named for. Reading some of those details created an interest in understanding why churches are designed a certain way, and what it all means.

Although churches can look wildly different depending on location, time of construction and the era and architectural style in which they were built, there are similarities running throughout all (or most!) church designs and layouts. Whether it’s the use of soaring vaulted ceilings and intricate stained-glass windows, cross-shaped interiors or sacred altars, many churches share similar features and characteristics, wherever in Europe they are and whenever they were constructed.

In this article, we’ll look at how church design came to be, and focus on some of the characteristics you are sure to notice on a visit to any European church.

A quick history lesson: the Roman basilica

The majority of churches dating to the Middle Ages and since are based architecturally on the Roman basilica. These were often used as courts, or ‘halls of justice’ and were a place for tribunals and business rather than religion. Rectangular in shape, the basilica was dominated by the nave, a large central section of the hall (more on this later!). To either side of the nave were colonnaded aisles with a lower ceiling than the nave – this allowed space for windows, the clerestory. At the far end of the nave was the apse, a semi-circular section of the basilica which was reserved for the justices or other officials who were conducting court.

Medieval church design takes from the basilica design. The nave is still the dominant part of the church and there is nearly always an apse at the far end, as well as clerestory windows. Further developments to church design came later, such as the orienting of churches from east to west and the introduction of the narthex, a foyer or porch that didn’t feature in early Roman basilicas.

The nave: heart of the church

The nave is the largest and most important part of church design, often referred to as the heart of a European church. The word ‘nave’ derives from the Latin ‘navis’ which means ship. And it is indeed the communal gathering space where worship takes place.

Although the design of the nave can vary by church and time period, there are some features that can generally be found in most churches. A central walkway with aisles on either side allows for easy passage through the church and the high clerestory windows allow light into the church. The altar or sanctuary is virtually always at the far end of the church, symbolizing the journey to salvation as worshippers travel to reach it.

The nave is typically decorated with a range of sculptures, frescoes or tapestries, which can vary from the simple to the extravagant. Gothic churches for example tend to be higher and brighter, whilst Renaissance churches tend to feature more classical decoration.

The Transept: shaped like a cross

The cross is of course one of the most important symbols in Christianity, given that Jesus Christ was crucified on a cross and then rose from the dead. This incredibly important symbolism is reflected in the advent of the transept. The transept is a side-wing of a church which intersects the nave, thus creating a cross-shaped layout for the church. The point at which the nave and transept intercept is known as the crossing, and is often marked with a tower, or dome.

The transept itself features some common architecture across different churches. Functionally, the transept provides additional seating, but it is for symbolic reasons that this came to be such a core feature in church design. It is also not uncommon for the transept to have its own chapel, particularly in larger churches. These tend to be dedicated to certain saints or reserved for particular religious purposes.

Other common church features

Vaulted ceilings: A vaulted ceiling is one that angles upwards to the roof and is typically much higher than a standard eight to ten-foot flat ceiling. The vast majority of European churches feature a vaulted ceiling, adding to the grandeur of the building, though not ideal for dusting cobwebs! The soaring height of vaulted ceilings was also intended to evoke a sense of heaven and the divine presence in all visitors to a given church.

There are many different types of vaulted ceiling. The most famous is probably the dome vault, iconic examples of which include the Pantheon in Rome, St Paul’s in London, and Hagia Sofia in Istanbul. A barrel or tunnel vault is seen in the Church of Cluny Abbey in France, and an intricate fan vault can be seen at Bath Abbey in the UK. 

Domes: As a form of vaulted ceiling, domes deserve special mention. They were not used in medieval church architecture, making a comeback in the Renaissance period in the late 1400s. As well as being instantly recognizable, beautiful and iconic, domes were introduced to Renaissance churches to represent the celestial sphere and heaven and were often beautifully painted. Famous artists were brought in for this important decoration, such as the legendary Michelangelo who decorated the dome of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, and Giorgio Vasari who decorated the dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence.

Stained-glass windows: One of the most famous and beautiful features of church design are the stained-glass windows which can be found in virtually all European churches. The purpose of these was to record, preserve and teach religious history to the masses, many of whom were illiterate in the Middle Ages. Stained-glass often tells biblical stories or feature important saints and were a great way to impart these stories on the masses, whilst also allowing light into the church for functional purposes.

Although stained-glass windows are a common feature in churches, technological development over time meant the designs could get more and more intricate. In later churches, the stained-glass windows were often the final part of the church to be installed, and they were often sponsored through wealthy local donors due to their expense. In some European churches the names of these sponsors can be seen on the bottom of the windows.

Sculptures and reliefs: Sculptures of saints and reliefs depicting biblical scenes are also a common feature of European churches, and they serve the exact same purpose as stained-glass windows – to educate the uninformed and illiterate masses using visual aids. They also foster devotion, with worshippers centering their prayer around these sculptures and giving prayer something physical to focus on.

Buttresses and flying buttresses: The addition of buttresses to either the exterior or interior of church buildings was necessitated as they got bigger, and heavier, particularly during the Gothic age, for example at Paris’s Notre Dame. Although purely added for structural reasons, buttresses were often decorated with carvings and sculptures, particularly when used on the inside of a church.

Orientation

In Europe, many churches are built with an east-to-west orientation, and there’s a lovely reason behind this. This layout means that the church entrance faces west and the altar, where most of the service happens, faces east. This direction is chosen because the east is where the sun rises, symbolizing hope and new beginnings each day, just like the resurrection of Christ brings new hope to believers. It’s a beautiful way to remind everyone who comes in that each day holds a new light and possibly, a new beginning. This eastward positioning isn’t just about direction; it’s about bringing a deeper meaning to the simple act of walking into a church.

Symbolism and Spiritual Significance

Despite hundreds of years of history, religious and artistic differences and wildly separate cultures, many European churches share similar designs and layouts. While many of these common factors are for structural practicality, such as buttresses, many more were consciously chosen for their promotion of worship and to help the illiterate Middle Ages public to engage with religion.

From the soaring vaulted ceilings and intricate stained-glass windows to the cross layout with its transepts intersecting the nave, each element of church architecture carries layers of symbolism and spiritual significance. When visiting churches in Europe, whether in the UK, France, Italy or Spain, you will notice these similarities, as well as the more intricate differences that help different churches to stand out and endure so many centuries later.