How did Christian Church Architecture evolve in the West?
Scared Christian architecture in the West, in particular Western Europe, has been influenced by a variety of architectural styles that initially derived from Roman pagan designs to new forms that attempted to break away from Roman influences. Christian church architecture indicates the cultural influences on Christianity but also reflected the spiritual ideas dominant in the period churches were built.
After 313 AD, as Christianity became accepted by the Roman government under Constantine the Great, early churches were beginning to be established in Western Europe and the Roman Empire. By this point, churches had already existed throughout the Sassanian Empire and Armenia, but had yet to be established, at least formally, in the Roman Empire. Initially, late Roman Empire churches often utilized converted pagan temples, as these were readily available structures that could accommodate many people. It was also convenient to use existing worship areas for the masses that had converted. Perhaps the best example of this is the Pantheon in Rome, which is still used as a church today and is one of the longest continuously-used buildings in the world given its conversion into a Christian church. In part, this was a quick solution as Christianity became an open religion but few places of worship were available as most had previously been in secret locations.
Soon, another popular earlier Roman design gained increasing use in the early Christian church. Early Christianity wanted to break from the Pagan past but also practically needed more space in their churches. Early church leaders, therefore, turned to the Basilica style architecture already in use in the Roman Empire, which consisted of a large building often with columns that had an apse and large central aisle that was usually raised to give it extra light. The central aisle, or nave, was usually flanked by side aisles with the building also covered by a dome. Basilicas were generally secular buildings in the Roman sense, but were used as areas of public gatherings and business, often located in the central town forums. In fact, Basilica architecture also becomes adopted by the Eastern Roman Empire, which developed into the Byzantine Empire. The most famous example is Hagia Sophia, which is a Byzantine period Cathedral. The style, therefore, began to spread to Eastern Christian churches as well. The apse, central aisle, and side aisles, in fact, were subsequently retained, and formed into a crucifix shape, in later and even modern church architecture, at least for some denominations.
Figure1. Many early churches simply used pagan temples. Perhaps the most famous example is the Pantheon in Rome (see https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/06/Rome_Pantheon_front.jpg).
By Roberta Dragan - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1597477
Early Medieval Architecture
In the early Medieval period after the fall of Rome, particularly between the 6th and 11th centuries AD, Romanesque architecture developed, which in large part was influenced by the Basilica design and Roman style of thick outer building walls. The designs were generally simple, symmetrical, with pillars, arcades, and arches. The Basilica style that was initially developed during the Roman period was also sustained, with churches having apses and columned central naves and side aisles. Famous example Romanesque, Medieval churches include San Liberatore a Maiella located in Abruzzo, Italy (Figure 2). Overall, this style is still commonly seen in contental Europe.
Figure 2. San Liberatore a Maiella in Abruzzo, Italy (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Serramonacesca_chiesa_benedettina_05.jpg).
During the 12th century, church architecture once again transformed as increased wealth began to flow to European states, with France first developing an architectural style that became known as Gothic and dominated the rest of the Medieval period. In many respects, this style becomes synonymous with most cathedrals today, where pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses become the hallmarks of new churches and cathedrals building during the later Medieval period. The evolution of the Gothic style can be traced to the early Romanesque style, where some Romanesque buildings, for instance, began to incorporate ribbed vaulting as part of their interior design. One of the first true Gothic buildings, which was not an addition or reconstruction from an earlier Romanesque building, was at Noyons, France (Figure 3). The main tenant of Gothic churches is they displayed majesty and grandeur to towns they were in. So they were, on the one hand, expressions of civic pride, while in a religious sense their large, dominating presence in towns reflects the churches and ultimately God’s authority.
Figure 3. The cathedral at Noyons is the first complete cathedral entirely built in the Gothic style; key elements, including flying buttresses, ribbed vaults, and pointed arches are shown (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Travee.cathedrale.Noyon.png).
Later Church Forms
With the birth of the Renaissance in Europe, the concept and idea of mathematical symmetry being a form of perfection became not only an important philosophical thought but also an idea that transpired in architecture. Buildings reflected a revived interest in structures from the Roman and Greek past, as artists, scientists, and philosophers began to take inspiration from the past in their new work. Buildings began to appear geometrically portioned with elements that contained Classical styles, including Roman/Greek style columns, portioned arches, and evenly spaced lintels across buildings.  The Renaissance began Italy in the 15th century and spread across Europe over the next two centuries. Perhaps the most famous example that derived from this period is St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican (Figure 4), which was built in Renaissance style with its well-proportioned dome and Classical-influenced layout. The symmetry of such buildings was soon seen as a way to be closer to God, as symmetry was an expression of perfection. The style went on to be highly influential to other similar designs, including Baroque and Palladian architecture. Famous examples outside of Italy include St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
Figure 4. St. Peter’s Basilica famous dome and proportioned design make it a fine example of Renaissance style that swept through Europe beginning in the 16th century (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/15/Petersdom_von_Engelsburg_gesehen.jpg).
ConclusionChristian churches changed substantially over the centuries. Initially, the use of pagan Roman architecture was utilized, but soon the Basilica style became practical, as its large size and structure for accommodating large numbers of people, while it also allowed the early Christians to distinguish themselves from earlier paganism. This development then led to Romanesque architecture, which also utilized Roman elements in the early Medieval period; structures had thick walls and allowed major buildings to be sturdy and accommodating for increasing populations in Europe. The Gothic style became then synonymous with the cathedral building boom that occurred in Europe throughout the late Middle Ages; this design allowed to build elegant and large churches that dominated towns and expressed both civic pride and the authority of the Church. At the end of the Middle Ages and spanning the Renaissance, a new style emerged that was inspired by concepts of perfection perceived in earlier Roman and Greek architecture, which was symmetrical and well portioned. In fact, the Renaissance Classical-inspired styles and their offshoots continued into modern periods and 19th century.
- For a history on early Christianity, including its spread in areas outside of the Roman Empire, see: Atiya, Aziz Suryal. 2010. History of Eastern Christianity. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press.
- For information about early churches converted from old pagan temples, see: Doig, Allan. 2008. Liturgy and Architecture from the Early Church to the Middle Ages. Liturgy, Worship, and Society. Aldershot, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, pg. 83.
- For background into the Basilica design of early churches and their origin, see: Kieckhefer, Richard. 2004. Theology in Stone: Church Architecture from Byzantium to Berkeley. New York: Oxford University Press, pg. 22.
- For information on the construction of Hagia Sophia, see: Mainstone, Rowland J. 1997. Hagia Sophia: Architecture, Structure and Liturgy of Justinian’s Great Church ; with 305 Illustrations, 56 Plans and Drawings. 1. pb. ed. London: Thames & Hudson.
- For more information about the development of Romanesque architecture, see: Fernie, Eric. 1995. Romanesque Architecture: Design, Meaning and Metrology. London: Pindar Press.
- For information on Gothic architectural style and its history, see: Fitchen, John. 1981. The Construction of Gothic Cathedrals: A Study of Medieval Vault Erection. Phoenix ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- For more information on the spiritual and secular intent of Gothic churches, see: Frankl, Paul, and Paul Crossley. 2000. Gothic Architecture. Yale University Press Pelican History of Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- For more information regarding symmetry in thought in the Renaissance, see: Thomson, David. 1993. Renaissance Architecture: Critics, Patrons, Luxury. Manchester ; New York : ;New York, NY, USA: Manchester University Press Distributed exclusively in the USA and Canada by St. Martin’s Press, pg. 201.
- For more information on the development on Renaissance buildings and church designs, see: Anderson, Christy. 2013. Renaissance Architecture. 1st ed. Oxford History of Art. Oxford: Oxford Univeristy Press, pg. 32.