The Church and the Sacred Arts – Architecture

The architecture of the church therefore plays an important role in fostering a full, active, and conscious participation in the sacred liturgy.

When it comes to the architecture of a church there is very little in Church teaching to guide us. This accounts for the wide variety in church designs from around the world. However there is much to learn when we look at the theology that informs traditional church architecture.

As is the case with art, the Church does not have an “official” style of architecture. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops tell us in “Built of Living Stones,”

“With its long nave and an apse for the bishop and clergy, the basilica quickly became a standard architectural form for churches of the West. The effect of these architectural forms is still reflected in the structure of our liturgical life today.” BLS 4.

And so the bishops again direct us to study the traditions of the Church when we are designing new buildings to house the liturgy. When we design a church that with a few adjustments could just as easily serve as a big box store or shopping mall, we send a message that we take our worship of God no more seriously than we take our shopping.

Ugly churches then, reflect bad theology

So what is the message we should be sending when we design or remodel our churches? What is it we want people to experience when they enter our church?



The first three chapters of the Book of Genesis are foundational to everything we believe. Including how we design our places of worship. God created all the world to teach us about Himself. Then, within the world He created a special place where He could live among His creation. We call this paradise, or Eden. The word Eden, means “joy.” In Eden we were our most joyful because it was in Eden that we lived and worked and walked alongside God.
Eden represents the first Covenant God established with man, a place where he could live among his people. But it didn’t last. Through his disobedience, man broke that covenant and was exiled from Eden.

A Place to Dwell Among His People

But God would not give up on us and continued to establish covenants, trying to recreate a place where He can live among His people. God established a covenant with Moses in an effort to do just this. During the Exodus God instructed Israel in the construction of the desert Tabernacle.

And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. Ex25:8


The plan for the Desert Tabernacle, with the Holy of Holies deep in the center of the complex,  became a model for Solomon’s Temple which in turn became the model for the basilica and the Christian church. We could argue then that God gave us the design, or the layout for our places of worship.

The Theology of A Church


The traditional form of a church instructs the faithful. The courtyard or atrium is the place for those who have not yet been received into the Church to gather. The narthex or vestibule is a transitional space. We leave behind the cares of the secular world and transition into a sacred world. The nave, from the Latin word for “ship,” is where the faithful gather and it represents the Body of Christ. The transept, or crossing, represent the arms of Christ on the cross and reminded Christians that they were to conform themselves to the cross of Christ and daily participate in his sufferings.

Traditionally churches were built facing East and the apse was located in the direction of the rising sun. It symbolized the direction from where Christ, the light of the world, would come again. Additionally, the apse was the location on the cruciform church of Jesus’ head. Since the head is what directs the rest of the body, all worshipers in the church looked to the head, where the Eucharist was celebrated. Similarly, the apse also represented the location of the leader of the local church, the bishop.

At the intersection of the transept and the nave was often a dome. In the Christian context domes continued to be thought of as a representation of the “heavens” and were used to remind the Christian of the beauty and grandeur of God. Often artists would paint heavenly symbols and figures, such as angels, the Holy Spirit, and the saints. Domes on Christian churches invite pilgrims to “look up” and remember that their lives are not meant to be downward in focus, but pointed upward, towards the heavens above.

This is what we mean by “upward movement.” Our liturgy directs us upward toward Heaven. The architecture of a Church should aid in directing our attention upwards to Heaven as a reminder that our true home is not here on earth, it is with God, His angels and His saints. This can be accomplished with a painted or decorated dome but it can also be accomplished with vaulting. This “upward movement” is perhaps the defining feature of Gothic architecture.

When we deviate from this plan we start to lose the theology behind the design for our churches.

The layout is one aspect of theology to consider, but another is the art that is incorporated into the design.

In the First Book of Kings the construction of the Temple is described. Repeatedly, the people are given the instruction to adorn the temple with carvings of   “cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers, in the inner and outer rooms.” The Temple was decorated to give a sense of returning to Paradise, that place where God dwelled among His people. Paradise, or Eden, is a symbol of the Heavenly city we read about in Revelation, the new Jerusalem. The Heavenly City is the New Covenant.

“Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them” Rev 21:1-5

The Heavenly city is an invisible spiritual reality made up of the Trinity and the angels, and surrounded by the living stones of the saints. So, the Church building is an icon of the living church.

Sacramentals lifts hearts and minds to God, they prepare us to receive the grace of the sacraments. The Church building is a sacramental but it also operates similarly to a sacrament in that it gives us sense perceptible signs that point to an invisible reality. It makes the invisible, visible.

Here we have God on His throne in the tabernacle, and the Body of Christ is composed of the living stones of the faithful. So While we will never create a church that looks exactly like the heavenly city we can still evoke the City by the way we build our churches.

Revelation speaks of pearls, jasper, sapphire, onyx, topaz, and gold. This is not to be taken literally, but points to an aesthetic beauty that speaks to being filled with “the radiant light of the glory of God (Rev 21:15-27)  Our most beautiful churches are filled with mosaics, stained glass, rich materials and images of Christ and the saints to give us a sense of the Heavenly realm. Entering a Church should give us a sense that we are entering the Heavenly Jerusalem. Entering a church should serve as an aid to our spiritual formation, it should serve as a sacramental, turning our hearts and minds to God, to prepare us for the grace we receive in the sacraments. The worshipper is drawn in by the beauty of the building, inspired to participate in the liturgy, and once formed by the liturgy, goes out into the world as a missionary in service to The Word.

The architecture of the church therefore plays an important role in fostering a full, active, and conscious participation in the sacred liturgy. The traditional architecture of a church, accomplishes this beautifully. And a beautiful church also serves as a tool for evangelization.

this article originally appeared at


Pontifex University is an online university offering a Master’s Degree in Sacred Arts. For more information visit the website at

Lawrence Klimecki, MSA, is a deacon in the Diocese of Sacramento. He is a public speaker, writer, and artist, reflecting on the intersection of art and faith and the spiritual “hero’s journey” that is part of every person’s life. He maintains a blog at