Upon approaching the front of a church, what catches the eye, and captures the attention? It is the size? The shape? The color? Is it sacred art or sculpture decorating the front? The first objective of church architecture is to clearly identify the building as a place of worship. A second objective is to transition the church-goer from the secular domain into the sacred space for worship. Signs of sacred identification, and this location for preparation, can be incorporated into the features of the front of the church – and thus were important goals of Medieval church-building, just as they are today. Each architectural feature that can be seen prominently from the street will contribute to one of these two objectives. The following will provide further insight into the meaning and origin of some of the most visible components of the front of a church.
Ecclesiastical architecture may be most clearly understood by defining the two words (definitions from Oxford Languages):
Architecture: The art or practice of designing and constructing buildings.
Ecclesiastical: Relating to the Christian church or its clergy. (Of interest to note is that the word “Ecclesiastical” comes from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. The introduction to this Book by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops indicates that the Hebrew name of this Book means an “assembler” (of students, listeners) or “collector” (of wisdom sayings)).
Therefore, ecclesiastical architecture refers to the architecture of Christian churches. The architecture includes parts of the church, interior and exterior. Of particular importance to the definition is that a church is a building for public worship, and therefore in its best instances, all parts of church architecture reflect this purpose. The following are prominent features seen on the outside of a church.
Campanile / Belfry: Both words are used for the upper part of a tower that contains bells. The word “campanile” is of 17th century Italian origin (meaning “bell”) and is a tower detached from the primary structure that contains bells. The origins of the word “belfry” are from Middle English (1150 – 1450) from an Old French word “berfrei” which designated a wooden tower used in besieging fortifications. In Medieval Europe, newly independent states would erect a belfry as the bell was an important symbol of power, as well as a method for calling the newly formed community together.
Steeple: A tall, decorative tower (that sometimes has a belfry) attached to a church or public building. A steeple is usually built with a series of diminishing stories and is topped with a spire.
Spire: A pointed pyramidal or conical top to a tower. From the Old English (450 – 1150) word “spir” meaning a “tall slender stem of a plant” and the German word “spier” meaning “tip of a blade of grass”.
Features on the Front of a Church
Façade: The “face” of a church (or any building), especially the main front of the structure which is generally on the western side of churches and faces the street – although large churches may have more than one façade, e.g., the side entrances at the end of each transept. The 17th century word comes from the French word “façade” meaning “face” which is thought to come from the Latin word “facia”, also meaning “face”. The façade is an important aspect of a church which sets the tone as worshippers enter the building and transition into the sacred space, and thus is usually adorned with liturgical artifacts such as sculptures, statues, stained glass windows and other features of liturgical or sacred design. The façade is comprised of many parts including the porch, portal, and lintel, among others.
Tympanum: An adorned space above the lintel over the door and below an arch, or below a series of moldings surrounding an arch (archivolt, a.k.a. “archivault”). The tympanum was a characteristic feature of important, majestic buildings of ancient Greece and Rome and, thus, is used in ecclesiastical architecture to denote the majesty of God; as well as to aid in preparation of the worshipper for the holy service inside. In Romanesque churches, the tympanum has a rounded shaped at the top; while the top reflects a point in Gothic churches. Tympana in churches are often decorated with symbolic images and/or sacred stories. One of the frequent topics displayed is that of “The Last Judgement”. It is the scene where humans are judged after death by God to determine whether their life has provided for an entrance into heaven or banishes them to hell for eternal damnation. The Last Judgement scene is often shown in European churches built in the Romanesque period, but also in churches of more modern times. Another typical scene is that of the “Jesse Tree” (a depiction of the genealogy of Jesus in the form of a tree , i.e. “a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse” Isaiah 11:1). A Jesse Tree is displayed in the tympanum on the western side of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Rouen, France, shown above in the feature photo. Tympana are also frequently adorned with symbolic images of animals and imaginary beasts.
For further information related to the exterior parts of a church, see the Glossary at https://churchwonders.com/parts-of-a-church-exterior/
References: Word definitions and origins from Oxford Languages https://languages.oup.com/google-dictionary-en/