Churches and cathedrals are built in several different architectural styles, and most can be categorized into 1 of the 9 predominantly recognized architectural styles (see table below). Of course, there is overlap between the styles; and some buildings are designed using a mixture of the various style elements. In general, the styles developed chronologically over the centuries with changes in beliefs, cultures, and availability of building materials - along with advances in engineering and construction methods.
An illustration of the evolution of church architecture corresponding with changes in the political and cultural environment can be seen in the structures of Romanesque and Gothic churches. The Romanesque churches are fortress-like structures which reflect the combative environment leading up to the building of churches in the Romanesque period (11th – 12th centuries). The structures had thick walls, minimal window openings and towers reminiscent of the protective configuration of castles of the time. As the warring environment diminished in Europe, the Gothic churches became more open and were built to capture more light with large windows and tall, expansive interiors, with an overall upward thrust of the building focusing toward heaven – a worship space flooded by the heavenly light of stained glass windows. These features were made possible by innovation in architectural designs with the use of the pointed arch, rib vault and flying buttress.
Until Christianity was “legalized” in the early fourth century with the conversion of Constantine, Christians did not meet publicly, but rather in “house-churches”. As visible devotion became acceptable, worship spaces were designed like the Roman basilica which was used for business and courts of law. The basilica exterior was a relatively simple rectangular structure with a flat roof and flush side-walls. The building had an apse at one end, and a central aisle (nave) with side aisles separated from the nave by columns. The standard façade adornment was a singular triangular pediment with supporting columns. The inside of the basilica was more decorative, and the Christian adaptation even more so, as it was to be a receptacle for the Eucharistic celebration. As such, the structure of early Christian churches was designed to facilitate focus and movement from the west-end entrance to the main altar on the eastern end within an apse which would concentrate all the focus to the altar beneath. (See https://churchwonders.com/architecture-symbolism/parts-of-a-church/ for additional information on Parts of Churches)
The early Christian basilica would give way to the Byzantine design under the emperor Justinian and the signature dome of the period. Church styles proceeded chronologically, with overlap, through the centuries from Romanesque, to Gothic then Renaissance, and to Baroque/Rococo in the eighteenth century. One could say that all subsequent churches were built upon some variation of the earlier styles – with the exception of the Modern style using concrete and steel which has enabled some completely unique designs.
The following list includes the main architectural styles of churches as outlined by Seamus Gaffney in Church Architecture: A Brief Survey with some additional styles that are frequently seen.
||Predominant Period *
||7th c. B.C. to 4th c. A.D.
||strict adherence to classical orders, symmetry, proportion, rows of columns
||After 4th c.
||massive domes, hanging architecture, Byzantine-Greek cross floor plan, mosaics
||11th - 12th c.
||rounded arches, heavy walls with minimal openings, large apse, central tower and adjacent towers
||mid-12th to 16th c.
||pointed (Gothic) arches, tall, thin columns, rib vaults, flying buttresses, stained glass windows including rose window(s)
||revival of ancient Roman forms including the column and rounded arch, domes, proportion, harmony
||17th - 18th c.
||constant movement, highly decorated, curves, contrasting light/dark, bright colors, twisting elements, gilding
||late 17th to mid-18th c.
||“Light-Baroque”, curves, scrolls and shells, paler color schemes, gently flowing movement
|Neoclassical / Revivalist
||18th - 19th c.
||symmetry and geometric form, hulking facades, columns, “mixture” of styles
||started in 20th c.
||simplicity, starkness, steel, glass, smooth formed-concrete, inventive and unique designs
||Note re: periods of use:
||There was an evolution of the styles over the centuries, so the styles overlapped as they developed over time. As such, the start and end dates shown here are only indicative.
Of course, the architectural style is only a part of what makes a building feel like a church. Liturgical symbolism built into the church features and artwork are also critical to making a building “feel like a church”. See https://churchwonders.com/2020/10/15/experiencing-church-virtually/ for more about how architecture and art contribute to the sacredness and ambiance of a church. It is also important to note that many churches, even if built in the early centuries, are a “mixture” containing elements of more than one architectural style. For example, the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is at its heart a Romanesque church with rounded arches, three towers and a large apse built mostly in the 11th and 12th centuries – until a Baroque exterior was grafted on the western side in the 18th century. A newer example of mixed styles is the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. which was completed in 1920. The interior of the structure is full of Byzantine-style mosaics and domes enclosed by heavy walls and rounded arches of the Romanesque style.
Read more about church architecture at https://churchwonders.com/architecture-symbolism/