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Christian architecture


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Christian architecture

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Outside a church

1. Orientation – Churches traditionally face east. This custom is pre-Christian. When Christians worship they face east and images expressing Christian hope are often deployed in the east window. The west side, however, was considered the best place for doom and often contains pictures of the last judgement. Older churches are usually built with a cruciform shape

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2. Lychgates – A lychgate is a small gateway at the entrance to some English churchyards. They were designed to act as shelters for coffins and pallbearers before they came to church for the funeral. The name comes from lic, an old English word for corpse.

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3. Churchyards – Churchyards are usually used as graveyards. Christians took on the Jewish tradition of burying the dead with their feet facing the rising sun as a sign of hope. It was believed that Jesus would return again to Jerusalem, so Christians living west of Israel wanted to face east so they were the right way for his return.

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4. Gargoyles – These are highly decorated, grotesque, drainage pipes although they are sometimes installed for their own sake. Some interpretations say that they are symbolic of scaring away the devil, or they are a contrast between the ‘bedevilled’ world outside and the sanctuary within. There are, however, arguments which suggest that they were simply a way for a local carver to show off his fabulous work as the carvings are rarely very holy.

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5. Porches and doors – Church porches in the past were sometimes used for secular community functions. This could be a legally binding contract being sworn at an altar in the porch. In the middle ages couples about to be married were met at the porch and asked for their consent before proceeding inside. Doorways often feature references to Jesus such as sculptures of him sitting in majesty. Symbols such as a lamb or the crucifixion are popular images.

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Inside a church6. Stoups and fonts – A stoup is a bowl, sometimes

recessed into the wall, by the entrance. It contains holy water and is used by a worshipper to dip their fingers and cross themselves. It is especially found in Roman Catholic churches but can still be seen in older Anglican buildings. The symbolism goes back to the Jewish custom of washing before entering a holy place.A font is used for baptism. It is placed near the back of a church and is representative of the Christian journey through life towards God i.e. moving from the back to the front of the church. They often contain lids, some of which will be elaborate, in order to protect the holy water from dirt. Decoration will often be fairly plain, but can represent the journey of life.

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7. Nave, columns and arches – The nave is the main part of the church where the congregation sits for worship. It comes from the Latin word navis meaning ship. The association of the church with a ship indicates the priest and the people travelling together towards God. Originally there would have been no seats. After the reformation it was recognised that the sermon was important. As these were often very long, pews began to be installed so the congregation could rest their weary legs.The nave is often flanked by columns which draw the eye to the altar. They first represented trees, therefore being a sacred grove in which people worshipped. Later they represented human figures, the tops of the columns being like arms raised towards God. Different styles of column represent different periods of time.Arches can be symbolically seen as being hands clasped in prayer or arms thrown in worship to God. Some arches are free standing, like triumphal arches. They represent the triumph of Jesus.

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8. Ceilings and domes – The church is seen as a symbol of Heaven so they are not always seen as an enclosed building. Ceiling decoration can include paintings and roof bosses. Painting would be of biblical scenes and religious figures. The boss marks the point where pillars or decorations meet and will often be highly decorated and represent biblical or other religious scenes. A rounded dome is common in the Eastern Church and represents heaven on top of a walled box representing the earth.

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9. Lecterns and Pulpits – The lectern is where the Bible rests for reading during the service. It will usually be in the shape of an eagle. The symbolism of this is that an eagle looks unflinchingly into the sun in the same way the words of the Bible are an unflinching revelation of God. It has also been said that as an eagle travels the world, so do the words of God.Pulpits are where the sermon is delivered. They date from the fourteenth century. Images of the four evangelists are often carved into pulpits as their words are the focus for teaching.

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10. Screens – Screens are used to divide the nave from the chancel. They are particularly popular in eastern churches where they will be covered with icons. In western churches they are called rood screens. Rood in Anglo Saxon means ‘cross’ so the rood screen may be topped with a cross. They may have images or statues of the Virgin Mary and St John who were present at the crucifixion. Their purpose was to keep people away from the sanctuary which was regarded as being a more holy part of the church. Many rood screens were destroyed at the reformation but evidence of their presence can still be seen.

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11. Altar and tabernacle – The altar is at the heart of Christian worship. At the time of Jesus an altar was used for animal sacrifice as an atonement for sin. Jesus is regarded as having made the ultimate sacrifice and is often described as being a sacrificial lamb; hence the name ‘altar’. It is the table used for the Holy Communion service. Traditionally it would be placed behind the rood screen under the east window. Now many have been moved nearer to the congregation in the nave. The tabernacle contains the reserved sacrament (bread and wine that has been blessed). A candle shows that the reserved sacrament is present.

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Free Churches

On the following slides you will see images of the inside and outside of free churches. Note the differences and similarities between the features of these and the traditional churches.

Note, free churches include Methodist, Baptist, Salvation Army, Pentecostal as well as a range of others such as congregational and United Reform Churches.

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Methodist Church

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Baptist Church

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Salvation Army

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Pentecostal Church

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Example exam question…• To what extent would you agree that

the features of a church could support worship? Refer to art in your answer. (15 marks).

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Symbolism in Churches

1. Crosses, crucifixes and halos – The cross is the most important Christian symbol. They can represent sacrifice and death as well as love and hope. The stations of the cross represent the last journey of Jesus towards his death. The (ususally)14 pictures are used by individual Christians for meditation.Halos surround the head of a figure and represent holiness and spiritual power. In eastern churches they represent power rather than holiness so images of Satan can also contain halos.

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The empty cross represents the instrument of torture

defeated where the victim has walked away. It is an image of God’s power and


Some crucifixes are of Jesus’ triumph as

they see Jesus dressed and wearing a halo, his hand in a

sign of blessing.

A traditional crucifix of Jesus’ suffering shows him with his head to the side

just as he died. He is wearing a crown of thorns

and is nailed to give a devotional pose.

The anchor cross is a symbol of hope as

the anchor held ships safely in place.

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1. Jesus condemned to crucifixion.

2. Jesus taking up the cross

3. Jesus falling under the weight of the cross (1st fall)

4. Jesus meeting the Virgin Mary

5. Simon of Cyrene being forced to carry the cross in place of Jesus

6. St Veronica wiping the face of Jesus (leaving an image of his face on the cloth)

7. Jesus falling under the weight of the cross (2nd fall)

8. Jesus encountering the women of Jerusalem

9. Jesus falling under the weight of the cross (3rd fall)

10.Jesus being stripped of his clothes

11.The crucifixion

12.The death

13.The deposition (Jesus’ body being taken down from the cross)

14.The entombment

15.(The resurrection)

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The Virgin Mary and Jesus with an ‘aura mandorla’, a full body halo showing a

manifestation of God.

Stained glass window showing Jesus with a

cruciform halo.

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2. Animals and Birds – When decorating churches many artists used images from the natural world to represent Christian teaching.

The monkey was thought to be an animal with human desires so became known

as a symbol of immoral self-indulgence, greed, cunning

and lust.

The donkey is a humble working animal so is a

symbol of humility

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The lamb represents Jesus as he is often described as the Lamb of God.

The lamb will often be surrounded by a halo to represent holiness.

Jesus is often shown as a shepherd with sheep; the sheep representing

the followers of Jesus.

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The snake represents the Devil or sin. The snake

wrapped around the cross represents the triumph of

Jesus over sin.

The dragon is also a symbol of evil. It is sometimes

depicted with St George and sometimes with the

Archangel St Michael who is believed to have defeated

the Devil.

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The Winged Man

represents St Matthew

The Lion is a symbol of St Mark.

Lions symbolise strength and majesty and

therefore represent Jesus.

The Eagle is a symbol of St John. It became known

as a symbol of the resurrection

The Bull or Ox is a symbol of St Luke. The

Ox was present at the nativity.

Symbols of the Evangelists

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Also:Bear – symbol of evil power.Camel – as it can go several days without drinking it became a symbol of temperance.Dog – a symbol of faithfulness.Fox – a symbol of cunning so may represent Satan.Rabbit – due to its capacity to breed, it has become a symbol of lust.Unicorn – was adopted by Christians as a symbol of God’s incarnation in Jesus and Jesus’ sinless life.Phoenix – symbol of the resurrection of Jesus.Frog – a representation of punishment and demonic powers.Fish – a symbol of Jesus and sometimes of the Eucharist.Butterflies – a symbol of the resurrection.Dove – the most common symbol of God, the Holy Spirit.

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3. Plants – These are often used by artists to illustrate Christian teaching. Artists would portray plants in the way they are used in the Bible or would use characteristics of particular plants to make an analogy between them and parts of Christian teaching.

Vines in the Old Testament are a symbol of abundance. When seen

with wheat they represent the Eucharist. In John, Jesus says ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’ so

the vine represents Jesus.

The rose symbolises purity and the Virgin Mary. When shown with Mary the roses

have no thorns because she is believed to be without


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1. How do you think that symbolism within a church would aid worship?

2. How do you think that symbolism within a church could be a barrier to worship?

3. Why do you think that some people dislike highly decorated churches and prefer to worship in simple buildings?

4. How does the architecture and symbols you have seen represent the divine?

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• Do you think that decorated buildings containing symbols are important for Christianity?

• How do you think that worship in a simple building and a highly decorated building would be different?

• Which would you prefer and why?