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The Cross of Architecture

by Alicia Tan

Ecclesiastical architecture. A biblical mandate, each with a story to tell during its own birth period, hailed from the different empires and nations. Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael Sanzio were just some of the undisputed talented artists who have defined the nature of art and architecture. And who have lent their hands towards building the striking churches we have the pleasure to visit in this day.

Outlandish detailing, gold and gaudy decorations, immaculate fittings, beautiful stained glasses. Each period encased a unique personality, yet its purpose remains the same, to function as a house of prayer and to worship the divine trinity.

Before taking a walk down the different eras of architectural styles, it is quite interesting to note that a church, a basilica and a cathedral, do actually have different distinctive terms, even though they connote and exist as one.

A Church It originated from the Greek word, ‘Ecclesia’, which denoted a crowd of people who gathered. It didn’t particularly mean a ‘building structure’ of sorts.

A Basilica Made famous by Michelangelo’s St Peter Basilica. It’s a Latin word originally used to describe a public building. It was only after the Roman Empire officially accepted Christianity as a religion did the terminology extend its reference to large churches.

A Cathedral Deriving its name from the Bishop’s ‘Cathedra’ (throne or chair), a cathedral is essentially a Christian church which holds the seat of a bishop. The ‘seat’ holds the responsibility of a leader to carry out authoritative religious teachings and moral advocacy.

Who would have known that a ‘church’ back then did not necessarily constitute to venue with a roof and doors, instead it could have simply been a gathering at a house or the outdoors where the preaching of the holy message was revealed.

Etymology aside, it is quite a complex matter to classify churches and their architectural makeup as within the different eras there were subdivisions of different countries and artists who were redefining their own style to inculcate a personal cultural identity. Nevertheless, the utmost unique and empowering features which the churches embody, irregardless of their period, is a marvelous sight to behold.

The Romanesque Architecture
(late 10th – 12th Century)

Also known as Norman-Influenced architecture, this was the first distinctive style that spread across Europe since the reign of the Roman Empire. The name ‘Romanesque’ meaning ‘Roman-like’ was coined in the 19th century to acknowledge the design style and manner of Rome. The scale of Romanesque architecture was a reflection of thanksgiving that the conclusion of the first Christian millennium in the year 1000. In the Romanesque age, building churches became almost an obsession, to the point that more churches were erected rather than castles.

Church of St Martin in Cologne and the Cathedral of Monreale in Sicily

The most recognizable feature in Romanesque architectural structures is the sheer massiveness. In a general sense, it is easy to distinguish such structures from their more slender descendants in the Gothic era. Its thick solid walls, traditional Roman round arches, decorative arcading and few windows clearly defined its style, and most importantly, the new structural development of vaults during this era marked an innovation in features through ensuing centuries. The Romanesque church façade: modular, symmetrical and had arched topped windows also boasted towers, which till today, some still stand erect. The towers take on a variety of forms: square, octagonal and round, are positioned differently in relation to the church in different countries. In Italy, towers took a free standing position whilst in France and England, the towers usually stood on one side.

The works of decorative arcading at the Cathedral of Monreale in Sicily

Figurative sculptural design covered much of the façade and portals; its purpose was to convey the message of repentance and redemption through seeking Christ. A carved crucifix displayed outside of the church reminded sinners of their redemption whilst other sculptures found on door mouldings, or on corbels represented the different events and biblical subjects of the Old Testament.

The roman round arches and the figurative sculptural design and crucifix at the St Madeline Vezelay

The St Madeline Vezelay in France, the Church of St Martin in Cologne and the Cathedral of Monreale in Sicily were just some of the most picturesque Romanesque churches ever built which are surviving till today.

As with all eras, Romanesque style did come to an end over a period of time. The colossal size of the Romanesque church took a significant number to years to built, which in turn led to new conflicts such as financing and manpower. A new phase known as the Gothic period was soon to succeed this.

The Gothic Architecture
(12th – 14th Century)

It is important to remember that the Roman and Gothic architecture were still applied hundreds of years after the periods they had defined, but some had been modified to the point that it was hard to distinguish the authentic architectural style.

The term ‘Gothic’ was first spoken in the later Renaissance, as a term implying contempt and barbarism. Goths were known to some as vandals who introduced dark, ugly, disproportionate buildings which exuded zilch class. Yet some of the most remembered churches of today come from this very epoch. Take for instance the Notre Dame de Paris and the St Francis of Assisi.

Notre Dame de Paris and St Francis of Assisi respectively

Gothic structures were first introduced in France during the period known as the ‘French Style” and its characteristics include the large wide windows, slender clusters of columns, pointed arches, inventive sculpturing of gargoyles, the dark grey outlook as well as the introduction of stained glass.

The pointed arches at the St Stephen Church.

One main characteristic of a Gothic church is its vertical height. A section of the main body of a gothic church was usually considerably taller than wide. One fine example would be the Cologne Cathedral which extreme ratio reached 3.6:1.

Through the Gothic period, due to the versatility of the pointed arch, the windows developed immensely decorative designs, often filled with stained glass which added a dimension of light and color to the dreary and gloomy looking structures.

The stained glass windows at the Notre Dame de Paris

The Italians, who never really adopted the Gothic movement, deemed the style as crass and licentious. As opposed to its predecessor which was magnificent and classic, the Gothic period laid inferior. The style had ceased, to be taken over by the Renaissance later on, (Italian influence, no less) but in the 19th Century, a new revival of Gothic design had surfaced, and efforts to define it more elegantly and carve a new significance brought about a seemingly heartier address to this era.

The Renaissance Architecture
(15th - 17th Century)

‘Renaissance’, derived from the term ‘la rinascita’ (meaning re-birth) was rooted in Florence, Italy, in the early 15th Century when Gothic began to lose favor. Florence, encompassing Rome and Milan, revived many of the ideas from Classical Roman architecture. Collaborations between artists and architects were more apparent, with many structures embossing statues, murals and various artwork. A pilgrimage to Rome to examine ancient buildings was vital for architects in training.

As in Classic Roman form, Renaissance architecture accentuated the use of symmetry, mathematical proportion, orderly arrangements of columns and the use of semicircular arches. The San Lorenzo in Florence would best demonstrate an early Renaissance church designed by Brunelleschi, one of the pioneer architects during the Renaissance period. Modeling the shape of a Latin cross, the church was built on a precise modular plan controlled by calculated vertical dimensions.

San Lorenzo in Florence and the St Peter’s Basilica in Rome

A common feature during the Renaissance period was the imposing and impressive dome. Almost all the churches during that era had domes, which were beautifully painted by artists. The St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, dubbed as “the greatest creation of the Renaissance” was famed for having a genuine touch of Michelangelo’s artistry.

The famous dome at the St Peter’s Basilica

During the Renaissance, architects were trained to raise the status of their profession from a skilled laborer to an artist. They wanted to appeal to the masses by building structures which could evoke emotions, yet still served a practical function. Renaissance architecture was somewhat different in each part of Europe, with each country instilling their own unique philosophies to the churches, however basic skills and principles remained the same.

A touch of Michelangelo’s artistry. The interior of the St Peter’s Basilica

Following the Renaissance period, many other styles followed after, such as the Baroque and Reformed style. The former sparked controversy for being overtly ostentatious in its appearance. An obscene amount of money was spent to build and decorate the Baroque churches, with its purpose to highlight the wealth and power of the church. Many people, especially those who believed that a church was meant for the poor as well as the rich, and should not be controlled and attended by only the ones who were better off, criticized this outlandish display.

In This Modern Day

As such, ecclesiastical architecture has evolved and many modern churches today have adopted a fine fusion of contemporary and traditional design. In the olden days where stained glass donned the churches, this day, modern technology such as the air-conditioner and laptops are the necessities for a comfortable service.

Now, with so much effort placed on unique designs and recurrent call for donations to build or renovate a church, how would you really define a church? By the people in attendance or by the architectural structure? Or is this simply a cause and effect chain reaction?

Alicia Tan
TAXI Design Network


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