Mankind was never so happily inspired as when it made a cathedral.
― Robert Louis Stevenson
Humans have been creating beautiful, colossal and imposing edifices of all kinds since the ancient past; however, their most complex artistic expressions have always been represented through religious structures. This may be because most people tend to think with their hearts rather than just brains, when it comes to their God(s). Churches, the Christian places of worship, are no exception to this phenomenon, and we have a large number of magnificent churches all across the world. Designed in a variety of architectural styles and layouts, it is needless to say that every single architectural and/or artistic element of these buildings represents something or the other in Christendom. Nevertheless, whether we understand the deep symbolism or not, one thing is for sure―some of these churches are truly a sight to behold, with their numerous towers and domes, and other embellishments.
Churches are present in literally every nook and corner of the world, and many of them are so awe-inspiring that it often seems difficult to believe that something as simple as a church, can take such a grand form. If you are a curious traveler, a keen observer, and have an inclination towards religious art and architecture, you have landed on the right page. Take a look at some of the world's most spectacular churches and chapels, which are really worth a visit.
Borgund Stave Church
Borgund, Lærdal, Norway
Church of Norway
12th century CE
Constructed sometime between 1180 and 1250 CE, the Borgund Stave Church is a wooden structure, and is one of Norway's best preserved stave (vertical wooden board) churches. Believed to have been built in honor of the Apostle Andrew, the church has been sheltered by an overhanging shingled roof. The ground plan of the church resembles a double-shelled Greek cross, and there are three entrances to the building. The wooden interiors have been intricately embellished with ornamental cross-shaped carvings, medallions, carved buttresses, and carved dragon heads, alongside several runic inscriptions. The original structure is known to have undergone several changes/additions over time, and most of the internal fittings have now been removed. Even the main altar is a 17th century addition.
In 1868, the parish of Borgund
got a new church, owing to which the old church fell into disuse. However, in 1877, Fortidsminneforeningen (Society for the Preservation of Ancient Norwegian Monuments)
purchased the old church and converted it into a museum, which it remains till date.
Church of Saint George
Lalibela, Amhara Region, Ethiopia
In the 12th century, King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela
of Ethiopia commissioned the construction of a number of churches across the city (named after the king), in an attempt to recreate the holy landscape of Jerusalem. According to a local Ethiopian legend, Lalibela had a vision in which he was ordered to do so by God Himself. Following his orders, eleven monolithic churches were carved across the city from a red volcanic rock, and the Church of St. George was the last one to be erected. Often referred to as the 'Eighth Wonder of the World', the church is now also a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, "Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela", inscribed in the list in 1978.
One of the best-preserved monuments in its natural settings, the Church of St. George was originally promoted as a pilgrimage center. Even today, it continues to remain an important pilgrimage site of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
, with many of its ancient traditions and church practices still preserved.
Notre Dame de Paris
Roman Catholic Church
Jean de Chelles and Pierre de Montreuil
Commonly known as the Notre Dame Cathedral
or simply Notre Dame
, this is amongst the most renowned churches in the world, and one of the finest and grandest examples of the French Gothic style. An active cathedral even today, its treasury is known to house some of the most important Biblical relics such as the supposed Crown of thorns
, one of the Holy Nails
, and a fragment of the True Cross
. During the French Revolution, much of the religious imagery of Notre Dame was destroyed, leading to its desecration.
From 1845 onwards, extensive restoration work began under the able supervision of architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc
. However, more damages were caused during WWII, when some parts of the building were hit by bullets. In 1991, another phase of restoration was initiated that extended up to 2010. The cathedral continues to be in worship today, and is also one of the most important tourist spots in Paris.
Saint Basil's Cathedral
Red Square, Moscow, Russia
Barma and Postnik Yakovlev
Also known as Cathedral of the Protection of Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat
, Pokrovsky Cathedral
, or Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed
, this mighty cathedral marks the geometric center of the city of Moscow. It was originally called the Trinity Church
, and was initially built as a commemorative monument. Between 1555 to 1561, the Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible
patronized the construction of the cathedral to commemorate the capture Kazan and Astrakhan. Till 1600, the edifice remained the tallest structure in Moscow, before the Ivan the Great Bell Tower
was built. Constructed in the form of the flame of bonfire rising towards the sky, the cathedral is particularly famous the world over for its colorful onion-shaped domes, and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990.
From the late 16th century onwards, the cathedral has been undergoing a number of changes and restorations. For instance, the vivid bright colors of the domes that we see are 17th century additions, when the Russian attitude shifted more in favor of bright colors. The last round of renovation of the building took place recently in 2008. Today, a part of the cathedral has been converted into a museum, and is still in use.
St. Peter's Basilica
Donato Bramante, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, Michelangelo, Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola, Giacomo della Porta, Carlo Maderno, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini
The "greatest of all churches of Christendom", the St. Peter's Basilica is unmatched in its beauty and grandeur. One of the most sacred Catholic sites, it also boasts of being one of the largest churches in the world. According to the Roman Catholic tradition, one of Jesus' 12 Apostles, Saint Peter (from whom the church gets its name), has been buried right beneath the altar of the basilica, owing to which several popes have also been entombed here since the Early Christian Period.
One of the major pilgrimage sites of Roman Catholicism, it also holds a rank of being a Major Basilica
, where the Pope himself presides over a number of services throughout the year. Apart from the grand architecture that the basilica features, it also houses an amazing treasure of world renowned artifacts and relics. These include, apart from others, a whole lot of works by Bernini and Michelangelo.
Chora, Mykonos, Greece
Citizens of Mykonos
Though considered to be a single church, the Paraportiani is, in fact, a complex of five small churches, interconnected with one another. Its name literally means "by the side door", and has been called so, owing to its location next to the side gate in the wall of a ruined medieval castle that exists no more. It is not surprising that with its picturesque location, brilliantly white-washed walls, and simple geometric forms, it is one of the most photographed religious structures in the world. The five churches have been constructed in a tiered formation, giving the whole complex a more rhythmic feel.
The Church of Panagia Paraportiani
is the most beautiful in the complex, and its location on an elevation gives it a more imposing look. According to historians, the construction work seems to have begun in the middle of the 15th century and continued at a very slow pace through the 17th. Today, some parts of the complex have been ruined; however, this only seems to enhance its beauty.
Las Lajas Sanctuary
Ipiales, Nariño, Colombia
One of the major hallmarks of Columbia, the Las Lajas Sanctuary is a basilica church built inside the canyon of the Guáitara River. Architecturally, the structure is grand and at the very first instance, its façade resembles that of a medieval castle. Some 17th and 18th century references tell us that there was a much smaller chapel at the sanctuary's place. However, owing to the popularity of the local legend that surrounded the chapel, number of worshipers at the place were constantly on an increase. So, a new, bigger church was constructed on the site with the help of donations from local churchgoers.
The main tower of the sanctuary soars about 100 m from the canyon's bottom, and is connected to the mainland with a 50 m tall bridge. Though the church is incredibly popular with local people, it is a pity that many international tourists often seem to miss it altogether.
Gothic, Neoclassical, Neo-Gothic
Simone da Orsenigo, Nicolas de Bonaventure, Jean Mignot, Giacomo Antegnati, Giuseppe Meda, Francesco Maria Richini, Fabio Mangone, and Carlo Pellicani.
The Duomo di Milano
, as it is called in Italian, is the seat of the Archbishop of Milan and is dedicated to Saint Mary Nascent
. The largest cathedral in the Italian state territory and the fourth largest in the world, Milan Cathedral's construction began in 1386 and took almost six centuries to complete. Located, since its inception, in the center of Milan, this majestic cathedral involved the tedious efforts of several master builders from all across Europe, each made his own contribution to the building. The flamboyant edifice that we see today is the result of the subtle of blend of the architectural styles that went on developing and evolving period after period.
The cathedral consists of 3,159 beautifully sculpted statues, more than any other building in the world. Plus, it also houses the largest organ in the whole of Italy. Today, the cathedral is the most notable artistic landmarks in Milan, and also one of the most-visited religious structures in the city.
Church of Hallgrímur
, as the Icelanders call it, is not only Iceland's largest church, but also its sixth tallest architectural edifice at 73 m. Named after the Icelandic clergyman, poet, and author of the Passion Hymns
, Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614 to 1674), the church was designed to resemble the basalt lava flows of Iceland. Interestingly, the church is also used as an observation tower, and visitors can actually take a lift to the viewing platform at the top to enjoy the mesmerizing view of the city and its surrounding mountains.
The main tower of the church underwent a major restoration work in 2008, when it was covered in scaffolding. The work was completed a year later, in 2009. The church has a statue of the Norse explorer Leif Ericson
(970 - 1020 CE) in its front. Sculpted by the American sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder
, it was gifted in 1930 by the US to mark the 1000th anniversary of the Icelandic parliament, and thus, predates the church itself.
Not yet; estimated completion between 2026 and 2028
The most extraordinary personal interpretation of Gothic architecture since the Middle Ages, according to the American architecture critic and educator Paul Goldberger, the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família
or simply Sagrada Família is a colossal Roman Catholic church, consecrated in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI. The construction of the church began in 1882, and relied highly on private donations. The construction process was also interrupted several times by periodic conflicts, such as the Spanish Civil War, owing to which the edifice remains incomplete to this day. The unique blend of Gothic and Art Nouveau forms, the church enjoys an important position on the landscape of Barcelona, and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The church is in worship today, and the construction work has resumed from 2010. According to Joan Rigol, President of the committee charged with finishing the building, it would be completed by 2026, the death centenary year of Antoni Gaudí, and if not, then two years later. Nevertheless, the building continues to remain one of the most-visited tourist spots in Barcelona.
Special Feature: Hagia Sophia
Isidore of Miletus, Anthemius of Tralles
By far, one of the finest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture, the Hagia Sophia, which is now a museum, has been a witness to several social and cultural transformations as empires rose and fell in the Middle Ages.
It was initially consecrated as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral from 537 CE to 1204 CE. During this time, it also served as the seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.
Then, when in 1204, the Latin Empire (until 1261) assumed power in Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a Roman Catholic Cathedral. However, after 1261 to about 1453, it reassumed its Eastern Orthodox affiliation again.
In 1453, Constantinople fell into the hands of the Ottoman Empire, and their first ruler, Sultan Mehmed II was so impressed by the sheer scale of the Cathedral that he ordered it to be converted into a mosque with immediate effect. Adhering to the orders of the king, all the Christian features were immediately removed from the building, and the Islamic ones added. Until about 1616, Hagia Sophia remained the principal mosque of Istanbul.
In 1935, the mosque was converted into a museum by the Republic of Turkey, which it continues to remains even today.
In the 20th century, large-scale restoration work of the Hagia Sophia was undertaken and numerous Christian mosaics were uncovered. Owing to the fact that the building has been religiously important for both Christians and Muslims at different points of time in history, the restoration has rather been a challenging task. Nevertheless, monuments such as Hagia Sophia and the like, testify to how the nature of an edifice changes with a change in human preferences and attitudes.
Today, important and grand churches are promoted as popular tourist spots, and attract a huge influx of tourists, Christian or not, from all over the world year after year. It is, however, important to respect the sanctity of these places when we visit them.