Top 10 Famous Church Architectural Styles

When you come across a building, its design captures your attention first. A building with a striking architectural style can become an iconic symbol of the city it’s in and attract visitors from around the world. Many of these impressive buildings have distinct and unique design elements that still inspire architects and designers.

Let’s look at the most famous church architectural styles that have influenced their construction.

10Early Christian Architecture

santa costanza
Exterior view of Santa Costanza, Rome, Italy

During the first century, Christian places of worship adopted a standardized architectural style. With Classical Greek and Roman architectures, the Roman artisans followed a Roman tradition for constructing these churches in the Basilican model. A separate circular church, used as a baptistery, often attached to the main basilica.

For building walls, they employed Roman construction techniques using rubble, concrete, brick, or stone. Mosaics provide a decorative feature to the interior, while the central nave has a timber roof. The pavement design consisted of bold geometric patterns inlaid with colored marbles, creating a simple yet striking design.

9Byzantine Architecture

Basilica di San Vitale
Mosaic works inside Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy

During its early period as the eastern half of the Roman Empire, Byzantium adopted an architectural style that drew influence from Roman traditions, Near Eastern aesthetics, and Greek architecture. Byzantine buildings typically have a square design with a main floor layout. Churches and basilicas have high-reaching domes that create spacious and well-lit central areas.

The use of round arches is a key feature of the Byzantine style, and magnificent golden mosaics adorn the interiors of churches, bringing warmth and light. Byzantine architecture focused more on the interiors, where the richest interiors have finishings with thin plates of marble or stone.

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8Eastern Orthodox Architecture

St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow, Russia
St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow, Russia

Eastern Orthodox churches have unique and distinct architectural styles influenced by the Byzantine legacy. These styles have also influenced the architecture of Islamic mosques and Western churches. The most recognizable feature of Eastern churches is their domes, which come in different forms and hold different meanings.

Common elements found in almost every Eastern Orthodox church include a tabernacle for storing bread and wine, crucifixes depicted in paintings or hanging on walls, Byzantine art decorations, and an iconostasis or icon screen representing the meeting of the earthly and heavenly realms.

7Romanesque Architecture

Saint-Sernin Basilica Nave
Nave of Saint-Sernin basilica, in Toulouse, Haute Garonne, France.

Romanesque is an architectural style that emerged in medieval Europe after the fall of the Great Roman Empire. The main characteristic feature is the semi-circular arches. It combines elements of Byzantine architecture with local traditions, resulting in massive structures featuring round arches, thick walls, barrel vaults, sturdy pillars, decorative arcading, and large towers.

Each building has a symmetrical and regular plan with clearly defined structural forms. Despite regional variations in materials used, simplicity is a common trait across Europe, setting it apart from other architectural styles. In England and Sicily, Romanesque architecture is traditionally called Norman architecture.

6Gothic Architecture

Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, France
The west facade of Notre-Dame Cathedral during sunrise

Originating in France, Gothic architecture became more popular throughout Europe in the late 12th century. Significant cathedrals constructed between 1000 and 1400 allowed architects to experiment with more complex and daring designs. The Gothic style emerged as a result, heavily influenced by Romanesque architecture.

The main feature of Gothic buildings is the pointed arches, with later additions including flying buttresses, pointed rib vaults, intricate tracery, and stained glass windows. Although these structures appear coherent and well-organized, the shapes and patterns can be difficult to discern at first glance.

5Renaissance Architecture

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City, Italy
St. Peter’s Basilica view from Saint Peter’s Square, Vatican City, Rome, Italy.

During the early 15th and 16th centuries, Renaissance architecture originated in Italy. It replaced the Gothic style and aimed to create new structures by adapting classical elements to the modern world and urban development. Renaissance architecture embodies classical orders, precise height and width ratios, and a desire for symmetry, proportion, and harmony.

Buildings often included columns, arches, pediments, and domes. Renaissance architecture was divided into three main periods: Early Renaissance, High Renaissance, and Later Renaissance. Early Renaissance architecture focused on bringing light and air into spaces, which reflected the emergence of Renaissance ideals and thinking.

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4Baroque Architecture

Baroque church of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Rome, Italy
Interior of the Baroque church of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Rome, Italy

The Baroque style of architecture emerged in Italy during the 17th century and quickly spread throughout Europe. With its intricate detailing, use of marble, large-scale decoration, and vibrant colors, the Baroque style showcases the grandeur and prestige of the Roman Catholic Church.

Paintings and sculptures are the essential aspects of Baroque buildings in Italy and Western Europe. Baroque architects drew inspiration from Renaissance and Roman architecture, incorporating classical forms. Some distinctive features of Baroque architecture include large domes or cupolas, elaborate motifs and decorations, double-sloped mansard roofs, and gilded sculptures.

3Rococo Architecture

Wieskirche, Germany
Pilgrimage Church of Wies, Germany

The Rococo or Late Baroque architectural style combines ornate and decorative features. It emerged in Paris after the death of Louis XIV as a reaction against the self-glorifying French classical art of the Baroque period. Rococo interiors are highly cohesive, with interior architecture, design, furniture, and art all sharing common characteristics.

The decorations often feature angels, musical instruments, and Eastern imagery such as pagodas and dragons, which tend to skew more secular than Baroque imagery. Other decorative elements, such as mirrored glasses, crystal chandeliers, gilded wall sconces, and boiserie, represent Rococo architecture’s expansive and aesthetic styles.

2Modern Architecture

St. Mary's catholic church in Wangerland, Germany
St. Mary’s catholic church in Wangerland, Germany

After World War II, traditionalist ideas for designing churches were gradually abandoned for the rebuilding of the bombed cathedral in Coventry. However, the 20th-century Coventry Cathedral managed to capture the old cathedral church’s symbolic essence through alternating masonry and stained glass slabs rather than attempting to replicate it.

Modern church architectural styles favor clean, minimal lines that create a consistent and smooth texture. The use of ample glass allows for natural light to flood the interior and establish a connection with the outside environment. Modern architects opt for large, smooth shapes and asymmetrical compositions without unnecessary decorations.

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1Post Modern Architecture

Resurrection Lutheran Church
Interior of Resurrection Lutheran Church in Plano, United States

Post Modern architecture originated as a response to the ideas of modernism, including hostility, uninterest, and Utopianism. Although Post Modern church designs are uncommon, some architects have used this style to revive and honor Christian architectural traditions and historical styles.

Unlike modernist designs, Post Modern techniques do not prioritize functional or formal shapes and spaces. Instead, they embrace a range of aesthetics and emphasize the collision of different styles. Post Modern architects have rediscovered the symbolic value of architectural elements and expressive forms from past centuries while valuing the meaning of art.