Architecture enhances spirituality of churches

Megan Ferguson

Present-day religious buildings follow traditions by adopting historic architecture into their design.

Because historic architecture typically revolves around religious buildings, churches are at the center of many European cities, said Steven Rugare, associate professor of architecture.

“Up until 1700, the bulk of the buildings we look at are all religious buildings,” Rugare said.

Architects designing new churches tend to draw inspiration from traditional designs, The Newman Center Pastoral Associate Mary Lynn Delfino said. She said people love nostalgic designs, but today’s churches also incorporate modern architecture, as well.

Religious building architecture is important on both the exterior and interior, freshman interior design major Caitlin Hollar said.

Space is very important to a religious community because it speaks to their values, Delfino said.

“The churches I went to growing up were very elaborate and a lot older,” said Kaitlyn Thissen, senior special education major. “It definitely gave it a more religious feeling. It was beautiful, and I felt thankful to go there.”

Although the architecture of the buildings possesses sentiment and religious value, people worship together with or without a building.

“The building is only one part of the community,” Delfino said. “Without the building we would still gather together, but if we can improve people’s worshiping, then they will do so.”

She has seen that when the church does set aside a space for people to pray, it makes them feel safe to express themselves.

Rugare said each religion has buildings with different traditions, which can get complicated when considering current designs.

“There is a little stereotyping just because different religions traditionally stick to their same structures throughout the years,” Rugare said.

When teaching the history of architecture Rugare talks a lot about the beliefs, rituals and the way in which they use the space.

Different styles of religious buildings showcase the unique values of each religion.

“The Muslim religion is heavy on decorative pattern, they tend to use integrated mathematical patterns,” Rugare said.

Some religions, such as Christianity, tend to have many symbolic pictures and statues, while other religions like Judaism and Islam generally forbid religious images.

“Catholic churches seem to have more stained glass windows, while Protestants use a more simple design. Both groups give reasons on why that helps them feel more connected to God,” Delfino said.

“The Newman Center (a Catholic church) has an A frame, which has a big ceiling arch,” Delfino said. “It naturally guides your eyes upwards towards where Catholics believe heaven is.”  

When building The Newman Center, it was designed with that purpose in mind.

Emily Jelinek, a senior fashion design major, grew up in a Protestant church and was very active within it.

“Protestant churches are much more simple than Catholic churches because during the Protestant reformation, people thought all the ornate parts of the church like statues and things shouldn’t have been what was worshipped,” Jelinek said. “Spirituality should not revolve around the architecture but the feelings and messages of a church.”

In more spiritual religions, like Buddhism, they keep their temples clean, open and close to nature, said Isabella Trevino, senior theatre major, who is taking history of architecture. Buddhists believed this design brings them closer to who they believe is lord, she said.

“People visited churches for their beauty even if they were not religious, which would rarely happen for Protestant churches,” Jelinek said.

Rugare said although church architecture is mostly a specialist field, it is not the most complex building to design.

“Architects must take into consideration the wants and needs of who the client is,” Hollar said. “They have to decide what way is best to express their place for worship while asking themselves numerous questions along the way.”

There is so much history in religious buildings, Trevino said.

“Some of the first buildings ever truly designed were the great cathedrals in Europe,” Trevino said. “They were designed so beautifully because church used to be the most central thing in people’s lives.”

“You feel a connection to your ancestors in those traditional churches. You can see what that culture valued in aesthetics at the time,” Delfino said.

Jelinek studied abroad in Florence, Italy, and said the churches there were catholic and very ornate.

She went to a service at The Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, the main church in Florence, commonly referred to as Il Duomo di Firenze.

She said although the size and beauty of the building made the voices echo, and architecture enhanced the spiritual experience, and it was hard to focus on the mass’ meaning, rather than the church itself.

You can tell a lot about a religious community through architecture; It has supported traditions in the Catholic Church for hundreds of years, Delfino said.

“God manifests himself through beauty and human creativity,” Delfino said.

Megan Ferguson is the religion reporter, contact her at [email protected].