Jesus Christ didn’t need fancy churches, but thank goodness that some people didn’t listen too well and built magnificent buildings to glorify God. Today, there are thousands of churches: some small and simple, whereas others are humongous and ornately decorated.
Let’s take a look at some divinely designed churches around the world, both classic and modern in style:
Las Lajas Cathedral
The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Las Lajas, or the Las Lajas Cathedral [wiki] in Colombia, was built in 1916 on a site where, according to local legend, the Virgin Mary appeared. The story goes like this: an Indian woman named María Mueses de Quiñones was carrying her deaf-mute daughter Rosa on her back near Las Lajas ("The Rocks"). Weary of the climb, the María sat down on a rock when Rosa spoke (for the first time) about an apparition in a cave.
Later on, a mysterious painting of the Virgin Mary carrying a baby was discovered on the wall of the cave. Supposedly, studies of the painting showed no proof of paint or pigments on the rock - instead, when a core sample was taken, it was found that the colors were impregnated in the rock itself to a depth of several feet.
Whether true or not, the legend spurred the building of a gothic church worthy of a fairy tale.
The church’s design is rich with Christian symbolism, with façades featuring intricate details describing the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the most awe inspiring is the eighteen towers representing the 12 Apostles, 4 Evangelists, the Virgin Mary, and a central tower - the tallest of them all - representing Christ.
The construction of the Sagrada Familia basilica started in 1882, directed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, who devoted his life to it. When people said that the construction had taken a very long time, Gaudí replied that he was building the church for God, and that his client wasn’t in a hurry. He then became known as "God’s Architect."
In 1926, Gaudí got run over by a street car. Because of his raggedy attire and empty pockets, no one wanted to take him to the hospital. Eventually, he was taken to a pauper’s hospital where no one recognized him until his friends found him and tried to move him to another hospital. Gaudí refused, saying that he belonged with the poor, and died a few days later.
Because Gaudí refused to work with blue prints, preferring to use his imagination and memory instead, construction of La Sagrada Familia was halted after his death. Part of the church was even burnt during the Spanish Civil War. Construction of La Sagrada Familia was restarted afterwards and continues until today.
St. Basil’s Cathedral
As its name implies, St. Basil’s Cathedral on the Red Square in Moscow, Russia, is named after Saint Basil (who is also known as Basil Fool for Christ). The story goes that in the 1500s, an apprentice shoemaker/serf named Basil stole from the rich to give to the poor. He also went naked, weighed himself with chains, and rebuked Ivan the Terrible for not paying attention in church. Most of the time, admonishing anyone with name "the Terrible" wasn’t such a good idea, but apparently Ivan had a soft spot for the holy fool (as Basil was also known) and ordered a church to be built in his name after Basil died.
St. Basil’s Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church, sports a series of colorful bulbous domes that taper to a point, aptly named onion domes, that are part of Moscow’s Kremlin skyline (although the church is actually not part of the Kremlin).
Oh, and Ivan the Terrible lived up to his name after he supposedly blinded the architect who built the church so he would not be able to design something as beautiful afterwards.
Technically, Hagia Sophia (Greek for the Church of the Holy Wisdom of God) is no longer a church, it is now a museum in Istanbul, Turkey. It began its life as an early Christian church, then rebuilt as the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Constantinople, then a mosque when the city fell to the Turks in 1453 before it finally became a museum.
Hagia Sophia as we know it today was completed by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 537. When completed, the temple was so large and richly decorated that Justinian proclaimed "Solomon, I have surpassed thee!". It remained the largest church for one thousand years after it was completed.
Hagia Sophia is one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture, with a large central dome and interior intricately decorated with mosaics, marbles, and stone inlays. The dome, often referred to as the vault of heaven, was a new architectural feature at the time, necessitating the invention of a new pillar support system.
Today, the restoration of Hagia Sophia is a delicate balance of restoring Christian iconographic mosaics under historic Islamic art, which would have to be destroyed to reveal the work underneath.
St. Peter’s Basilica
The largest religious building in the world, not to mention the center of Christianity, I suppose, belongs in this list. St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City is built over the tomb of St. Peter the Apostle, and is the largest church in the tiny country. It is truly immense: the church covers an area of 5.7 acres (2.3 ha) and has a capacity of over 60,000 people.
Before St. Peter’s Basilica as we know it was built, there was already a church there built in 324 C.E. by Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome. That church lasted for about 1,200 years until the crumbling structure was torn down to build the modern-day basilica. St. Peter’s Basilica was built by the who’s who of the Renaissance era: Michelangelo designed the dome, Gian Lorenzo Bernini designed the main square, and Donato Bramante was the first architect of the church
Notre Dame de Paris or simply Notre Dame is the quintessential example of Gothic Architecture. Construction of the church started in 1163, when Bishop Maurice de Sully decided to build a cathedral befitting his status as the bishop of Paris. Notre Dame was completed some 200 years later - one of the first European cathedrals to be built on a truly monumental scale.
A particularly striking feature of Notre Dame are its Rose Windows - massive (at the time they were the largest windows in the world) circular stained glass windows that depict scenes from the bible.
Legend has it that when Notre Dame’s bell "Emmanuel" was recast in the 1600s, women threw their gold jewelry into the molten metal to give the bell its unique ring.
At the end of the 18th century, during the French Revolution, the church was ransacked, its treasures plundered and many of the statues of saints were beheaded. Notre Dame was dedicated to the Cult of Reason and then the Cult of the Supreme Being - for a while, it was even used as a barn!
In 1831, Notre Dame was made famous by Victor Hugo, who wrote "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," about Quasimodo, a hunchback bell ringer who fell in love with the Gypsy Esmeralda. The popularity of the book spurred a gothic revival in France and helped the restoration of the cathedral back to its original splendor
Hallgrímskirkja (Icelandic for the Church of Hallgrímur), the tallest building in Iceland, is named after Hallgrímur Pétursson, a 17th century poet and clergyman.
The church’s unusual design (some had likened it to a rude hand gesture) is supposed to represent volcanic columns rising between the steeple tower - a reference to Iceland’s many volcanoes.
The iconic building looks like it belongs in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Indeed, many aspects of Tolkien’s work was inspired by Norse mythologies and many of the fictional names in the book are Norse in origin, although there is no reference that Hallgrímskirkja served as a model any of the towers in the book.
Jubilee ChurchYou can’t miss the distinctive curved walls of The Jubilee Church in Tor Tre Teste, Rome. It was designed in 1996 by architect Richard Meier, who said that the modern-styled church is the "the crown jewel of the Vicariato di Roma’s (Archdiocese of Rome) Millennium project." And right he was!
The curved walls not only serve the engineering purpose of minimizing thermal peak loads in the interior space, they are also a religious methapor:
Three circles of equal radius generate the profiles of the three shells that, together with the spine-wall, make up the body of the nave. While the three shells discretely imply the Holy Trinity, the reflecting pool symbolizes water in the ritual of Baptism.
If there was a church modeled after Elvis’ hair, Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut is it. The pilgrimate chapel is located in Ronchamp, France. Indeed, it is more famous than the little town that most people simply call the structure itself Ronchamp.
The cleverness of unusual design of the billowing concrete roof is apparent when it rains: water pours off the slanted roof onto a fountain, creating a dramatic waterfall.
Although quite different from his usual design, Notre Dame du Haut is considered one of Le Corbusier’s finest work.
The Crystal CathedralThe Crystal Cathedral is neither made of crystal nor is it a cathedral. Nevertheless, the Christian megachurch in the city of Garden Grove, California, is one amazing church.
Built by "The Hour of Power" televangelist Rev. Dr. Robert H. Schuller (who started out with a "drive-in" church located in an actual, old drive-in movie theater!) and his wife Arvella, and designed by architect Philip Johnson, the church is made almost entirely out glass with a web-like framework of steel.
From the outside, the Crystal Cathedral is shaped like a giant four-pointed crystal star, with the main "cathedral" rising 12 stories above the ground, featuring a mirror-like exterior composed of some 12,000 panes of glass. The view is even more amazing from the interior, where the transparent glass lets in the surrounding view, sunlight and the sky.
The Crystal Cathedral also has one of the largest pipe organs in the world, called the Hazel Wright Pipe Organ, with 5 consoles controlling 270 ranks, 31 digital ranks, and more than 16,000 pipes!
Darth Vader GrotesqueWaaaay up near the top of the tower of the Washington National Cathedral, there is a carved grotesque (a structural element to deflect rainwater from the building, similar to a gargoyle) shaped like … Darth Vader!
How did the Star Wars villain get there? Turns out in the 1980s, the Cathedral sponsored a sculpture design competition for children. Four winning designs were chosen: a raccoon, a girl with pigtails and braces, a man with large teeth and an umbrella, and lastly, Darth Vader.
If you must know, the Darth sculpture was proposed by Christopher Rader of Kearney, Nebraska.
Computer programmer Amy Hughes built a fantastically detailed 7 feet by 5 1/2 feet by 30 inches miniature church out of LEGO, called the Abston Church of Christ.
Why Abston? That’s because LEGO is made out of Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS). It took her over a year to build the church.
After his dogs (and loving wife!) helped him recover from a serious illness that doctors thought would kill him, artist Stephen Huneck decided to build a chapel in honor man’s best friend.
Huneck built the dog chapel on his mountain-top farm in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Inside, there are four pews with dog sculptures, a fantastic dog stained-glass window and other interesting dog-themed arts.
Let me be the first to acknowledge that this list is far from complete. There are hundreds more of magnificent churches around the world. If your favorite church is not included, it is not a slight .