Church Architecture

by Marlon De La Torre

North Texas Catholic

We often hear the phrase: “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Beyond the premise of this phrase, natural beauty owes its existence from the author of beauty, God the Father. When the fall of Adam and Eve resulted in a fracture of this beauty, God provided the ways and means for man to resuscitate himself and eventually rediscover his identity through His Son Jesus Christ. 

When Christ offered Himself in sacrifice for the sins of humanity, He left us an indelible (permanent) mark that would forever remind us of His Sacrifice — i.e., the institution of the Holy Eucharist. The significance of this sacrifice is that it is perpetually expressed through the beauty of church architecture. One may ask the question, “Why all the fuss over statues, altars, candles, and sanctuaries?” The main reason for this “fuss” is that all points of church architecture aim to draw us into the mystery of Christ and initiate a conversion of heart in order to faithfully participate in the holy sacrifice of the Mass that Christ instituted.

The moment one enters through the doors of a Catholic church, the physical structure of the church would typically be in a cruciform (cross position) to reflect the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The second significant element would be the crucifix above the altar signifying the crucifixion of Christ and reminding us of His ultimate sacrifice for all humanity. The third element would be the position of the holy water font at the entrance of the church signifying a renewal of our Baptism and baptismal promises. The fourth element would be the position of the altar of sacrifice that stands significant and stationary where the celebration of the Mass occurs. The fifth and most important element is the tabernacle where our Lord is located in the Eucharistic species (host). 

Church architecture, if properly ordered, directs us toward Christ. In doing so, it provides the opportunity to have an intimate relationship with Him by way of our active participation in reception of the Holy Eucharist, which is the source and summit of our Christian life.   


What key architectural elements of the Catholic church set an atmosphere of reverence?

“We have a beautiful nave, altar, and sanctuary. So when you walk into any Catholic church, you’re going to be walking east which signifies the entrance into the glory of God, and immediately you’re awestruck by the beauty of an altar, a tabernacle, steps, and also pillars that direct them toward the beauty of the church. You have beautiful statues of the saints typically, and also stained glass windows. All aim at helping the person develop a reverence for Christ and a reverence for what they’re about to walk into, which is the liturgy itself.”

Why do Catholic churches have a crucifix with an image of the suffering Christ?

“One thing that’s significant about the Church is that it is of Christ. It comes from Christ. It is from the perspective of what Christ did as the Incarnate Word. One of the beautiful things that Christ did was He offered Himself up, body, soul, and divinity for our salvation. The representation of what He did is shown in the form of a crucifix. That’s why you see a crucifix in every Catholic church all over the world because it’s a representation of what Christ did on the cross, His salvation, and His crucifixion tied to our humanity and for our opportunity to grow with Him through the liturgy.”

Why is holy water at the entrance to the main body of the church?

“One thing that is significant about Catholics is that we are baptized into one life of Christ. Water signifies a purity, a cleansing, but it’s also an initiation into the Kingdom of God. Every time you walk into the Catholic church you’re going to notice a holy water font, and that beautiful font is aimed for us to place our fingers and make the sign of the cross on our foreheads with holy water, renewing our baptismal call and telling the whole world that we’re walking into a heavenly liturgy on Earth. Our Baptism prepares us to see Christ more clearly in what we’re about to hear in the Liturgy of the Word and receive in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.”

What is the significance of the red candle?

“Typically, when you walk into a Catholic church, or you’re going to Adoration, you see a red candle near the tabernacle. That signifies that Christ is present here. This is taken from the old Jewish ritual of signifying that God is here, present in our midst. The light signifies the presence of Christ where we have the consecrated host in the tabernacle, and it tells all the congregants that Christ is truly present here. Especially if you were to go to Adoration, you would definitely see the candle, typically enclosed in a red vase, signifying that Christ is present. In very simple terms it signifies that Christ is the light of grace for all humanity.”

How did the design and idea of the tabernacle come about?

“There are several elements involved in the development of the liturgy and the structure or the architecture of a church. From a biblical perspective, you have to look and go back to Exodus 20, where you see first the introduction of the Ten Commandments. There had to be a place to house those commandments. That was significant to the people of Israel. This is where we see from Exodus 24 on, the development of the sanctuary, a structure where they would hold the Ten Commandments, a construction of that altar, or the arc of the covenant. These became elements associated with the early structure of the Church.

Now jumping centuries forward to the advent of the early Church, especially after Constantine, he took elements of the old pagan temples and really re-conformed them to be houses of prayer. Taking the element of the old Jewish ritual and the tabernacle itself and placing it at the heart of Christian worship. This becomes a longstanding development of how we see our current church architecture as it is.”


We often hear the phrase: “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”