Chiara Del Core 1 jul 2021 Articles 0 comments

Places of worship: design between past and present

The sacred architecture sector has always proved to be complex but equally fascinating. In fact, the design of places of worship presupposes a particular sensitivity to the interpretation of symbols and images, an ability to masterfully link the sphere of the sacred to that of the profane. The sacred space has always been a place where the faithful make direct contact with the divinity and over the years it has also become a meeting and exchange point for the community belonging to a specific creed. Originally the temple, seen as the abode of the divinity, stood in the upper part of the settlement and often the faithful did not have free and complete access. Subsequently, real buildings were erected to the divinity, which had the peculiarity of being majestic and recognizable within the built environment. Just think of the Parthenon, an excellent work of classical architecture that has become a symbol of ancient Greece and of all religious buildings. With the passage of time and the spread of monotheisms, the evolution of these artifacts has seen them transform into places destined not only for prayer and religious ceremonies, but also for community life and activities designed for the faithful. It is from this moment that the religious places and the design of their environments determine an unexpected opening of the faithful to the divinity.

A brief excursus on the salient features of this interesting topic is presented below.

Sacred architecture and monotheistic cults

If we focus on the design of worship spaces, some elements of fundamental importance must be taken into consideration. From a functional point of view, it is good to know the rituals and celebratory practices of each religion, while as regards aesthetics, symbols and sacred images will determine the consistency and appearance of the artifact.

Analyzing the characters that influence the design of these places, the fact emerges that the three main monotheistic religions are united by some elements that find particular differentiations according to the specificity of the religious belief. For example, the distinction between spaces intended for faithful of different sexes is progressively more accentuated in Islamic rather than Christian worship. In fact, while in the latter case, only up to fifty years ago, the pews for women were on the left of the altar and those for men on the right, in the case of mosques still today there is a clear spatial distinction between the two sexes. Another substantial difference is represented by the presence or absence of a space for ablution of the body. This is a deeply felt practice in the Muslim tradition, a little less in the Jewish one and almost absent in the Catholic one except for the presence of the holy water stoup that is usually found at the entrance to churches.

The inner courtyard of a Mosque in Istanbul (Turkey)

But now let's see specifically what are the elements that characterize the main buildings of worship today.


The design activity of Christian churches evolves and develops over the centuries, keeping some elements firm and upsetting others. In the medieval period, the churches had a Latin cross layout where the nave met the transept and culminated with the area intended for the choir and apse. Over time, in the Renaissance period, the church became an emblem of geometry and symmetry and a symbol of papal magnificence. However, it is with the Baroque architecture that the sacred buildings reach the apex of splendor and richness, which can be found in the highly decorated and frescoed interiors. This trend towards decorative opulence undergoes a U-turn with the emergence of modern architecture which tends to simplify forms and eliminate all that is deemed superfluous. Furthermore, with the Second Vatican Council (1965) an important change took place regarding the participation of the faithful in the religious rite: unlike in the past, from this moment Christians are invited to actively participate in the ceremony.

In this way, the use of the spaces also changes as, for example, the presbytery, or the area once reserved for those who officiated mass, is now also accessible to the faithful. Taking part in the rite and gathering together increase the community value of the church which, from a building purely dedicated to worship, becomes a collective, symbolic and functional place. The path of the faithful marks the interior spaces that will be oriented towards the fulcrum of the celebrations starting from the atrium, through the nave, towards the altar, the central element and symbol of the entire religious community. The latter is an emblem, it must be accessible and visible to all and all the other spaces will be organized from it. Next to it is the ambo which constitutes the lectern and the area for the celebration of the rite. Usually on the opposite side of the altar is the baptismal font of variable dimensions, essential for the performance of the relative sacrament. The tabernacle for the conservation of the Eucharist follows. Behind the altar or in the section above the entrance, the pipe organ is placed which must ensure proper comfort from an acoustic point of view.

To view the 2D drawing of a pipe organ click here...>>

As for the furniture, it must be appropriate to the ritual and free from unnecessary decorations. The use of natural materials such as wood, wax and floral species is recommended. The iconographic choice must also respond to Christian worship and tradition. Everything must be consistent with a sober and highly symbolic whole.

Analyzing the relationship with the context, the building often becomes a recognizable element and sometimes constitutes a precious resource capable of enriching urban spaces. In fact, while communicating closely with the surrounding environment, the area intended for the sacred space must be recognizable through elements that are used in churches and are aimed at leading the faithful to the ecclesial space. These iconic components are represented by the churchyard, the atrium, the sacristy and the bell tower. The first constitutes an external area designed to welcome the faithful and to function as a filter and connecting space between the context and the internal sacred environment. The atrium houses the entrance with a holy water stoup and its dimensions vary according to the needs related to the expected user flows. As for the sacristy, it represents an important place to keep sacred books and objects necessary for the celebration of mass. For this reason, it is good to study the furniture suitable for these functions. Finally, the bell tower houses the bells and acts as a symbolic and recognizable element within the built environment.
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