Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Fundamentals of Church Building

by Edward J. Weber, A.A.I.A.


In this article Edward J. Weber, the architect of St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Wheeling, West Virginia, discusses the relation of symbolism to the material edifice. He lists numerous secular and religious symbols as examples, and then gives a detailed explanation of the symbolism found in the architecture and decoration of a Catholic church. This worthwhile document is both a study of symbolism and a brief history of church design.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, June 1927

Symbols are signs or emblems used to represent something higher and nobler than appears at first to the eye. Symbolism is rampant in the ceremonial of the Catholic Church, and in the planning, conception and decoration of ecclesiastical edifices. In this paper we are concerned only with the relation of symbolism to the material edifice.

Primitive peoples (for example, the Ainus), when asked for a proof of the existence of God, call attention to the lightning as the reflection of His glory and to the thunder as the sound of His Voice. In very ancient times a straight or waved horizontal line was used to represent water. Light was indicated by a straight vertical line, which, when waved, betokened lightning. A horizontal line passing through a vertical forms a cross emblematic of creation, and this cross revolving around its center produces the Swastika cross, the four bent ends representing flames. The Swastika became the symbol of the creation of the world, and is also symbolic of the four winds. The rubbing together of two sticks of wood at right angles to obtain fire suggested a cross form, so that, in addition, the cross was emblematic of fire. The Tau Cross, in which the horizontal line crosses the top of the vertical one as in a primitive crutch, is the symbol of the arch keystone. The Ankh is a Tau Cross with an oval loop placed vertically on its top. It is a symbol of life and signifies the joining of the old and new faiths — that is, Judaism and Christianity.

The circle represents the sun, and, on account of the figure having no beginning or end, it also betokens eternity and infinity. The circle is thus significant of life itself, spiritual and material. The crescent moon is represented by a semi-circle, and is the symbol of the Mother of God. An arch supported on two pillars also represents the moon. The sun and moon used in juxtaposition symbolize day and night, birth and death, male and female.

The equilateral triangle is symbolic of the triune God, as is likewise the trefoil or shamrock. In the double triangle, (i.e., two triangles superposed in opposite ways to form a star), there is the representation, of the perfect God and the perfect man. Human beings, as the children of God, have for their symbol the five-pointed star. This star also symbolizes man in the attitude of prayer as in very early times (and still in the Greek Church), when the correct attitude of prayer was to stand with arms outstretched and head erect. The five-pointed star is the only correctly shaped star to be used over the Christmas Crib, or at any representation of the birthplace of our Lord.

Among the early Christians the monogram of Christ was profusely used. It is known as the "Chi Rho," formed by the superposing of the Greek letters X (our Ch) and P (our R); and Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, are sometimes used with this monogram, in which case it denotes that Christ is the beginning and the end of all things. The "Chi Rho" in Christian symbolism is of earlier origin than the Cross.

Because of the death of Christ on a cross, the Cross, naturally became an object of great veneration among Christians. During the period of the persecution, however, great care had to be exercised in its use. For this reason the Cross was disguised in various ways — for example, as a cross-yard for the mast of a ship and as an anchor. When the latter was used, it became a symbol of hope. From the Latin numeral X, the St. Andrew's Cross is supposed to be derived. It became the national emblem of Scotland.

The "Physiologus" (or "Book of Beasts") is a list of some fifty beasts, birds, and fishes, with moral significance. It was first published about the fifth century, and was translated into many languages of both the East and West, and even into dialects. This book, which was probably the most popular book of the Middle Ages, was in great part garnered from Pliny's "Natural History", but always with the addition of the ubiquitous moral.

The fish was used as a symbol of Christ. The good shepherd carrying a lamb, which was among the Jews symbolic of the Messiah, is our Lord's Christian symbol. The lamb is the symbol of the Redeemer, and the emblem of meekness; sheep represent the faithful.

The dove is symbolic of the Holy Ghost, and is often shown flying downwards. Sometimes there is a nimbus on the head only, while again the nimbus will surround the entire dove. Sometimes the dove bears a book, wisdom being the special attribute of the Third Person of the Trinity. When the dove bears an olive branch, it is symbolic of peace.

The lion, oddly enough, stands for both good and evil. It is the symbol of the Tribe of Judah. "Judah is a lion's whelp," says Holy Scripture. It was believed by the people of medieval days that the lioness always brought forth her cubs dead, and that on the third day the lion roared over them, bringing them to life by his breath. Thus, the lion becomes the symbol of the resurrection, as our Lord remained three days in the tomb before He arose from the dead. St. Mark, because his Gospel to a great extent treats of the Resurrection, has a winged lion for his symbol. On the tombs of ecclesiastics, the lion at the feet signifies the evil one, being trodden upon. Under the columns of the front doors of certain Romanesque churches, one observes chiselled crouching lions, which represent the evil one being forcibly burdened.

The sea-eagle plunging in the waters to catch fish is a symbol of Christ's quest for sinners. The waters represent the world, while the fish are men whom our Lord takes to Himself. The eagle is also the symbol of St. John the Evangelist.

Several oxen are portrayed near the tops of the West towers of the Cathedral of Laon. This is a testimony to the services performed by oxen in drawing the heavy stones used in the building. The winged ox is the symbol of St. Luke, while a winged man is that of St. Matthew.

The peacock is the symbol of immortality. Moreover, it stands for vigilance because it has numerous tail feathers with eyes. The mythical phoenix, a bird which, when consumed by fire, arose in three days from its ashes, is another symbol of the Resurrection. The hart signifies the soul thirsting for the waters of Baptism. When the crucifix is placed on its antlers, the hart stands for St. Hubert.

The serpent and the dragon are symbols of the evil one. Gargoyles and such grotesque figures on the exteriors of churches symbolize the expulsion of the evil spirits from the building. The goat and wolf are also representative of Satan, while the fox stands for cunning and craftiness. Filial piety is symbolized by the stork and purity by the ermine.

The hen and her brood stand for God's bounty, the hyena for vice, and the horse for war. The pelican is an emblem of Christ's passion, and a pelican with a nest is occasionally found on top of a crucifix.

The dog symbolizes fidelity, the crocodile dissimulation. The caterpillar is the symbol of life, the chrysalis that of death. The butterfly is the emblem of the resurrection, the bird of the human soul, a beehive of eloquence, while the bees themselves represent chastity, purity, labor, and busy forethought. The boar is symbolic of sensuality, the bear of self-restraint, the ass of sovereignty and peace, the ape of inappropriate levity, and the ant of industry.

Flowers and fruits play no inconspicuous part in symbolism. Flowers are the emblems of goodness. The flowers of heaven are violets, strawberries, carnations and lilies. The lily is the emblem of purity and of the Virgin. The fleur-de-lis is preeminently symbolic of the Queen of Heaven. Lilies also stand for heavenly beatitude and celestial bliss. Of humility, the lily of the valley is the emblem. The olive stands for peace and healing, and the palm for the victory over Satan and sin. The rose is the flower of the Blessed Lady, of Martyrdom and of Divine Love.

Grapes, when shown standing alone on a stem, are representative of unity. When the vine is shown with twelve bunches of grapes, it signifies the Twelve Apostles, and Christian souls are represented by birds in the branches. The vine, however, is a symbol of both our Lord and the Church.

The poppy flowers of late summer are symbolic of sloth, the elder of zeal, and the jasmine of hope. The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are indicated by the columbine. The violet and convolvulus are symbolic of humility, the daisy of the perfect innocence of the Divine Child, while the cyclamen is the symbol of voluptuousness. The fruit of Paradise is generally the cherry. The pomegranate is symbolic of the resurrection, while the fruit of the Spirit is represented by garlands of fruits. The fruit of the strawberry indicates good works.

The mirror is the symbol of prophesy; the rod, of office; the ring, of power; the orb stands for sovereignty. The anvil signifies death, arrows pestilence, ashes penitence, and a heart charity.

Numbers also have their significance, and they form a most fruitful source for symbolic application. The number one, stands for divinity; two, for the two natures of Christ; three, for the Holy Trinity; the Wise Men from the East, for the militant, suffering and triumphant Church, for the monastic vows, and for Faith, Hope, and Charity, etc.; four, stands for the Evangelists, the Major Prophets of the Old Law, the cardinal virtues, the rivers of Paradise, the seasons of the year, the points of the compass, and the corners of the earth. Five, for the Sacred Wounds of Christ, for the five Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary, for the commandments of the Church, the wise and foolish virgins, and the liturgical colors of the priestly vestments, etc. Six, for the days of creation and the sins against the Holy Ghost. Seven, for the Sacraments, the Gifts of the Holy Ghost, the deadly sins, the planets, the days of the week, and the Penitential Psalms, etc. Eight, for the beatitudes. Nine, for the choirs of angels. Ten, for the Commandments and the great persecutions. Eleven, for discord and sin. The symbolists have yet to venture beyond the number Twelve, which is exceedingly rich in apt symbolisms. It stands for the Apostles, the tribes of Judah, the months of the year, the signs of the zodiac, etc.

Colors, too, have their significance. Red symbolizes strength, love, and martyrdom, and it is also the symbol of fire. Yellow means constancy and wisdom, but also envy. Blue is for faith, loyalty, spotlessness, and heavenly contemplation. Green is symbolic of hope, fidelity, immortality, and the contemplative life. Purple is for a bishop or royalty. White represents light, faith, and innocence. Grey and brown are the colors of penitence or humility. Black betokens sorrow, death, and sin. Gold is the hue for heavenly glory and brightness.

Perhaps one of the most interesting divisions of the study of symbolism consists in that devoted to the symbols that go hand in hand with painted, wrought, or otherwise delineated representations of the Saints. The Blessed Virgin carries the Christ Child, and crushes the serpent under foot. St. Joseph holds a staff from which spouts a lily, while St. Ann is shown teaching the youthful Blessed Virgin from a scroll. A Pope wears his tiara, a Cardinal his hat with tassels, and a Bishop his mitre. St. Dominic is represented with a star on his forehead and a lily; a figure of St. Francis manifests the stigmata, and St. Anthony is shown with a pig accompanying him. St. Elizabeth of Hungary holds flowers in her lap, while Mary Magdalene carries a jar of ointment. With a wheel St. Catherine of Alexandria is depicted, while St. Agnes appears with a lamb. The keys are symbolic of St. Peter, the sword of St. Paul, the X-cross of St. Andrew, the dragon of St. George, the staff and scallop shells of St. James, the beehive of St. Ambrose, and the shamrock, of course, of St. Patrick. There are also the patron saints of guilds, trades, and professions. St. Joseph is the patron of carpenters, St. Giles of cripples, St. Aloysius of youth, and St. Thomas of architects. St. George is the patron saint of England, St. Denis of France, St. Andrew of Scotland, St. Patrick of Ireland, and so on.

Architects and ecclesiologists of the early Christian times represented the material church of the New Law in their mosaics. At that time and later, there were often delineated two contrasting figures of buildings — the Church of the New Law and the Synogogue of the Old. On occasion, pictures of the towns of Bethlehem and Jerusalem are used to symbolize the New and Old Law, and portraits of St. Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, and St. Peter placed opposite to each other serve the same purpose. In the Middle Ages, the Church was often represented by a female figure with sceptre and crown, holding the chalice of salvation, while the temple or synagogue was represented by a blindfolded figure with her staff broken as in defeat.

The churches in medieval days were set out and rendered into a language of symbolism that was readily understandable by the burghers and peasants of the time. Not only did the medieval liturgists rack their brains to find symbolic figures for the work on churches already executed, but the generations that followed welcomed their pious and ingenious inventions, and strove to render themselves worthy of the teachings of the ancient liturgists by the artistic incorporation of their spiritual conceptions in the new churches.

The Temple of the Old Law is a symbol of the Church of the New. God revealed to David how the Temple was to be built; such being the case, what can be more fitting than a correctly planned church, which, like the great cathedrals of the thirteenth century, resembles essentially the Temple of Jerusalem. If one regards a plan and longitudinal section of the Temple, one can readily see the similarity. In proof of this statement, let us examine the main essentials in the architectural composition of the Temple at Jerusalem. Contrary to the modern church but identical with the early Christian churches, the door of the Temple opened to the East. Arranged in the following order from West to East, the Temple was composed of, first, the Debir or Holy of Holies containing the ark; second, the Hekal or Holy Place, i.e., the place of the priests; third, a high entrance porch like a tower; fourth, an outer court for the laymen or faithful; and fifth, surrounding the conjoined Debir and Hekal were chambers or sacristies on the North, South and West sides. If the lines of the chambers or sacristies had been continued eastward to the front of the outer court, and if at the same time the open court had been roofed over, it is obvious that something quite similar to the plan of a Gothic cathedral of the thirteenth century would have materialized. In this plan the Debir, or holy of holies, corresponds to our sanctuary; the Hekal, or holy place, to our canonical choir; the high entrance porch to our tower over the crossing; the roofed over outer court to our nave, and the surrounding chambers or sacristies to the aisles of our nave and the sacristies of our choir and sanctuary.

The medieval cathedral was cruciform in plan like that of the Latin Cross. The apse or Eastern end represented the head of Christ and the plan of the church was often made to bend to the north at this point to represent the head of our Lord drooping to His right side at His death. The North and South wings of the transept represent respectively the right and left hand of Our Saviour, while the main portals at the West are meant for His feet. Again, the two wings of the transept, the central tower at the crossing of the nave and transept, together with the two towers at the West front, are symbolic of the five wounds. The circlet of radiating chapels at the apse are meant for the crown of thorns.

The church is so orientated that it permits all to face East when kneeling at prayer, so that they look in the direction of the light, the rising sun. The Gospel is read from the North side, for there the heathen barbarian was to be found. The door of the church is the "porta coeli," for the door is the symbol of our Lord. Christ represented as a young man carrying His sheep (depicted in the Catacombs), or surrounded by His sheep, is often found over the door. The doorway at the West was often triple to represent the Three Persons in the Triune God, while a double door under one arch was symbolic of the dual nature of Christ.

A favorite place for representations of the Last Judgment in sculpture or stained glass were the West doorways for the first and the windows over them for the latter, because the West was symbolic of the sunset of life.

The church is called a ship — the "boat" or "ark" of Peter. The place, which contains the faithful, (i.e., the nave) is called in French the nef (Latin, navis, ship). Indeed, if one regards the ceiling of a Gothic vaulted church, the resemblance is not far to seek, for it has a water-tight ceiling, and the vaulting ribs remind one of the bones of the hulk of a ship turned down side up. The bishop is the helmsman who steers this ship, his position being at the head (i.e., in the sanctuary). The ark of Noah saved from the deluge is symbolic of the Church.

The Church is the coelestis urbs Jerusalem. Thus, it is only natural that all the wealth and art of many peoples and nations were bestowed upon it. Christ is the cornerstone of the Church, while the Apostles, doctors and bishops are the pillars, the role of the small stones being played by the faithful.

Four great pillars under the crossing tower are symbolic of the Four Evangelists, and the bases under them represent the four major Prophets of the Old Law. In the cruciform plan of the church, the upright member (nave chair and sanctuary) and the cross-arm (i.e., the transept) are supposed to represent the Old and the New Testaments combined into one.

The plan of the church is divided into three parts — the narthex, atrium or vestibule for the catechumens, the nave for all the faithful, and the sanctuary for the sacred ministers. The two divisions of the church — that for the clergy and that for the laity — are symbolic of the celestial and terrestrial categories — the spiritual and temporal spheres. These two parts have generally some visible mark of separation besides the communion railing. In ancient days a screen often supported a Holy Rood on a gallery or loft at this point. Again, the Rood beam formed the demarcation, or a Rood or Crucifix was suspended from the ceiling. The triumphal arch of the early Christian basilicas and the sanctuary arch of the English parish churches might also be mentioned. What can be more appropriate at this place of demarcation in the plan of the church than a great crucifix bearing the inscription: O Crux. Ave Spes Unica? As he looks in hope towards the sanctuary (that is, the spiritual division of the church), the Christian knows that through the cross and death of Christ his redemption is possible.

The appropriate place for the baptistery is on the North side of the church. The reading of the Gospel, as previously stated, was directed towards the North, where the heathen barbarian was to be found. The unbaptized child or adult approaches from the North, the side of darkness and unbelief. Because Baptism is conferred in the name of the Blessed Trinity, there is a continuous use of the number three. Three times the evil one is spurned, and there is a three-fold confession of faith and ablution with water. There should also be three steps at the entrance descending into the baptistery to give the impression of a sepulcher. When these three steps are ascended to reach the church, it symbolizes the soul risen from sin. The descending steps to the baptistery also signify the sloping bank of the River Jordan where Christ was baptized.

Appropriate shapes for the baptistery or baptismal font are the square, representing the four corners of the world (sin, from which the person is to be purged), or octagonal (which means perfection), or round (signifying the grace of God). Representations of the four rivers of Paradise (Phison, Gehon, Tigris and Euphrates), which sent their cleansing waters to all parts of the world, are here seemly. These rivers are symbolic of the Apostles, who purged all by the waters of Baptism. Often the font has its cover embellished with a standing figure of St. John the Baptist. Tableaux of the marriage feast of Cana, the River Jordan, the crossing of the Red Sea and the hart panting after the fountain of water, are appropriate.

The floor of the church, spurned under foot, is symbolic of sin; hence it had best not be embellished with representations of holy Figures calling to mind the seven deadly sins or the four sins that call to heaven for vengeance might well be placed there. The poor and needy and those who are heavily burdened are also represented by the floor, because of the burden it has to bear.

Emblematic of the Scriptures are the windows of the church, for they admit the light and warmth of the true Sun into the hearts of men. The circular rose window often seen in the West end of churches is the mystical rose of Mary and the infinitely perfect God.

The ceilings of the church are the symbols of the heavens; that of the nave the firmament, and that of the sanctuary the highest heaven. The stars, sun, moon, the cherubim, seraphim, thrones, dominions, principalities, archangels, men and animals, all created beings, praise the Lord of Hosts. These are quite appropriately depicted in church ceilings. The communion rail is symbolic of the Last Supper table of the Lord. The vine, corn and wheat, the chalice, and so on, are commonly used for decorations.

The pulpit is the place from which Our Lord taught the people. The materials used are of two kinds. The stone substructure stands for the Old Law; wood, which is a material higher in the order of creation, is used in the super-structure, and is symbolic of the New Testament. Delineations of the Sermon on the Mount, the four cardinal virtues, and the three theological virtues, make appropriate representations for the pulpit.

On the confessional the following symbols can be used with propriety: The key to loose and the key to bind, the Good Shepherd, St. John Nepomuc, the patron saint of the confessional, the prodigal son, Mary Magdalene, etc.

© Ignatius Press

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