Many Catholics are unaware that our traditional church buildings are based on designs given by God Himself. It goes all the way back to Mount Sinai, when God set forth the design for the sanctuary in the desert and for the tent of meeting. Many of the fundamental aspects of our layouts still follow that plan (and the stone version of it that became the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem). Traditional church buildings also have numerous references to the Book of Revelation and the Book of Hebrews, both of which describe the heavenly liturgy and Heaven itself.
The compelling effect of a traditional church is to say to the believer, you are in Heaven now.
In my own parish church (take a virtual tour here), the floors are the color of green jasper and the clerestory walls are red, symbolizing the fiery Love of the Holy Spirit. On the clerestory are painted the saints, gathered like a cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1; Rev. 7:9). In the apse is the throne-like altar with Jesus at the center (Rev 5:6); the seven lamp stands are surrounding Him with seven candles (Rev 4:5). In the stained glass of the transept are the 12 Apostles joined with the 12 patriarchs (symbolized by 12 wooden pillars). Together they form the 24 elders who surround the throne in Heaven (Rev 4:4). Above the high altar, in the clerestory windows, are the four living creatures also said to surround the throne (Rev 4:6-7). Additionally, on the floor of the sanctuary (see photo above) is a symbolic representation of the of the exterior of the ancient Jewish Temple. There is the flaming altar and, on either side, the eight tables where the animals were sacrificed. (I have written about these in more detail here: On The Biblical Roots of Church Design).
Sadly, in churches built after the 1950s, these biblical roots were often cast aside in favor of a “meeting house” design. No longer was the thinking that our churches should reflect heavenly realities, teach the faith, and follow biblical plans. Rather, it was that the church simply provided a space for people to meet and conduct various liturgies.
In some cases, the liturgical space came to be considered fungible in that it could be reconfigured to suit various needs: Mass today, concert tomorrow, spaghetti dinner next Wednesday. This idea began to appear as early as the 1950s. Pews were often replaced by chairs, which could easily be moved to suit various functions. Even in parishes that did not go so far as to allow spaghetti dinners in the nave (mine did in the 1970s), the notion of the church as essentially a meeting space still prevailed.
Thus, churches began to look less like churches and more like meeting halls. The bare essentials such as an altar, pews or chairs, a pulpit, and very minimal statuary were still there, but the main point was simply to provide a place for people to come together. There was very little sense that the structure itself was to reflect Heaven or even remind us of it.
That is beginning to change as newer architects are returning more and more to sacred and biblical principles in church design. Further, many Catholics are becoming more educated on the function of church art to impart meaning rather than just to look pretty. They are coming to understand the rich symbolism of the art and architecture, which reveal the faith and express heavenly realities.
Take stained glass, for instance. Stained glass art is more than just pretty colors, pictures, and symbols. Stained glass was used for centuries to teach the faith through pictures and symbols. Until about 200 years ago, most people—even among the upper classes—could not read well if at all. How does the Church teach the faith in such a setting? Through preaching, art, passion plays, statues, and stained glass.
Stained glass in churches depicted biblical stories, saints, sacraments, and glimpses of Heaven. Over the centuries a rich shorthand of symbols also developed: crossed keys = St. Peter, a sword = St. Paul, a large boat = the Church, a shell = baptism, and so forth. Thus, the Church taught the faith through the exquisite art of stained glass.
Stained glass also served another purpose: to act as an image of the foundational walls of Heaven. Recall that traditional church architecture saw the church as an image of Heaven. Hence a church’s design was based on the descriptions of Heaven found in the Scriptures. In the Book of Revelation, Heaven is described as having high walls with rows of jewels embedded in their foundations:
One of the seven angels … showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates … The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald, the fifth sardonyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst ... (Revelation 21:varia).
Thus, because Heaven had great, high walls, older churches almost always had a lot of verticality. The lower foundational walls gave way to the higher clerestory and above the clerestory the vaults of the ceiling rose even higher. In the lower sections of the walls, extending even as high as the clerestory, the jewel-like stained glass recalled the precious gemstones described in the lower walls of Heaven.
Yes, it is amazing! I stand in my church and hear its message: you are in Heaven when you enter here and celebrate the sacred mysteries. Sursum corda! (Hearts aloft!)
Here is a video I put together on stained glass. Enjoy these jewels of light that recall the lower walls of Heaven as you listen to the choir sing “Christe Lux mundi” (O Christ, you are the Light of the world).