On the Biblical Roots and Requirements of Church Design

092313In yesterday’s readings at Mass we read about how Moses laid out the “tent of meeting” exactly according to the pattern God gave him up on the mountain. A millennium later John described a similar scene of the sanctuary in Heaven.

Few Catholics today realize that God actually did indicate a good deal about how He expects our churches to be designed. And while some degree of variation is allowed and has existed, most modern churches have significantly departed from the instructions God gave. We do well to ponder church architecture not merely as an aesthetic question, but also as a question of fidelity to what God expects.

For the Church, the Scriptures are more than just ink spots on a page. The Scriptures are manifest in proclaiming how we live, how we are organized hierarchically, our sacraments, our liturgy, and even the design of our buildings.

Long before most people could read, the Church was preaching the Gospel. And to do so, she used the very structure of her buildings to preach. Many of our older buildings are sermons in stone and stained glass.

The Scriptures come alive in our art, statues, paintings, and in the majestic stained glass windows that soar along the walls of our churches like jewels of light. Even the height and shape of our older churches preach the Word. The height draws our eyes up to Heaven as if to say, Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at God’s right hand (Col 3:1). And the shape of most of our older churches is that of a cross, as if to say, May I never glory in anything save the Cross of my Lord Jesus Christ (Gal 6:14).

My own parish church is a sermon in stone, wood, and glass. It is designed around the Book of Revelation (Chapters 4 and 5), in which John is caught up into Heaven and describes it in detail. The fundamental design of the sanctuary drawn from Revelation 4 and 5 includes the throne-like altar (Rev 4:2), seven tall candles around the throne (Rev 4:5), and the four living creatures in the clerestory windows above the altar (Rev 4:6-8). At the center of the altar is the tabernacle, wherein dwells the once-slain Lamb who lives forever, Jesus (Rev 5:6). Around the throne (altar) are seated the 24 elders (Rev. 4:4), symbolized by the 12 wooden pillars on the back sanctuary wall and the 12 stained glass windows of the Apostles in the transept. The multitude of angels surrounding the throne (Rev 5:11) are symbolized by the blue and gold diamonds on the apse wall.

I have assembled pictures of these details along with the texts from Revelation in the following PDF document: Holy Comforter Church in Washington D.C. and the Book of Revelation

In effect, the builders of my church (built in 1939) were saying, when you walk into this church, you have entered Heaven. Indeed, it is a replica of the heavenly vision of John. And when we celebrate the Liturgy it is more than just a replica, for we are taken up to Heaven in every Mass, where we join countless angels and saints around the heavenly altar. There, we worship God with them. We don’t have to wait for some rapture; we go there in every Mass.

But there is more! For what John saw in Heaven is none other than what God prescribed to Moses. God told Moses quite explicitly how to construct the ancient sanctuary, the tent of meeting in the desert. The layout, materials, and elements were all carefully described.

And, having given these details, God said, Now have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you (Exodus 25:8-9). And God later said, See that you make them according to the pattern shown you on the mountain (Ex 25:40). And God repeated, Set up the tabernacle according to the plan shown you on the mountain (Ex 26:40).

The Book of Hebrews explained why God insisted that the pattern be followed so exactly: They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven (Heb 8:5). In other words, the Ancient Temple was meant to be a replica, or pattern of the heavenly sanctuary.

Most older Catholic churches maintain the basic pattern of what Moses was shown. This diagram compares the layout of the sanctuary in my parish church, Holy Comforter St. Cyprian (HCSC), with the layout of the temple:


In the photo just below, you can see the remarkable similarity more visually. The pattern is even etched on the floor of my church, echoing a detail about the layout of the temple that Ezekiel described:

So there were four tables on one side of the gateway [of the sanctuary] and four on the other—eight tables in all—on which the sacrifices were slaughtered (Ez 40:41).

On the left below is a depiction of the setup of the tent of meeting as it was when the people were still in the desert. Next to it is a photo of my parish church sanctuary. You can see the remarkable similarity.


Note the way the scrollwork on the floor of my parish matches the four tables on either side in the sanctuary where the animals were slaughtered. The fiery square and horned altar in the diagram of the temple are represented by the horned square on the floor of my church. In the diagram of the ancient sanctuary, the holy place, the holy of holies towers in the back, as do the high altar and tabernacle in my parish church.

Simply put, the builders of my parish church remarkably depicted the ancient temple as well as the vision of Heaven from the Book of Revelation. This is what church buildings should do: exemplify the heavenly sanctuary, the plan for which God Himself gave. Sadly, modern architecture has departed from that plan significantly. But in recent years, there has been something of a return to that plan, a trend for which we can only be grateful.

The Catholic Church is surely a biblical Church. My very building shouts the Word! We Catholics preach the Word not only with ink and in speech, but also in stone, wood, glass, liturgy, and the arts—all to the glory of God.

Here is a video of some of the details of my parish.

22 Replies to “On the Biblical Roots and Requirements of Church Design”

  1. That is awesome Msgr! I converted to Catholicism 10yrs ago & one of the things that always attracted me to the Catholic Church as a child in a family of all Protestants was architecture. I’ve always loved the architecture, the shape, designs, art, images, etc of Catholic Churches, there’s just something about it that speaks to me. I did not realize the significance of it though until I read your piece. Thank you!

    1. There are some book-length treatments – McNamara’s Book of Church Architecture comes to mind. Also Michael Rose – I tiers of Glory

  2. The Sanctuary of the Temple symbolizes Heaven, while the Temple symbolizes the Universe. At least according to classical Judaism. The veil in the Temple has different meanings, but the one I like the best is that the veil symbolizes the interpretation of the Tanakh, because only the righteous can read the Scriptures correctly (enter the Sanctuary), while the wicked are spiritually blind (forbidden to enter). Another interpretation I like is that the veil symbolizes Purity: only the pure of heart can enter Heaven (and so the Sanctuary), while the impure will be thrown out of the Temple in the Messianic Age (not allowed to share in God’s New Heavens and New Earth, which the Temple, symbolizing the Universe, also symbolizes).

    Hence why the Church teaches Jesus called His Body the New Temple and why Saint Paul teaches that a veil is over the wicked’s eyes when reading Scriptures. Also why the veil was torn at Jesus’ Death: Heaven was reopened for mankind.

  3. We recently switched parishes.

    Our previous parish had a “church-in-the-round” layout. Our new parish has a traditional layout in their church building.

    After Mass one day, my daughter, who is only 8, said (totally unprovoked!)…”I like our new church building better, it’s not in a circle.”

    1. Yes, circles are closed things, very unevangelical and anthropocentric. Tow huge problems for the modern Church

  4. Unfortunately beauty costs money. Utilitarianism is inexpensive. Some congregations of older beautiful churches cannot even afford to maintain their beauty. A cathedral church with which I am familiar recently needed 2 million dollars to replace its roof and repair associated water damage. Thank God for those Catholics who were supportive.

    1. Understood, though economies are a difficult thing. If we built more of these structures they would cost less. And also, to be honest, the “modern” churches fall apart sooner and need repairs almost as expensive. A suburban parish recently required almost a million to replace roofs barely 4o yrs old. I know several older churches that have never had to replace their older slate roofs, and they are 100 yrs old. To be sure they did have minor repairs over the years, some slates needed replacing etc. But they lasted a loooong time.

  5. Nice try at claiming to be a ‘biblical church’, but fails to engage with this verse:

    “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts”
    Acts 2

    Given that ‘broke bread’ is a reference to the Mass, this implies that the earliest church did not hold their Mass in the temple but in their houses; i.e. the church chose to hold its most sacred services in their houses not with the backdrop of the temple, which would have provided the perfect context according to this blog.

    Similarly the oldest churches, from the second and third century, are based on the tradition of the SYNAGOGUE, not the temple.

    What does this suggest? It emphasises that the primary role of a church should be fellowship, not cult. At the moment it is perfectly possible to be a Catholic in good standing with the church despite having no fellowship – being defined as actually revealing what’s really going on in your life – with anyone except your priest. Yet the pattern pointed to in this verse is ‘meeting together’. ‘Every day’.

    This is not to challenge the value of the parables in stone that great church architecture can offer. But to argue that it is MANDATED biblically is a step too far!

    1. The usual retort to this is “one goes to church to worship God nothing else.” In fact, this week I heard a host say this on Catholic radio. In other words, fellowship should not be expected. I have never felt comfortable with this line of thought.

    2. Well, ender you absolutize the point made here. Every detail is not “mandated” but the basic plan is given by God and ought to be followed. Supposing the early Church could not follow this, they were being persecuted. But ever here, your vision of the early Church is flawed. The House Churches were more formal than you imagine, Dura Europa recently excavated shows all the essentials mentioned here. Please do a little more study and a little less absolutizing

    3. I think, ender, you also miss the point that the design given (not demanded) by God simply works out to be more attractive than the more man-inspired modern renditions. Having been in many different churches, I can honestly say I prefer the more traditional styles. But I can sense the Lords presence in all of them.

      He is the original artist, after all. We can only imitate. Sometime we drop our glasses and build silly round churches. He forgives us.

      As for good standing, one gets more out of the church as one puts more into the church. Fellowship begins when the last song ends. Churches as designed by God bring the congregants into physical proximity with one another as they head out. What a great time to meet a new friend! Churches with doors in every line of site (round), conversely, encourage people to get out as fast as possible. Hence the old phrase “we’re all Catholic till we hit the parking lot.”

  6. Granted, you have a beautiful church; and it certainly meets the parameters as laid out in the scriptures you cite. So, with all of these lessons displayed in such an artful way, how do you account for the incongruous (IMHO) “table” thrust into the center with apparently no rhyme nor reason?

    1. Hello David, I take it you mean the altar when you are referring to the incongruous (IMHO) “table”?

      That would be the altar as we see here in Hebrews.

      We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. Heb 13:10.

      And where you have an altar there is a priest that offers sacrifice…

      The Apostle here plainly declares that the Christian church has its altars as well as the Jewish synagogue. An altar necessarily supposes a sacrifice, without which it has no meaning.

      James Gibbons, The Faith of Our Fathers: Being a Plain Exposition and Vindication of the Church Founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ (Baltimore; New York; London; Glasgow: John Murphy Company; R. & T. Washbourne, Ltd., 1904), 302.

    2. It’s interesting actually that you say that. The layout of the temple actually had the burning altar before the Holy Place and the Holy of holies. So in a way, a free standing altar before the tabernacle but in the sanctuary is not inconsonant with the ancient layout. I am a supporter of Mass ad orientem by the way so no need to be snippy.

  7. That really is remarkable, especially as shown by the two side-by-side pictures. Thanks.

  8. I too appreciate traditional church designs. My current Church is what I term “Vatican II” in style. There is a tabernacle, of course, but it is set aside in a separate chapel. Room had to be made on a small back wall for the Stations. No statue except one of Mary, etc. We do have a vigorous community with many ministries. The pastors and vicars are and have been outstanding.

    I do quibble with the design of the tabernacle Moses set up as given in Exodus. The design was the same as used by a Pharaoh when traveling. The design of the later stone temples were based traditional temple designs found elsewhere in the Levant.

  9. I am curious as to the architect who was responsible for all these wonderful details. Do you know his name? Really I am wondering if it was Frederick Vernon Murphy.

  10. Well, what to say? Another grand slam by Monsignor Pope. Thanks…as usual!!! 🙂

  11. Excellent Msgr. Pope and thank you. I love to incorporate these kinds of details in our RCIA program. Our newly constructed Cathedral in Oakland, CA, is one of the modern designs. It reeks of modernism and fails miserably at evoking a sense of the transcendent. I had to take the tour to find the tabernacle.

  12. Good article. But there is a problem with the images.

    The model of the Tent is photo-shopped. Particularly the number of sacrificial altars has been altered (pun not intended).

    Examine carefully the two altars that are farthest in the background. Now look at the green bush and the ox. They are clearly cut off by an overlay of the altar image.

    Perhaps this does not affect the Biblicality (new word?) of the eight altars, but without some acknowledgement in the article it makes things look suspicious.

    1. The text is really more important than the picture – Ezekiel speaks of four tables (not altars – there was only one fiery altar) on either side. Not sure where the picture comes from but to be clear, it is a model, a child’s toy really, by appearance. But whatever the picture says, not sure where it came from, but it is not a picture of the tent of meeting, it is a picture of a toy.

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