A quick scan of the world’s tourist sites shows that culture vultures owe Christendom rather a lot.
From the paintings that fill the Uffizi to the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, Christianity has provided artistic and financial inspiration for many gifted creatives, architects not least. These are the best of the best of that most storied architectural genre – the church.
1. Church of the Transfiguration, Russia
Almost ethereal in its strangeness, this giant 18th century wooden behemoth adorns the remote Russian island of Kizhi, looking for all the world like a disused set from The Lord of the Rings.
A quite remarkable feat of engineering, the main body of the church was constructed from interlocking pine logs without using a single nail, while its 22 domes stretch 37 metres into the sky. Local legend holds that the master builder wrought the church with a single axe, which he flung into the lake on completion, declaring that his work could never be bettered.
2. Las Lajas Sanctuary, Colombia
Few churches are built in as perilous a position as this Gothic revival basilica – Las Lajas Sanctuary sits suspended 100 metres above the bottom of a canyon, at one end of a 50 metre bridge. Apparently built on the site of an 18th century miracle, the green-and-white facades blend beautifully against the tree-lined hillsides, and visitors can enjoy views both of the church and from it.
It’s a relatively new church (started during World War One, finished shortly after World War Two) that apes architectural styles gone by, but imitation really is the highest form of flattery when it looks this good.
3. Chapel of the Holy Cross, Arizona
Partly inspired by the Empire State Building, this desert colossus challenges conventional notions of religious architecture, and, indeed, of architecture in general. Completed in 1956, the chapel peers between two buttes of brick-red sandstone overlooking the city of Sedona, and was given the Award of Honor by the Institute of American Architects a year later.
Aesthetically somewhere between a ring binder, a spaceship, and a giant doorway, some traditionalists found the design just a little too modern, but the church inspired much more praise than pique. The giant cross is as much support structure as symbol, and looms above the city like a divine Hollywood sign.
4. Gergeti Trinity Church, Georgia
In the shadow of Mount Kazbek at an altitude of more than 2,000 metres, lies one of the most scenic places of worship anywhere on Earth. A steep two-hour hike from the nearest human habitation, this Georgian church is perched precariously between the snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus, an oasis of calm amidst barren, vertiginous rock.
It so happens that Gergeti Trinity Church is a lovely little sanctuary built in the 14th century, with a crumbling cross-cupola chapel and red brick bell tower. With a backdrop like that, it could have been a brutalist bungalow and still made our list.
5. Church of St George, Ethiopia
Most buildings start at ground level and work upwards, but the Church of St George in Ethiopia goes the other way. Literally hewn from solid rock, this medieval marvel is one of 11 ‘cave churches’ fashioned with chisel and spade, collectively comprising the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Lalibela.
Attributed to a 12th century Ethiopian king attempting to build a ‘new Jerusalem’, after Muslim conquests halted pilgrimages to the Holy Land, the churches remain a major site of devotion for Ethiopian Christians. The interiors are adorned with columns, doorways and ornamentation, while the pits are connected by caverns, trenches, and a vast network of catacombs.
6. Borgund Stave Church, Norway
A feudal-looking edifice that would fit perfectly in Age of Empires, this dark, beguiling church was first built in 1180, and is among Norway’s oldest timber buildings.
One of the finest surviving examples of the ‘stave churches’ that once dotted Northwest Europe, the building has been a museum since 1868, and currently hosts an exhibition on the Vikings.
7. Hallgrímskirkja, Iceland
An expressionist project supposedly based on Iceland’s famous lava flows, this tricky-to-pronounce modern church in downtown Reykjavik took 40 years to build, and spikes 74 metres towards the heavens.
The shape of a jumbo jet and the texture of a pipe organ, Hallgrímskirkja doubles as an observation tower and has won as much adulation from art critics as it has from its congregation. A quite unique building, Iceland’s tallest church dwarfs the nearby cathedral.
8. St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City
We know, it’s a mainstream pick, but there’s no denying the awesome grandeur of the world’s largest church. One of the holiest buildings in the whole Catholic faith, St Peter’s is a High Renaissance masterpiece that can count Bernini and Michelangelo among its creators, and the Pope among its presiding ministers.
Even among the splendours of the Italian capital the building stands out, and its 137 metre high dome dominates the city skyline. American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson called it “an ornament of the Earth”, and for staggering scale and all-round opulence it’s worth a Roman Holiday all on its own.