Sacred Sanctuaries: Five Eye-Catching Churches in Europe

In its simplest essence, a church is a gathering place for the devout to offer their praise and conduct worship services. In a grand architectural context, a church is perhaps one of the most breathtaking places that anyone can step into where details such as marble floors, vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, and priceless furnishings are just some of the basic hallmarks of a large church.

Nowhere are these design facets more evident than in Europe, where majority of the most well-known (and often elaborately designed) churches are located. Featured below are five of the finest examples of these marvelously crafted sacred sanctuaries.

History tells us that Spain is well-renowned for its influence in spreading Christianity throughout the world, and this devout nation also happens to house one of the best examples of religious architecture to augment their status as a highly devout country.

The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família—or known simply as Sagrada Família—is located in Barcelona, Spain and is a perfect example of an impressive structure designed in a fusion of Modernisme, Spanish Late Gothic and Art Nouveau styles, which is credited to the original architect, the famous Antoni Gaudí.

The distinctive features of Barcelona’s crowning jewel are the towering spires intended to represent several central Biblical figures. Several critics and the general public largely agree that the Sagrada Família looks quite astonishing despite its unfinished status.

Yes, you’ve read that right: despite its largely magnificent looks, several parts of the church are still under construction. This is a rather startling fact about the Sagrada Família considering it was officially commissioned way back in 1882. But fear not! Architects and engineers working on the basilica today expect to have the Sagrada Família fully completed around 2028.

While it may be a historical museum nowadays (and was even converted into a mosque at one point), the majestic Hagia Sophia in Turkey is nevertheless considered as one of the finest showcases of religious architecture known to mankind.

Rendered in the classical Byzantine style, the former patriarchal basilica and imperial mosque is famously known for its iconic dome structure and four exterior minarets, the latter of which are visible from several parts in the city of Istanbul where the museum currently stands.

Richly steeped in religious history, the Hagia Sophia certainly reflects the striking and beautiful visual motifs of the different faiths that the structure was previously used for. In its present form as a museum, visitors are able to see the stunning and mostly well preserved and restored mosaics of Christian figures like the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ alongside images that are emblematic of Islamic art that decorate the building’s interiors.

When you think of an iconic church in France, there is perhaps only one structure that comes to mind: the Notre Dame. Known formally as the Notre Dame de Paris (en Anglais: “Our Lady of Paris”), this regal and imposing church has long been an associated symbol for the city of Paris even before the Eiffel Tower was created.

Done in the striking French Gothic architectural style, the Notre Dame is noted for its exteriors which include the church’s flying buttresses and gargoyle statues that flank the upper levels. Inside the cathedral, visitors will marvel at the sight of the Notre Dame’s signature stained glass rose window, among other breathtaking interior design elements.

Not only was the cathedral an important site for several significant events in European history such as the coronation of many French and English royals and the canonization of Joan of Arc, but the Notre Dame also served as the crucial backdrop for one of French literature’s most famous novels: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” by Victor Hugo.

Another fun fact: this famous French church houses ten large bells that periodically ring everyday to signify the time and various mass services, and each bell is lovingly given a name (Emmanuel, Marie, Gabriel, Anne Geneviève, Denis, Marcel, Étienne, Benoît-Joseph, Maurice, and Jean-Marie) to pay homage to several famous French religious leaders and Biblical figures. While each bell of the Notre Dame may have unique looks, names, and external patterns, all of them bear the Latin inscription, “Via viatores quaerit” which translates to “I am the way which seeks travelers”.

A visit to the city of Moscow in Russia will no doubt provide you with a grand visual spectacle in the form of the Cathedral of the Protection of Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat. But while that may be the official formal designation of the well-known cathedral situated in the Red Square, it is often referred to in its Anglicized name as Saint Basil’s Cathedral to most of the people living outside of Russia.

Other certified names for the church include the Pokrovsky Cathedral and the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed. Despite the many names of this famous Russian structure, one thing that many fans of religious architecture can admire about this is its incredible design aesthetic.

Several historians, architects, and art experts have all shared their thoughts as to the exact architectural style that Saint Basil’s Cathedral, and most of these pundits can agree that there is truly no distinct design technique that was applied to the building, but rather it strongly evokes references to many other European design movements such as Russian, German, Byzantine, English, and Italian architecture.

This combination of varying styles would largely explain the gorgeous harmony of riotous colors that decorate the remarkable and unique onion domes that are a hallmark of the Russian cathedral.

Far away in the land of ice and fire and snow—that’s Iceland, to you—stands a modern church that is just as breathtaking as its historical European counterparts. Hailed as the largest church in Iceland, Hallgrímskirkja (English: Church of Hallgrímur) is primarily a Lutheran church and is distinguished by its soaring tower that is inspired by Iceland’s basalt lava flows, which suits the largely geothermal landscape of the Scandinavian island. Its distinct expressionist style of architecture echoes similar design elements of Grundtvig’s Church which is located in neighboring Denmark.

Hallgrímskirkja is situated at the heart of Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík, and is considered as one of the city’s most popular landmarks due to the fact that it also doubles as an observation tower where locals and visitors can ascend to the topmost viewing deck and marvel at the panoramic views of Reykjavík and the surrounding mountainous landscape.

And if you’re wondering as to the tongue-twisting name of the church, it’s because it was named after the Icelandic clergyman and poet, Hallgrímur Pétursson, who was the author of the Passion Hymns—a collection of poetic texts that present the Passion of Jesus Christ beginning from His entry in the Garden of Gethsemane to His eventual death and burial.

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