Churches and Cathedrals: 1,700 Years of Sacred Architecture. Parragon Publishers (Bath, UK, 2009). 256 pp., $19.99 HB.

This reviewer has always been a student of church and cathedral architecture. In fact, he is the author of The Liturgical Environment: What the Documents Say (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, [first edition] 1990, [second edition] 2004). Therefore, after getting a copy of Churches and Cathedrals: 1,700 Years of Sacred Architecture (Bath, UK: Parragon, 2009), he quickly recognized it as having a beauty beyond words.  

church architecture

The 256-page coffee-table book presents four-color illustration after four-color illustration of 240 church structures from all across the world. Barbara Borngasser wrote the text that accompanies Achim Bednorz’s photographs, and Rolf Toman edited the volume.  

In the foreword, Toman explains the focus of the book: “Among the construction that took place during the medieval period in Europe, a span of approximately a thousand years and the subject of the largest portion of this volume, the building of Christian churches occupied the most prominent position. Among the countless church structures of the Middle Ages, the most outstanding in terms of size and splendor (with very few exceptions) are the great cathedrals.”  

The book is divided into six sections: The Early Christian and Byzantine Eras; Sacred Architecture of the Carolingian, Ottonian, and Romanesque Periods; The Gothic Period; The Renaissance; Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassicism; and Historicism and Modernism. Besides photos of churches and cathedrals, the reader will find helpful diagrams, such as that of a typical Romanesque church building, with all the names for the parts clearly labeled, along with floor plans and vaulting styles.  

Churches and Cathedrals calls to mind Judith Dupre’s 2001 over-sized book titled Churches (New York, N.Y.: HarperCollins). With its double door-like front cover, featuring Donatello’s “Annunication” from Santa Croce, Florence, Italy, this book “attempts to provide believer and nonbeliever alike with insight into ecclesiastical architecture, and to suggest the sheer variety of buildings, celebrated and anonymous, that have proliferated in the name of God.”  

The foreword states: “As no other human endeavor can, churches synthesize the disparate influences of religious doctrine, political hierarchy, geography, and technology. They reveal society’s potent and intimate connection to architecture, which gives physical shape to the most profound beliefs of humankind.”  

Besides the photos and explanatory text, the bottom of the page features a handy table indicating the location of the church, the designer, builder, and architect, the date(s) of construction, the primary materials used, the denomination using the building, and any distinction attributable to the structure. A floor-plan sketch is usually included.  

Dupre is a cultural historian with background in art, architecture and education. The book contains an extensive bibliography — an entry for each church pictured and discussed — and an extensive index.  

While not a book, The Cathedral, one of “The Great Courses” (Chantilly, Va.: The Teaching Company, 2010 [Course No.7868]), featuring William R. Cook, a distinguished teaching professor of medieval history at State University of New York at Geneseo, is a great collection of 24 lectures, each 30 minutes in length, on cathedrals.  

The Cathedral consists of four DVDs, each containing six lectures by Cook and illustrated with many diagrams and photographs and other things associated with this topic. Cook, a Roman Catholic, also knows his Bible, and is able to explain how biblical material influences the building of cathedrals and the erection of stained-glass windows. Cook demonstrates his biblical knowledge when he shows panels of windows and accurately explains the story being illustrated. TP 

Father Boyer, a priest for 36 years, is the author of 33 books primarily in the areas of biblical and liturgical spirituality as well as numerous articles in various magazines, including The Priest, for which he wrote Homily Backgrounds 1987-1993. He teaches in the Religious Studies Department of Missouri State University, Springfield, Mo.