When the Roman Empire fell, Christianity began to rise and people began building cathedrals. Early Christian, Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo are the main architectural styles and the first four were built during the middle ages. Each have unique features which make them unique.
Early Christian cathedrals were based on Roman courthouses known as Basilicas. Greek and Roman temples were not the inspiration for Early Christian churches as the patrons wanted to separate from those religions as much as possible. Other than Greek and Roman temples, they were the only other type of large building suitable for the gathering of a great quantity of people.
Byzantine churches look a lot like mosques. The greatest example of Byzantine architecture is the Hagia Sophia located in Istanbul, Turkey. Inside they are decorated with detailed mosaic pictures which often contain a large number of gold colored tiles. Not long after the Byzantine architectural style began, the region was conquered by the Ottoman Turks who were primarily Muslim. Therefore, the Muslims converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque and built new mosques based on a similar style.
Romanesque churches are solid, with small windows and tend to look like castles. They were mostly built between 1000 and 1200 AD and often had floor plans in the shape of a cross. Vaulted ceilings, frescoed walls and sculptures were frequent features of Romanesque cathedrals.
Gothic is the style most associated with the middle ages. Beginning in the 1000's the new innovation of flying buttresses made it possible to increase the height and window size of cathedrals. Both characteristics allowed parishioners to feel closer to God. Gothic cathedrals are adorned with stained glass windows, rose windows, statues which look more life-like than earlier cathedrals, gargoyles and great spires. They were built through the 1200's all over Europe.
The Renaissance is the time when Europe emerged from the middle ages and began learning about Ancient Greek and Roman history. Inspired by the great Greek and Roman temples, Renaissance Cathedrals often contained doric, ionic and corinthian columns. They emphasized symmetry, sometimes contained coffered or domed ceilings, but usually didn't contain stained glass, statued facades or flying buttresses.
By contrast, Baroque Cathedrals, built largely during the 1600's and 1700's did contain statues. They emphasized color and often had heavily frescoed, domed ceilings. Continuing with the use of columns on the fronts of Baroque Cathedral, the insides contain strong curves and rich decoration.
Rococo Cathedrals, built in the 1700's often contain nature themes and are decorated with loads of fluffy white stucco and gold. Full of light colors, there is a grace and playfulness bringing much light into the cathedrals.
Here is a link to a set of slides which contains photos and more information on European Cathedrals. Please feel free to use it for personal or classroom use.
Cathedral Power Point Slides
After learning the basics of the different architectural styles, we watched two movies, great for kids, which focused on Gothic Cathedrals and life during the Middle Ages.
Cathedral by David Macaulay is both a great film and great book. Both tell the story of Gothic Cathedral construction during the middle ages.
Please visit our History Page for more hands-on history learning activities.
Cathedral by David Macaulay
Mosque by David Macaulay (Hagia Sophia Church in Istanbul)
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