Aleteia logoAleteia logo
Friday 24 September |
The Blessed Virgin Mary—Our Lady of Walsingham
home iconSpirituality
line break icon

Look up! The spiritual reason why churches have domes

Chris Yunker | CC

Philip Kosloski - published on 07/24/17

This architectural feature was used only for sacred buildings for most of human history.

Living in the United States it is easy to associate domes with civic buildings. Our best-known dome is the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

However, up until the 18th century domes were used almost exclusively in sacred architecture. Before then people of many different religions — including the pagans of Rome, Christians, Hindus, and Muslims — used the dome to express similar types of spiritual symbolism.

One of the most ancient and well preserved domes is that of the Pantheon in Rome. It was built in the 2nd century and proved to be a model for all other domes after it. The building was originally built as a Roman temple dedicated to all the gods, as its Greek name indicates.

The unique dome is believed to have represented the heavens, reminding the worshiper of the deities above.

Domes in other cultures represented similar concepts as gods were frequently believed to reside in or above the sky.

When Christianity was officially recognized in the Roman Empire, it naturally adopted the numerous temples and converted them into Christian churches. The Pantheon was christened Santa Maria ad Martyres and became a place to worship the Holy Trinity.

In the Christian context domes continued to be thought of as a representation of the “heavens” and were used to remind the Christian of the beauty and grandeur of God. Often artists would paint heavenly symbols and figures, such as angels, the Holy Spirit, and the saints.

The Trinity Dome at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., now undergoing completion, is a modern-day example of the type of symbolism often used in Christian domes.

Michelangelo, when faced with the project of putting a dome atop Saint Peter’s Basilica, reportedly said, “I could build one bigger, but not more beautiful, than that of the Pantheon.” This particular dome, which echoes classical principles of architecture has since become a model for many other domes throughout the world. The dome on the U.S. Capitol Building is designed after Saint Peter’s Basilica, reflecting the role that neo-Classical architecture played in the design of our nation’s capitol.

Domes on Christian churches invite pilgrims to “look up” and remember that their lives are not meant to be downward in focus, but pointed upward, towards the heavens above.


Read more:
This is why churches have stained glass windows

Support Aleteia!

If you’re reading this article, it’s thanks to the generosity of people like you, who have made Aleteia possible.

Here are some numbers:

  • 20 million users around the world read every month
  • Aleteia is published every day in seven languages: English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, and Slovenian
  • Each month, readers view more than 50 million pages
  • Nearly 4 million people follow Aleteia on social media
  • Each month, we publish 2,450 articles and around 40 videos
  • We have 60 full time staff and approximately 400 collaborators (writers, translators, photographers, etc.)

As you can imagine, these numbers represent a lot of work. We need you.

Support Aleteia with as little as $1. It only takes a minute. Thank you!

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...

Top 10
Cecilia Pigg
7 Ways the saints can help you sleep better at night
Philip Kosloski
An alternative Hail Mary to Our Lady of Sorrows
Our Lady of La Salette
Philip Kosloski
How Our Lady of La Salette can give us hope in darkness
Philip Kosloski
Pray this Psalm when you successfully recover from an illness
Philip Kosloski
Why J.R.R. Tolkien loved to attend daily Mass
Domitille Farret d'Astiès
Attacked with acid as a baby, Anmol Rodriguez overcomes and inspi...
Aid to the Church in Need
What happens when a million children pray the Rosary?
See More
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.