Symbols of European heritage, churches and cathedrals are true witnesses of time, reflecting culture and customs through their design and architecture. These historic landmarks take us on a journey through past eras via spires, mosaics, domes, painted ceilings and the like. Once purely places of worship, many churches and cathedrals have become rich cultural icons, offering believers and nonbelievers alike a place to soak in art, design and peace.
From the beginnings of Christianity to the Muslim conquest to the spread of Protestantism, many of today’s most symbolic sacred places have their roots in migration and war. Regardless of how they came to be, they are now a reflection of the diversity that is Europe today. Explore our top under-the-radar religious spots for history and culture.
The Baths of Diocletian and the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, Rome, Italy
During the early days of Christianity, when the word was spreading, converting places not just people was paramount. New converts often removed or destroyed pagan idols and symbols. But sometimes they spared important relics as is the case with the Baths of Diocletian, a sumptuous blend of ancient Roman architecture and Christian sacred art.
Emperor Maximian Hercules dedicated the Roman baths to his co-Emperor Diocletian in 306. At the time, the facility extended across 32 acres, and featured a frigidarium (for cold baths), a tepidarium (for lukewarm baths), a caldarium (for hot and steam baths), a 139-square-foot swimming pool, a library, gymnasiums, a theater and gardens. Unfortunately, thousands of Christian slaves perished constructing this massive complex.
Left in ruins after the fall of the empire and after the Goths cut off the water supply (not very practical for anyone wanting to take a bath), it wasn’t until 1561 that the baths saw a renaissance of sorts. Pope Pius IV commissioned the transformation of the tepidarium and the central halls into a church dedicated to St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs, with Michelangelo spearheading the construction.
The result? The Santa Maria degli Angeli, a venerable masterpiece of contrasts. As soon as you enter the church, the trompe l’oeil exterior offers a stark comparison with the breathtaking 295-foot interior. Expect Renaissance, Neoclassical and Baroque designs, all of which somehow work with the ancient facade.
The vaulted transept was intentionally retained to create an even greater contrast with the gilded ornaments, colorful paintings and frescoes, and red granite columns. Don’t miss the 147-feet-long sundial built by astronomer Francesco Bianchini in 1705. The bronze and yellow-white marble solar line is a symbol of Christian dominance over pagan rituals. Try to find the light circle on the meridian, formed by sunlight passing through an oculus and moving according to the position of the earth around the sun.
Alcázar of Jerez de la Frontera, Spain
When the Moors first invaded Europe in the eighth century, they brought with them a wealth of improvements, including an architectural style that would transform the world forever. Domes and minarets sprouted up all over the continent. Today, few emblematic masterpieces remain except in southern Spain. Andalusia, once a powerful seat of Muslim government, has fairly well-preserved remnants of Moorish rule. While the Alhambra in Granada is the most famous example of Muslim architecture in Spain, it’s not the only one left in the Iberian Peninsula.
Head to Jerez de la Frontera to immerse yourself in the turbulent history of the Alcázar, marked by the Almohads, a Berber population native to Morocco. The medieval fortress dates back to the 12th century and bears the historical, political and cultural marks, visible through a lavish mishmash of Islamic and Christian details.
The Alcazar served as a vital military and political base, but other important features such as its mosque and Arab baths were also used during the Almohad period. And despite multiple demolitions and deterioration due to wear and tear, the Moorish influence remains.
From the typical Almohad horseshoe-shaped city gate, make your way to the mosque. The size of the building might mislead you, but it’s an impressive space reflected in its high-ribbed vaulted ceiling. The arches, the mihrab, the prayer mat and the fountain for ablutions are lingering remnants of Muslim rule. Here, you’ll also spy the altar created in memory of Santa Maria del Alcazar in 1248 when the mosque was converted into a church.
Outside, the Villavicencio Palace offers a remarkable architectural contrast to the minaret, the tower from which the prayer calls were once made. A typical Baroque building, the pink edifice is decorated with lions and rooks, both symbols of European royalty.
Walk through the garden to reach the Arab baths, one of the best-preserved parts of the Alcázar. Don’t miss the small details, such as the star-shaped holes used to expel steam. Personal hygiene is important in Islam, so baths were popular places to cleanse oneself. Yet, they served a double purpose as a place to socialize and congregate. Today, hammams have become more commonplace in the West and are used in much the same way as they have for centuries in the Muslim world.
Stavkirke, Urnes, Norway
Christianity is the predominant religion in Europe but multiple denominations exist. While much of Southern Europe is Catholic, Central and Northern Europe leans toward Protestantism. Led by theologist Martin Luther, who protested against the “sale of indulgences” used to finance the Catholic Church, the Protestant Reformation swept across Europe in the 16th century and changed the culture and people forever.
Protestantism had no crucial influence in Christian architecture per se, apart from a few design principles that prioritize the functional aspect of the religious space, emphasizing modesty and simplicity. Protestant churches were first and foremost places for believers to congregate, contrary to the architectural magnificence of many Catholic basilicas.
However, the use of natural materials such as brick, stone and wood differentiates Protestant churches from their Catholic counterparts. The best examples for the latter can be found in Scandinavia, where timber framing was an integral part of church construction. While much of Scandinavia is secular today, Stave churches are highly treasured pieces of Norse history.
Head to Urnes, Norway, to contemplate its charming Stavkirke, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sitting proudly on the Sognefjord fjord like a bridge between the pre-Christian and Christian era, this cultural relic offers a perfect blend of Roman and Celtic architecture and pagan influences, complete with Viking decorations—think stunning wood carvings, celebrating nature and animals. And dragons. Lots of dragons.
Take a closer look at the exterior facade: the Viking carvings illustrate an animal biting the neck of a dragon. The interior is made of wood as well: the pillars are tree trunks, and wood carvings feature dragons and plants. On the altar, you can see a candle holder in the shape of a Viking ship with, again, a dragon’s head at the extremity. We told you there were lots of dragons!
Did you know that not a single nail was used in the construction of the church? Vikings manipulated the wood in such a way that it would naturally resist the robust northern climate. The roof’s slanted scale design was also ingenious, allowing snow to slide off rather than pile up.