Why Do Churches Have Steeples?

Churches, for what seems like the entirety of time, have always had steeples. In fact, steeples have been the defining characteristic of churches and cathedrals all over the world. If you are new to a town and want to know where the church is, seem through the skyline, and you will find it.

Churches have steeples in order to ensure they are the tallest buildings in the local community. Churches serve as the font of a people’s shared values, and their architecture reflects that purpose. The importance of a community’s church is shown by its size relative to the buildings around it.

The history of steeples on churches is a bit mysterious. No one knows when the first church steeple was built. However, the oldest steeple that still stands is the huge spire on the Chartres Cathedral in France, built in the 12th century. It seems steeples made their way to the USA with Christopher Wren’s architecture during the colonial period. The steeples were ubiquitous until recent times. Generally, steeples were used in western Europe. Churches in Austria, Bavaria, and points east historically had domes rather than steeples.

That being said, not many people know why churches have steeples. People often attribute it to religious reasons, but there is a more intricate explanation for their occurrence.

Early On

In archaic church and cathedral designs, there were separate towers erected near the main church. The said towers housed the baptistery, and it was where the catechumens would be baptized. Some of the older churches in the world actually still have these towers.

In the olden days, churches had stained glass windows to tell stories because, in the past, few people were literate. Therefore, the images on the stained glass told bible stories without using words. Some purpose of steeples in the olden days was to house the church bells. When the steeples were taller, the sound of the bells could be heard further.

The bells were necessary, as they would be used to alert people about the time to prayer and the beginning of mass. The steeples’ position over the rest of the geographical surroundings makes it possible for sound to travel faster and easier.

Spires, towers, and steeples were also used as indicators of spiritual significance. Since they pointed upwards, and heaven is traditionally known to be located above the sky, these features were thought to be guiding signs to the pearly gates.

Further Development

As towns and cities continued to grow, so did the number of buildings located in them. Thus, to distinguish other buildings from churches and cathedrals, architects would ensure that the steeples they house would be the biggest around. Therefore, this made the churches and cathedrals the tallest buildings in a given geographical area.

This made it very easy to distinguish the church or cathedral and the rest of the buildings. Additionally, this made it very easy to identify the exact place where these spiritual buildings existed.

There was also a sort of spiritual essence for these. Since the church or cathedral was, and sometimes still is, the most prominent building in an area, it is easy for the spiritual to identify them, irrespective of where they are or what they are doing. Thus, almost perpetually, people were constantly reminded of God since they could always see the building.

The steeples’ size in a particular church can allude to the importance of the church or cathedral. The most prominent church in an area is likely to have the largest steeples. The tallest cathedral in the world is the Cologne Cathedral, which is 515 feet high. It also happens to house the Archbishop of Cologne’s seat and an administrative couple of the Archdiocese of Cologne.

The tallest church in the world is the Ulm Minster, and it stands at 530 feet.

The main reason churches have steeples is that the structures somehow enhance a building’s lines and increase its aesthetic appeal. As a result of their contouring, steeples attract the attention of the wandering eye and lock them in. Additionally, it is believed that you can tell time based on the sun’s position in relation to that of the steeple on the skyline.

Problems Associated With Steeples

Though steeples have a myriad of advantages, they also come with some disadvantages. Since they are large in size and stand head and shoulders above the rest of the building, they are exposed to the elements.

Additionally, this also makes it an onerous task to monitor their condition and make the needed repairs effectively and efficiently. If they remain unchecked and continue to decay, it will put the entire building at risk of collapse, leaving a lot of damage.

When it comes to navigation, inspection, and repair of the steeples, it takes a licensed professional with experience and skill obtained only by being in the business for a long time. The steeples’ height and difficult accessibility make it almost impossible to make the necessary measures to perform repairs or remodeling.

It is common for professionals to use scaffoldings to access the steeples. However, scaffoldings need a bit of support from the building being repaired. However, because of the archaic nature of most churches and cathedrals with steeples, this may not be possible. Abseils and platforms are essential when it comes to repairing or maintaining steeples.

Another disadvantage of having steeples is the increased likelihood that lightning can strike them. Since they are the tallest point in a given geographical area, then there is a likelihood that in the event of lightning, they will be most prone.

To address this issue, most churches and cathedrals have gone out of their way to ensure that the steeples present on them are fitted with the necessary lighting transmitting electrical systems.

Conclusion

From the get-go, it is evident that steeples on churches and cathedrals can be attributed to their functionality. Early on, they would be used to house the baptistery. They would later on, in terms of functionality, morph into becoming the bell towers.

Since steeples have always been in churches, they have slowly been given spiritual and religious importance by believers of the faith. The first thing that attracts you to a church is most likely its steeples.

That being said, steeples generally do not have spiritual or religious importance, nor were they designed for theological reasons. They are simply an architectural design that has lasted since the earliest churches were built and have slowly been labeled as religious only through association.

Gene Botkin

Gene is the director of the Theosis Christian Project. He studied physics and military science before founding the Project. Gene is currently pursuing his doctorate in systems engineering at an engineering college in the Ozarks. The Theosis Christian Project is his attempt to expand Holy Orthodoxy in America.

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