Pop Quiz: Checking Your Church Architecture Observation Skills

P1040095While I have been visiting with my family for the past week, avoiding snow storms at home, I had a chance to visit two Roman Catholic churches in the San Jose, CA area.  First is the chapel at Maryknoll, a former seminary, now transformed into a retirement home for missionaries.  The second is the Basilica of St. Joseph, the cathedral in downtown San Jose.  Let’s see how many of the elements of a Roman Church we can discern with a virtual visit.

P1040082As the church at Maryknoll is attached to the main building, it does not have a formal facade.  You enter a hallway either from the building, or the garden as we did, then pass through the doors at the front of the nave.  From the exterior, in this case the side of the nave, looking toward the bell tower at the transept, you can recognize a basilica roof line, with the higher pitched roof, windows, then lower side roof.  In this case, the side aisle are combined with the portico, through a series of arches.  The outside wall is where the interior columns would have been.  This is an adaptation that Spanish mission churches made from the older Roman model.

P1040079Inside, we see the nave.  From this picture, the right side chapels and transept wings are not easily seen, but they are there in a simple manner.  The side chapels were in essence a series of niches with an element of the church and seminary mission at which someone could kneel and pray.  The triumphal arch is built into the opening of the apse, which is a barrel vault over the altar.  There is no dome over the altar.  Light comes through the high windows.  The elegance is in the simplicity.

P1040094When approaching the Basilica of St. Joseph, several design element will tell us that we have a problem.  First, the short rise of steps, then four columns, architrave, and triangular pediment tell us that this is a Greek temple structure.  Furthermore, we can notice that the nave is the same length as the transept wings, thus the floor plan is a Greek Cross rather than a Roman (Latin) Cross.  Basilica, in this case is a designation of status of the church as opposed to the structure.  We can see the portico between the columns and the entry doors.

P1040101The Greek Cross design provides for a different sense of openness to the elongated Roman Cross floor plan.  We lose the side aisle, and therefore side chapels.  Instead St. Joseph has four niches with sculptures at the intersection of the arms of the cross, as well as sculptural groups in each transept, and behind the altar.

In contrast to the usual manner of lining chairs in each section of the nave and P1040109transepts, the chairs are specially made to form a circle, or at least 270* of the circle.  All of the chairs face the altar, which is placed in the center of the cross, under the dome.  The dome contains eight paintings, one of each Evangelist, then pairs of saints whom I could not determine.  Bonus point, which Evangelist has the symbol of a lion? (answer below)

Now, can you find and verify the triumphal arch?  This is a little tricky, as each arm has essentially the same curve of the roof as it supports the dome.  My first assumption is that the arch over the wing that forms the apse would be the triumphal arch.  My telephoto lens confirmed this.  Notice the small circle at the top of the arch.  Each wing had one of these.  This one contains the Lamb of Christ, both the sacrifice and the victor over death.  Yes, there is your triumphal arch.

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As I mentioned, the niches contain sculptures for veneration.  One shows Joseph teaching Jesus carpentry skills.  Jesus hold a bow-saw and Joseph a plank of wood.  On the other side is a traditional crucifixion scene with Mary, Mary Magdeline, and John at Jesus’ feet.

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Both to allow light in and to substitute for frescoes on the walls, there are at least 16 stained glass windows depicting scenes from Jesus life, the Evangelists, and other saints.  Behind the altar are modern, abstract stain glass windows.

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Above the altar, on the back wall of the apse are paintings.  The central figure is of Jesus enthroned, with possibly a pope, saint, and a patron or two.  To the left and right sides are images of people, some appearing to be priests and other common people.  I planned to stop at the gift shop to see if they had a church guide, but alas, the shop was closed on Mondays.  Between these images were two small paintings of church exteriors.  Bonus Question: Can you recognize the churches from my prior posts?

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Hint Church One is at the Vatican:

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Hint Church Two is the church of the Bishop of Rome:

P1040140 P1010846

Around the church are the Stations of the Cross.  Double Bonus question: What is the name of the woman who is holding the handkerchief with which Jesus has wiped his brow while carrying the cross? 



The Lion symbolizes Mark’s bold approach to the Gospel.

The Basilica of St. Peter’s in the Vatican.

The Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano.


Well that gets us back to relics, which are on the list of posts very soon.  But, first we will enjoy a few motets from the Chapter Room.




About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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5 Responses to Pop Quiz: Checking Your Church Architecture Observation Skills

  1. I think all the photos would have impressed me before your whole church series! ps – I used to bike ride past Maryknoll.

  2. rommel says:

    Impressive observations! Geez, you are so knowledgeable!!! The only thing I really noticed is how similar the outside look is from other California missions. And of course, I also recognized St. Peter’s Basilica immediately.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      Knowledge, Observation, Recognition. Great skills to develop. An element in this visit was time. How often in our bucket-list tourist orientation do we look but not see? I found street parking and had enough quarters for 1.5 hours. With a stroll of a few blocks to and from the church to the car, I had a full hour to spend in the church. Pleanty of time to sit, look, let my eyes adjust, and decide what I wanted to capture with my camera. Also, plenty of time to take multiple angles, then decide later which to include in my post. Years ago, my wife and I realized that we enjoy a thorough experience of a few places, rather than the pass-by-many approach to life. Enjoy your years in Japan. If you get to the temple in Nara, say “hello” to the three monkeys for me.

  3. Sartenada says:

    Beautiful, but very different Church which we have in Finland.

    Have a good day!

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