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Designing Religions: What Does the Shape of a Place of Worship Mean


Hi All,

To borrow the first part of the title from Red Star... I am beginning to think about cathedrals, chapels, churches, temples, shrines etc... What do the shapes mean? What shapes would these buildings take in your created worlds? What does a circular building mean over a square or rectangle or star or cross.

How does one go about building a consistent shape-ology and symbology within a created religion? Would building materials and complexity of buildings matter in any way except cost and available artisan ability?

So far, I am trying to think about a religion's holy symbols, the aspects of the deity and the foundational mythology to figure out how they would influence the religious architecture.

Poking your brains to achieve greatness. I hope everyone is doing well and using spare time to create.

Semper Fidelis


I haven't studied religious symbolism as it pertains to the shape of the structure having any meaning. I do recall reading somewhere that some of the first Christian churches were built as a cross to reflect their dedication to their religion.

I suppose in the scheme of a story with a religious aspect, you could create your own symbolism. Perhaps a circle represents purity or the unbroken line from your ancestors to the present day. I recall the Aiel in Robert Jordan's wheel of time having a bowl-shaped valley they used for clan meetings. The reason given was because a man could stand on the ledge and be heard. Maybe it is something like that. But also perhaps it means nothing more than being how they designed it to fit the maximum number of people within.

Maybe you have a raised dais, it could elevate that person in the eyes of the people, to be a spokesman for the almighty, or perhaps it is just so people can hear them better. Often times it is little things that make a religion different.

Red Star

I found it easier to design the beliefs of the religion itself, with those being reflected in the buildings themselves. I'm kind of learning as I progress into my story of course. For instance, the Solaran Empire, one of the major factions in the book, are monotheistic sun worshippers. I based them heavily off the Roman Empire. Their central place of worship is a grand basilica with domes and arches that's been built to house something called the Eternal Flame, which is exactly what it sounds like. So in many ways, a religion is also a reflection of the society itself, if it is tied to a society at all in your work. If it isn't, I would say the sort of people that are members of the religion and their beliefs would likely shape the architecture like you said, if there is architecture to speak of. A nature based religion might worship in a Stonehenge kind of deal, or a grove of trees. A pagan religion might worship in some sort of wooden structure that's built very high if they believe their deity/deities are in the sky, or perhaps a religion that worships the earth or deities that live underground will be in some sort of tunnel or catacomb. I'm just thinking out loud, but I think these are interesting things to think about.

Insolent Lad

I do recall reading somewhere that some of the first Christian churches were built as a cross to reflect their dedication to their religion..
You will still find churches in the Catholic/Orthodox tradition being laid out in a cross shape (though the 'upper' end of the cross, behind the altar may be closed off, used for a choir, etc). On occasions with small numbers attending (as many weekday masses), only one wing might be used rather than having the congregation spread out in all three (or four).

Insolent Lad

I've established a tradition in my tales of the Ildin polytheists and their successors, the Kamatians (who are to the Ildin what Zoroastrianism was to Iranian polytheism), worshiping in 'high places.' When they moved down from the hills to a flatter country, they took to raising mounds and placing small open stoas on them for their religious rites, never going to any sort of large temple or meeting hall.

On the other hand, I'm currently in the process of working up architecture for the Tesrans in my WIP and I'm pretty sure I'm going with a more massive, monolithic look to their temples. They like order and solidity, and perhaps have a bit of a siege mentality, so it seemed reasonable. I'm thinking maybe of using the Herod-period temple in Jerusalem as a sort of template. The fact that brick is the main building material has its part too—the medium is always a part of art.


I've established a tradition in my tales of the Ildin polytheists and their successors, the Kamatians (who are to the Ildin what Zoroastrianism was to Iranian polytheism), worshiping in 'high places.' When they moved down from the hills to a flatter country, they took to raising mounds and placing small open stoas on them for their religious rites, never going to any sort of large temple or meeting hall.

Many religions use open spaces for their religious ceremonies as opposed to a building. I think the principal reason many moved indoors was due to the weather more than any "a building is holier than a hill" mentality.


To respond to Insolent Lad and Saigonnus - I think out of doors and "open" shrines can fit into this discussion of shape. Thinking about a druid grove. I assume the grove would be mostly natural, but is it tended in any way to create a shape? Thinking about Stonehenge why was it a circular and not a square, triangle or other. (I know why, but posing the question to relate to this thread.) Thinking about a Buddha Stupa, why a dome and not a minaret or some other shape?

With regard to buildings, I think many religions had buildings constructed was because of ego and make symbols of power.

Do the shapes of buildings even matter? Or is the construction techniques and materials available dictate that. What about culture? Does the culture matter more than the religion?

Semper Fidelis


Well, there are few questions that you have to answer before you start on design process.

1) What kind of religion are we talking about? Is it natural / spirit or anthropometric(?) religion? That is, does it worship nature and/or its spirits, or gods who look and act like humans? In former case, worship will likely be in places in nature related to nature of spirits or even gods being worshipped - such as holy lakes, caves, woods etc. You may look into Celtic religion for that. In case of human(oid) gods, artificial buildings as places of worship are much more likely, though by no means guaranteed (cult of Mithras often used caves).
2) What is relationship towards the masses? Are they actively part of worship (e.g. Christianity) or merely passive observers (e.g. many pagan religions)? If it is former, place of worship - temple - will likely include accomodation for congregation. If it is latter, then masses will likely remain outside the temple, and observe the ceremony taking place in front of the temple.
3) What is relationship towards the state? If religion is state-accepted, or especially when it is state-supported and supports the state in turn, it will have significant material wealth, which will then be used to build majestic buildings as expression of power and influence not just of the diety/ies, but the state as well. If it is merely one of many equally-accepted religions (unlikely, as that would result in political instability as well) then places of worship are going to be obvious, but much humbler than in previous case. If religion is actively prosecuted, then places of worship will be hidden - example being Christian-utilized catacombs.

Now that you have answered previous questions, you need to look into symbolism of geometry and numerology. In Christianity, cross is important due to Christ being crucified. Other than that, shapes have their meanings:
1) Circle can mean infinity, perfection, continuity.
2) Cross can present humanity, being basic plan of human body.
3) Numbers 3, 7, 9 and 12 have some symbolic meaning. Thus, they can be incorporated into architecture.

Some links:
Sacred geometry - Wikipedia
Shield of the Trinity - Wikipedia

Miles Lacey

For me, all religious places are places of worship, reflection and contemplation of all that is holy or divine. The structure or shape of such places is only as important as the meaning you attach to it. The same symbols (and shapes) can also have very different meanings in different areas. Nothing illustrates this more starkly than the swastika. If I wore a swastika I would be jailed in some countries and almost certainly beaten to an inch of my life in many other places because it will forever be associated with the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP or Nazis for short) and the crimes and vile ideology that is associated with that organisation. Yet, the same symbol in the Buddhist and Hindu faiths has a very different meaning. It's a holy symbol that stands for peace and harmony.

It was while I was searching for videos of various traditional dances in the Pacific that I had a eureka moment for the shape and type of building that could be used for the faith in my work in progress that would be very different from that of most faiths. Instead of having a priest (or priestess) stand up and read from Scripture or give speeches, I wondered, "What if there were a priest and priestess who would use dance and chants rather than sermons to preach to the congregation? And what if congregations used chants, dancing and songs to praise the deities?" That led me to think about what the shape and layout of a temple would be if congregations didn't spend most of their time sitting.

The basic concept for the temple came from a traditional Samoan fale.


The differences between the traditional fale and the temple that I thought up is the inclusion of an inner wall that runs around the interior approximately five metres from the pillars supporting the structure. The outer part of the temple (or hiero in the local language) is called the fare. This is the area where the worshippers would gather to greet or farewell one another and prepare themselves before they stepped into the vahi moa (sanctuary). The fare is also the place the worshippers would leave their footwear.

The vahi moa has a crescent-shaped pulpit at the back of the hiero. Carved representations of the deities of the Faith are placed at regular points at the back of the pulpit. The pulpit is built out of gravel that is be levelled out and mats (maa) placed on it. Only the priest and priestess are allowed on the pulpit. The crescent shape is inspired by the quarter moon: a symbol also found in Islam. The crescent pulpit represents the lunar calendar.

In front of the pulpit is an altar which is where those people who turn sixteen lie down on during their tauiraa ia paariraa ceremony. It's here that the sixteen-year-old will lie until fourteen minutes has passed or they are gifted with the tahutahu. That is, magic.

The part of the vahi moa where the worshippers sit, dance and sing in praise of the deities is called the tahua.

The area outside the hiero is called the aua (courtyard). This is where people gather for weddings, funerals and other ceremonies both before and after ceremonies. In many villages and towns the aua serves as a market place and a gathering place for public meetings like political rallies and official announcements by local government officials.

I'm not sure how useful or relevant this is but maybe it could be of some use to people.
My opinion, after having seen religious buildings the world over, is that shape has little to no initial meaning. The function of the building comes first and the shape evolves over time. It evolves based on available materials and what you want the building to do and from there slowly grows to set standards for buildings. Which keep evolving.

You want people coming together? Then you build a great hall where they can meet up. Hall not big enough? Then you extend it at some point. You have saints or famous priests? Then you give them statues. Not allowed to make statues of people? Then you draw squiggly stuff on all available surfaces. You want to impress people as much as possible? You build the Haga Sofia. And the reverse as well. Is you religion more directed towards individual prayer? Then the worshiping hall will be smaller, with less room to congregate and more space for a statue.

Same with the weather. If you have terrible weather with snow and ice in winter and cold, miserable rain the rest of the year then you make sure people can be indoors when they worship. Lovely tropical climate? Then you go for courtyards and an outdoorsy experience.

All those lovely pillared temples from ancient Greece? That was the only way to support the roof of buildings that size when they built them. The cross shape of churches is often more a case of having a rectangular hall that needs to be bigger and then just adding bits to the side. Yes, once they added the bits someone probably liked the idea of turning it into a cross shape, but it always feels more accidental then anything else. And then of course there are also plenty of round churches and rectangular and square ones. The pyramids of central America? They probably wanted to impress people and make sure everyone around had to look up at them. So they went for height. And a pyramid then is simply the easiest shape to build.

So the shapes are meaningless, unless you want them to have some meaning in your writing. I would pick a shape that fits the cultural expectations the reader has and leave it at that, unless there's a very obvious symbolism which plays some role in the story and is practical.
That is an interesting question which I have not thought of before.

It seems that the physical building is a direct relationship of wealth which is a direct relationship of power. The poor people who practice folk religion usually meet in low infrastructure areas: fields, groves, hilltops or beeches. The noble class, whom would donate to the physical buildings, would attend the stone structures.

The architecture would be dependent on the physical materials available and their knowledge of engineering. If you have sticks, you build a stick house. If you have snow, build an igloo. This would also communicate the sophistication of the society to which it belongs. There would be a relationship between the weapons technology and building technology.

Some quick thoughts. ABR