The world's most beautiful churches

Which are the world's most beautiful churches? From traditional to the unorthodox, and the old world to the new, Michael Sean Winters compiles his list for the National Catholic Reporter.

I decided to break down the categories between cathedrals and churches and to create one category for Europe and one for the US. I am not familiar enough with the churches of Latin America, Africa, or Asia to really appraise them.

The church of St Cyriakus in Gernrode, Germany, is one of the finest extant examples of Ottonian architecture in the world. Ottonian architecture is earlier than the great Romanesque cathedrals of Speyer and Worms, and it is closer in style as well as time to the Roman basilicas such as Sant' Apollinare in Ravenna or Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

St Cyriakus is massive and heavy in construction, and the church lacks the external light we associate with later Gothic cathedrals, but the tall white-washed walls largely offset any sense of darkness and the series of steps leading to the altar introduce plenty of movement into the design. The introduction of an arcade breaks up the large walls and introduces a sense of rhythm to the whole. The outside is also massive, and the heaviness here is offset by the towers at the west end and the smaller tower at the crossing, as well as the blind arcades that line the exterior of the nave.  

Runners-up in this category (again restricting myself to churches not nominated by others): Sainte-Foy in Conques, France, one of the earliest pilgrimage churches along the route to Santiago de Compostela; Abbaye Notre Dame, Morienval, France; Saint Etienne du Mont in Paris; San Clemente and Ss. Nereo e Achilleo in Rome; Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice; St. Mary's in Krakow; King's College Chapel (Anglican) in Cambridge.

The Mission of San Carlo Borromeo in Carmel, Calif., enjoys not only an exquisite location but a beautifully preserved interior dripping equally in beauty and history. Its reredos is less sumptuous than those found at San Xavier del Bac, to be sure, and the exterior of the mission in Santa Barbara is more elaborate. But the rusticness of the artwork one encounters at Carmel is part of its beauty, and the gardens outside make this one of the most tranquil places on earth. The church also contains an exquisitely fun memory. In my younger days, I was a serious, not to say accomplished, organist, and when I was visiting a church, I would call ahead to see if it was possible to play the organ there.

FULL STORY The world's most beautiful churches (NCR)

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