The top or highest point of a church building often has special significance in architecture and religion. It goes by different names depending on the architectural style and Christian denomination. Some common names for the top of a church include spire, steeple, bell tower, belfry, and lantern. The specific name can give clues about the history and design of the church.
A spire is generally a tall, pointed structure on top of a church. It may or may not have openings for bells. The spire tapers to a point and directs the eye and attention upward toward the heavens. It often symbolizes the aspirations of religious belief reaching toward the skies.
Spires are most commonly found on Christian churches in Europe from the medieval, Gothic, and neo-Gothic eras. Famous churches with spires include Salisbury Cathedral in England, Cologne Cathedral in Germany, and the Church of Our Lady in Belgium. Spires remain a popular architectural choice for many churches today.
A steeple also refers to a tall tower or turret on a church topped with a spire. So while all steeples have spires, not all spires are on steeples. The word “steeple” encompasses the whole vertical structure, while “spire” more specifically describes the pointed topping.
Steeples are characteristic of Christian churches in Western architecture. They often house bells or clock faces on the levels below the spire. Famous steepled churches include St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
A bell tower is a tower or turret built on a church specifically intended to house bells. Bell towers can stand alone from the church or be attached to the main church building. They are not necessarily pointed or tall like spires.
The bells in a bell tower are often used to call worshippers to religious services or mark time. Bell towers are common in Italian, French, and Spanish church architecture. The Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy and St. Mark’s Campanile in Venice are two famous freestanding bell towers associated with churches.
A belfry is a room or level in a tower where bells are housed. So bell towers will usually have belfries in them at different levels to hold multiple large bells. The word comes from the French word “belfroi” meaning a movable tower used during sieges in medieval times.
Belfries are incorporated into all different styles of church architecture around the world. One unique example is the circular belfry of the Church of St. Andrew in Kiev, Ukraine with its gilded domes.
A lantern or lantern tower in church architecture refers to a tall structure with openings or windows to let in light. Lanterns may be built directly on top of church domes or as stand-alone towers.
The windows in a lantern allow light into the church interior below. Lanterns are common in Renaissance and Baroque church design in Italy and Spain. Two famous examples are the dome and lantern of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City and the lantern atop the Florence Cathedral.
Some other names used for the top of a church in specific architectural styles include:
- Fleche – A small spire on top of a church in French Gothic architecture
- Flèche – The pointed rod iron cross on top of a spire
- Minaret – The tall, slim tower next to a mosque where the call to prayer is made
- Pagoda – The tiered towers on Buddhist temples in East Asia shaped like pagodas
- Gopuram – The monumental, ornately carved tower over the entrance to Hindu temples in southern India
The towers, turrets, and spires on top of churches often have deeper significance beyond their architectural function.
1. They visually emphasize the height and verticality of the church building, drawing the eyes and aspirations of worshippers upwards.
2. They provide space to hang bells whose ringing can communicate messages to the surrounding community.
3. They create vantage points for lookout and surveillance around medieval cities where churches were often fortified.
4. They allow light and air circulation through lanterns and belfries to improve conditions for worshippers.
5. They provide architectural focal points and landmarks that represent the church and its beliefs on the skyline of towns and cities.
Whatever the specific name and form, the tops of churches across the world share the common symbolism of reaching toward the heavens. They represent human hopes and prayers rising up to the realm of the divine.
Examples of Different Church Tops
- Salisbury Cathedral, England – 404 foot spire built in 1320, the tallest in Britain
- Strasbourg Cathedral, France – 466 foot spire completed in 1439, once world’s tallest building
- St. Mary’s Church, Krakow, Poland – Elaborate Gothic spires added in late 15th century
- St. Martin’s Church, Landshut, Germany – Blue spire built in 1500s, known as the “Bavarian Blue Wonder”
- Basilica of Our Lady, Tongeren, Belgium – Romanesque and Gothic church with massive spire
- St. Botolph’s Church, Boston, England – Famous 14th century steeple nicknamed the “Boston Stump”
- Old North Church, Boston, Massachusetts – Georgian steeple housing Paul Revere’s lanterns
- Grace Church, Manhattan – Gothic revival white steeple dominates skyline
- Trinity Church, New York – 281 foot steeple built in 1846, long a city landmark
- Washington National Cathedral – Central tower has modern 32 story steeple
- St. Mark’s Bell Tower, Venice – Colorful medieval bell tower with Greek Horses on top
- Bell Tower of Palazzo Vecchio, Florence – 272 foot tower with Renaissance architecture
- Bell Towers of the Cathedral of Zamora, Spain – Two elaborately ornamented Romanesque towers
- Bell Tower of Xi’an, China – Giant bell tower built in 1384 during Ming Dynasty
- Bell Tower of Lake Zurich Church, Switzerland – Romanesque tower first built in 1251
- Belfry of Bruges, Belgium – 83 meter brick belfry built in 1240, symbol of the city
- Belfry of Gent, Belgium – Famous 14th century belfry called Dragon Tower over the city market
- Belfry of Sainte-Croix, Orléans, France – Gothic belfry located on a central bridge over the Loire
- Belfries of Mont Saint-Michel, France – Belfries on the abbey church in a small tidal island
- Belfry of Samara, Russia – Rare 19th century Neo-Russian belfry in Samara Oblast
- St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City – Michelangelo’s dome with Renaissance lantern by Carlo Maderno
- St. Paul’s Cathedral, London – Majestic Baroque lantern and dome by Christopher Wren
- Florence Cathedral, Italy – Brunelleschi’s octagonal Gothic lantern on the Duomo
- St. Gereon’s Basilica, Cologne, Germany – Unique circular Romanesque lanterns
- Church of San Pietro in Montorio, Rome – Small Tempietto church has a circular Baroque lantern
Notable Church Tops Around the World
Here are some other significant and monumental church tops found on various structures worldwide:
- Rouen Cathedral, France – Iron spire added in the 1800s stands at 495 feet tall
- Ulm Minster, Germany – World’s tallest church steeple at 530 feet, built in 1890
- Church of Our Savior, Copenhagen, Denmark – Famous spiral spire wrapped in gold mosaic rises to 390 feet
- St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, Austria – 450 foot south tower finished in 1433 with colorful roof
- Hungary Parliament Building, Budapest – Neo-Gothic style with 300 foot central steeple
- Cathedral of St. Sava, Belgrade, Serbia – Major Orthodox church with multiple towering domes and belfries
- Notre Dame de Fourvière, Lyon, France – 19th century basilica on a hillside with unique octagonal steel spire
- Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool, England – Circular lantern illuminates the modernist interior
- St. Peter’s Church, Malacca City, Malaysia – Dutch colonial church built in 1710 with five-tiered Stadthuys bell tower
- Cathedral of Our Lady of Sheshan, Shanghai, China – Gothic revival twin steeples stand at over 150 feet tall
- St. Mary’s Cathedral, Tokyo, Japan – Modernist hyperbolic paraboloid structure built in 1964
- St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Hanoi, Vietnam – Neo-Gothic cathedral with central steeple built in 1886
- Holy Rosary Church, Chiang Mai, Thailand – Beautiful brick Catholic church finished in 1931
- St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Singapore – Early English Gothic style with spires added in 1842
- St. John’s Cathedral, Nazareth, Israel – One of the tallest spires in the Middle East, built in 1861
- Armenian Church of the Holy Resurrection, Jerusalem – Home to a distinctive belfry and dome
- Victoria Tower, Montreal, Canada – Large steeple overlooking St. James United Church in downtown Montreal
- Metropolitan Cathedral of Brasília, Brazil – Circular hyperboloid structure with angel sculptures
- Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City – Major pilgrimage site with modern circular bell towers
- St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City – ne of the tallest cathedral spires in the United States at 330 feet tall
- Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C. – Sixth tallest spire in the world at 300 feet tall
- Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, Savannah, Georgia – Dramatic spires built in the 1870s
- Cathedral of San Agustin, Lima, Peru – Baroque details and tower rebuilt after earthquakes
- Metropolitan Cathedral of Buenos Aires, Argentina – Imposing French Neoclassical-style steeple and dome
- St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne – Gothic Revival cathedral with imposing copper spires
- St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney – Twin neo-Gothic steeples stand at over 200 feet tall
- Sacré Cœur, Melbourne – Inspired by the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur in Paris with a landmark dome
- St Mary’s Cathedral, Perth – Tracery spire added in the 20th century
- St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne – Elegant ecclesiastical Gothic design
- Brisbane City Hall – Historic 1930 building with a tall central clock tower
Famous Church Top Architects
Throughout history, church tops have been designed and built by some of the world’s most renowned architects. Here are a few influential architects know for their iconic church spires, steeples, and towers:
- Sir Christopher Wren – Restored many London churches after the Great Fire of 1666 and built St. Paul’s Cathedral’s famous dome and lantern
- Filippo Brunelleschi – Built the distinctive octagonal Gothic lantern atop Florence Cathedral during the Italian Renaissance
- Sir George Gilbert Scott – Designed the steeple of St. Pancras Church in London and spires for many British cathedrals
- Antoni Gaudí – Created fantastical spires and towers for the Sagrada Família church in Barcelona with organic shapes
- Leon Battista Alberti – Introduced classically inspired facades and lanterns to Italian Renaissance churches
- Nicholas Hawksmoor – Built influential English country and city churches with Baroque steeples and towers in the early 1700s
- James Gibbs – His steeples marked a transition to a more Classical style in the early 18th century
- Robert Mills – The first major American-born church architect who designed church spires in Charleston and Washington, D.C.
These innovative architects elevated the design of church spires, steeples, and lanterns, and shaped church architecture for generations to come. Their soaring yet elegant designs aimed to glorify God and inspire worshippers through the beauty of form.
Modern Church Tops
Though steeples and spires remain popular today, modern architects have also embraced new forms for the tops or roofs of contemporary churches. These can include:
- Concrete shells – Curving modernist canopies hovering over the church interior
- Skylights – Opening up the roof for natural overhead light
- Angular roofs – Prismatic, triangle, or diamond-shaped to distinguish the space
- Suspension roofs – Cables stretching up a minimalist roof structure
- Open beams – Exposed roof trusses and supports left visible from within
- Green roofs – Flat roof tops covered with grass, plants and vegetation
- Metal roofs – Sleek panels like copper, zinc, or stainless steel as façade accents
While visually different than historic churches, these forms create light-filled inspiring spaces for contemporary congregations. Natural light, transparency, and simplicity have become common characteristics of Modernist church architecture.
The Pritzker-award winning architect Tadao Ando is renowned for his meditative sacred spaces topped with simple dramatic forms. Works like the Church of Light in Japan and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts Chapel feature minimalist concrete and an open zen spirit.
Other leading contemporary architects designing innovative religious buildings and roofs include Philip Johnson, Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer, Renzo Piano, Steven Holl, and Peter Zumthor. While inspired by structure instead of symbolism, their designs continue the quest to build spiritual community within architectural beauty.
The tops or crowning elements of church architecture encompass towers, turrets, and spires with names like steeples, spires, bell towers, belfries, and lanterns. While each has their own architectural definitions, they all aim upward toward lofty spiritual aspirations. Throughout changing eras and cultures, the church top has anchored communities as a familiar landmark while linking earth and the heavens. Whether peaked Gothic spires or hovering Modernist canopies, church tops reflect the ingenuity, faith, and vision of both architects and worshippers across history.