Photos: The world’s most beautiful churches


As Christians celebrate Christmas, take a tour of 23 eye-catching and unusual churches and chapels around the world.

Las Lajas Sanctuary, Colombia

Built at a height of 100m inside the canyon of the Guáitara River, this church became a pilgrimage site after the Virgin Mary appeared in front of a woman and her deaf-mute daughter, caught in a violent storm here in the 18th century. The present Gothic-style church was built between 1916 and 1949; a bridge connects it to the opposite side of the canyon.

Borgund Stave Church, Norway
In 1180, the villagers of Borgund, in southern Norway, built a new church. But unlike older churches, which had rotted because their wooden frames came into contact with the cold, snowy ground, this church was to be built on stone foundations. Workmen put up to 2,000 pieces of timber in place; crosses were carved on the inner walls; holy water was sprinkled. The stave church – a medieval wooden Christian church – still stands in Borgund today, although it is no longer used for services, but is preserved as a museum by the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Norwegian Monuments. It is thought to be the best preserved of Norway’s 28 stave churches.

3. Bethlehem church, Iran
Also known as Bedkhem Church, this Armenian Apostolic 17th-century church can be found in Isfahan, Iran’s showstopper Safavid city that bedecked each street with glorious monuments and buildings. It is decorated with 72 exquisite paintings, including depictions of the Last Supper and the Expulsion from Eden, but its dome is most defiantly beautiful, with gilding, dainty windows and fine detail. Isfahan is home to some 7,000 Armenians, who live in the Jolfa quarter. Although they are required to obey Islamic dress codes by law, they retain their own culture, identity, language, and 16 churches.

4. Notre Dame du Haut chapel, France
The building here, near Ronchamp in eastern France, has been known as Notre-Dame du Haut – “our Lady of the Summit” – since the 18th century, when it became a pilgrimage site. In the early 20th century the chapel suffered severe damage, firstly from fire and then from bombing during the 1944 liberation. Le Corbusier, the architect, was convinced to design a new plan for the chapel, and in 1955 the new building was opened. The roof hull, in concrete, is inspired by a crab’s shell, but modern design sits alongside centuries-old elements: the original walls are still here, encased in concrete, while the late 17th century statue of the Virgin Mary has also been preserved.

5. Viscri Fortified Church, Romania
Not a castle; once a chapel; now a church. This place of worship, Lutheran since the Reformation, was initially a chapel, but was turned into a single-nave church in the 16th century. Seven-metre fortifications have surrounded it since the 12th century. The interior is relatively plain, with dark wood wall panelling, bare pews and a narrow aisle. Viscri, where the church can be found, in Transylvania, forms part of the “Romanian villages with fortified churches” Unesco World Heritage Site. Always small, Viscri is even today home to no more than 500 people.

6. Gergeti Trinity Church, Georgia
It is possibly the setting, in the green and white Caucasus mountains, below the summit of Mt Kazbegi, that makes Gergeti Trinity Church quite so magnificent. Dating from the 14th century, it has a separate bell tower, and is often used as a navigation point for trekkers, who make a three-hour mountain climb to reach it. While religious services were banned during the Soviet era, it is once again used as a place of worship.

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7. King’s College Chapel, Cambridge
Yes, it’s the setting for those syrupy Christmas services. Yes, you might risk running into some Cambridge students. But King’s College Chapel, began in 1446 by Henry VI, has the world’s largest fan vault and medieval stained glass. The latter survived the Civil War, although according to one record, noted by the College today, the chapel was used as a parade ground for Cromwell’s troops: “’nor was it any whit strange to find whole bands of soldiers training and exercising in the royal Chapel of King Henry the Sixth” (from Querela Cantabrigiens, a “remonstrance by way of apologie, for the banished members of the late flourishing University of Cambridge”.)

8. Church of St George, Ethiopia
This is one of 11 monolithic – hewn from a single piece of rock – churches in Lalibela in central Ethiopia. In the 12th century, King Lalibela intended to create a “New Jerusalem”, when Christian pilgrimages to the Middle East were made difficult by the Muslim conquests, and the site has been an important place of worship for Coptic Christians ever since. Biete Ghiorgis – House of St. George – is separated from the other 10 buildings, but is connected via a passageway. Their extraordinary structures – chiselled from living rock – incorporate doors, walkways, columns, catacombs and hermit caves.

9. St Bartholomew’s, Lake Königssee
A pilgrimage church in Bavaria, Germany, St Bartholomew’s is only accessible by boat or via a long hike. A building has been on this site since 1134, but the onion domes and red roof were added during a rebuilding in the Baroque style in the 1600s. A pilgrimage ending at the church is held annually on the first Saturday after August 24.

10. Hallgrímskirkja, Iceland
The church of Hallgrímur stands 73m tall above Reykjavik, in an Expressionist design supposedly influenced by Iceland’s basalt lava flows. It took 38 years to complete its construction, which began in 1945, but now performs two functions – it is also an observation tower.

11. Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene, Jerusalem
A bold piece of Muscovite architecture on the slope of the Mount of Olives, this church was consecrated in 1888, and has ties to the British Monarchy. It is the final resting place of Princess Andrew of Greece, the Duke of Edinburgh’s mother, whose remains were moved to a crypt below the church, in line with her wishes, in 1988. Today the church, in the Garden of Gethsemane, is used by the sisters of St Mary Magdalene for daily worship.

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12. Sagrada Familia, Spain
Full name the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, this Roman Catholic church designed by Antoni Gaudí surprises many a tourist to the Catalonian city. Even though work began in 1882, it is in a seemingly-permanent unfinished state, half covered with scaffolding and cranes. Despite this, it is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and attracts more than three million visitors a year, who are able to ignore the construction paraphernalia to admire the interior, particularly the geometric columns, which were designed to resemble the trunks and branches of trees. In 2013, it was reported that the church would be finished within 13 years.

13. The Church of the Transfiguration, Kizhi island, Russia
Bizarre yet utterly wonderful, this is the larger of the wooden churches on Kizhi, an island in Lake Onega in western Russia. With 22 domes reaching a height of 37 metres, it was built in the early 18th century, without nails, on the site of a previous church burnt down by lightning. Inside, there are 102 icons on its iconostasis, and a stone base prevents it rotting. Kizhi island is a popular stop-off point on Volga river cruises between St Petersburg and Moscow.

14. Palatine chapel, Sicily
This sumptuous chapel within the Palazzo Reale in Palermo is covered in intricate gold mosaics so detailed that even the figures’ fingernails stand out. Scenes include St John in the desert and a group of five saints, alongside secular depictions of plants and animals. It dates from 1132, when it was commissioned by Roger II of Sicily.

15. Sainte-Chapelle, Paris
Visitors to Paris know the Eiffel Tower best, but really, Sainte-Chapelle trumps Gustave Eiffel’s construction. A medieval Gothic chapel on the Ile de la Cité in the Seine, its 33-metre cedar spire sits atop, needle-like, while inside, surfaces are adorned with 13th-century stained glass, a midnight blue ceiling, and quatrefoils decorated with saints and martyrs. It is believed that Sainte-Chapelle was built by Louis IX, as he needed somewhere to store his collection of holy relics, bought for 135,000 livres. The building in which he stored them, and which we enjoy today, cost four times that.

16. St Bartholomew the Great, London
This place of worship in West Smithfield, the City of London, may seem familiar – it has been used in Four Weddings and a Funeral (the scene of non-wedding number four ) and was also a location for Shakespeare in Love, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, and The Other Boleyn Girl. Founded in 1123 by Rahere, an Anglo-Norman priest and monk, the church has found favour with renowned figures throughout history: Sir John Betjeman believed it to have the finest Norman interior in London, while the late 11th Duke of Devonshire and Deborah Vivien Cavendish were married here in 1941. On a more prosaic level – but involving no less of a historical figure – Benjamin Franklin worked as a printer in Bartholomew Close – now the site of the lady chapel – when the space was used for commercial purposes in the early 18th century.

17. Felsenkirche, Germany
This church was built into a natural niche in the rocks above Oberstein, western Germany, in 1482-1484. It can only be entered through a tunnel ploughed into the rock, and it contains various liturgical objects, including an agate cross from Brazil, a rock crystal crucifix, and late Gothic glass windows – although these were damaged by falling rocks in the 18th century. A viewing platform was opened in 2003.

18. Church of Dmitry on Blood, Uglich, Russia
When Ivan the Terrible died in 1584, he left two children, Fyodor, who was handicapped, and Dimitri. When Boris Godunov became regent to replace Fyodor, who was incapable of performing his duties, Dimitri was exiled to Uglich, and found dead in 1591, with a knife in his throat. When his mother sent for the regent’s agents to be executed – sabotage was suspected – Godunov sent forces to Uglich and Dimitri’s supporters were slaughtered or sent to exile in Siberia, while his mother was sent to live at a monastery at Goritsy. Uglich became a pilgrimage site in the 17th century, and Dimitry was revered as a saint. Today, visitors to Uglich will be struck by the church’s red and blue colours on approach on the Volga river – the town is a popular stop-off on a river cruise itinerary.

19. Church of Saint Stephanos, Iran
In the very north-west of Iran, this isolated Armenian church sits in a green, verdant valley that counters the belief that Iran is just desert and mosque. The vaults, arches and dome are decorated with murals and relief work, while the shrine contains Safavid-era chairs, three images of Mary and Jesus, and four Bibles. Some believe that the bones in the gilded reliquary are those of Saint Gregory

20. Church of the Nativity, West Bank
Commissioned by Constantine in 372 AD, this church sits over the “Grotto”, traditionally considered as the site of the birth of Jesus Christ, in Bethlehem. The Roman Emperor was later said to have had the Christian site turned into a place to worship Adonis, the Greek god of beauty and desire, and Constantine’s 4th century basilica was burnt down in a conflict between the Jews and the Samaritans some 200 years later. Today an important place of worship and a pilgrimage site for many on Holy Land tours, it has been extended and rebuilt at frequent intervals over the centuries. It was the first site in Palestine to be placed on Unesco’s World Heritage list, although water leakages also mean it has been placed in the “in danger” category.

21. Matthias Church, Hungary
This Roman Catholic church in Buda’s Castle District define Budapest’s skyline with its sharp late Gothic spire. Extensively damaged during the Second World War, it was occupied by the Germans and the Soviets, during their occupation in 1944-45. An extensive renovation was finished in 2013 and a gallery within it now contains a replica of the Hungarian royal crown.

22. Thorncrown Chapel, USA
With 425 windows and more than 6,000 square feet of glass, Thorncrown chapel in Arkansas is one of the most unique woodland buildings you are likely to come across. An unconventional design for a place of worship, it has nonetheless won multiple architecture awards, and has attracted six million visitors since it opened in 1980. Particularly of note is the way it was designed to maximise the role of light that filters through the trees: shapes of changing proportions flitter through the chapel throughout the day in relation to the position of the sun.

23. Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, St Petersburg
Also known as the Church on Spilt Blood and the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, this church marks the site where Emperor Alexander II died in March 1881. The building was badly damaged and looted in the Russian Revolution, and any form of religious worship was banned by the Soviet regime. Today it is a landmark, and a honeypot for tourists to St Petersburg, but has not been reconsecrated.

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