Sacred Spaces

First Things First...

This lesson explores the commonalities and differences between architectural sacred spaces made in a variety of time periods and places. The notion of “sacred space” will take on a different meaning for each of your students, so begin the class by asking what comes to mind when they think of a sacred space. What do they imagine doing in that space? What is its purpose? Some students will think of religious spaces, but others may think of a natural landscape, a library, civic monument, or a relaxing place.

This lesson will expose students to a variety of cultures and religions, and in the process, hopefully inspire tolerance and respect for those with different belief systems than themselves. To begin, introduce the terms monotheism, polytheism, and syncretism. Syncretism, a blend of two or more religious beliefs, might be particularly unfamiliar to students, but is a practice common in Asia. While learning or reviewing different religious customs is necessary to study these works of sacred architecture outlined below, by tracking certain themes students will learn that there are also many similarities between these religions as well.

The topic of sacred spaces can either be presented as a lecture, or students can each be assigned a specific artwork that they then present in small groups or in front of the class. If you would prefer to not discuss this lecture thematically, each of the artworks presented here can also be considered within their own historical and/or cultural settings. However, to guide the focus towards the religious and spiritual meaning of each space, it is helpful to consider these aspects or themes:

  • How it is used by worshippers
    • Religious celebrations/services
    • Pilgrimages
  • Harmony with Nature
    • Orientation/Cardinal Directions
    • Sunlight
    • Astronomy
  • Symbols
    • Geometry
    • Sacred Objects

Background Readings

Rothko Chapel, Houston, Texas, 1971 AD.

  • Kathleen Berrin and Esther Pasztory, Teotihuacan, Art from the City of the Gods (Thames & Hudson, 1994).
  • Vidya Dehejia, Indian Art (Phaidon Press, 1997).
  • Robert Fischer, Buddhist Art and Architecture (Thames & Hudson, 1993).
  • Robert Hillenbrand. Islamic Art and Architecture (Thames &Hudson, 1998).
  • David Macaulay’s writing and videos Cathedral and Mosque, while written for children, can be wonderful tools for self-study or to share with students.
  • John Pedley, Sanctuaries and the Sacred in the Ancient Greek World (Cambridge University Press, 2005).
  • Otto von Simson, The Gothic Cathedral (Princeton University Press, 1988).

Content Suggestions

The following artworks were selected from a variety of cultures and belief systems, and chosen specifically because they are some of the most commonly studied and taught works of architecture.  To stay on track, it is helpful to focus on the recommended themes listed above.

Prehistoric and Ancient sacred sites:

  • Stonehenge, Prehistoric, England, 3000-2000 BCE
  • Pyramid of the Sun and Temple of Quetzalcoatl (Feathered Serpent), Teotihuacan Culture, Mexico, 150–225 AD
  • Parthenon, Ancient Greece, Athens, Greece, 447-438 BCE

Sites built for polytheistic religions

  • Great Stupa, Sanchi, India, third century BCE
  • Kandariya Mahadeva temple, Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India, ca.1000 AD
  • Ise Jingū (Temple of Ise), Japan

Sites built for monotheistic religions

  • Chartres Cathedral, Gothic, France, 1194-1250 AD
  • Imam Mosque, Isfahan, Iran, 1629 AD

Sites sacred or spiritual to multiple religions

  • Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, Israel, 691 AD
  • Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey, 532-37 AD
  • Rothko Chapel, Houston, Texas, 1971 AD


  • cardinal directions: north, south, east and west.
  • circumambulation: to act of walking around something sacred in a ritualistic manner.
  • crucifixion: the execution of a person by being nailed to a cross, as Jesus was.
  • frieze: a strip that goes around the top of a building.
  • Iconoclastic Controversy (Byzantine Iconoclasm): The destruction of religious imagery, to avoid idolatry, during Byzantium (726-787 and 814-842)
  • Kami: in Shinto belief, spirits that are aspects of nature, animals, or ancestors.
  • lancet: tall narrow window with an arch at the top.
  • Last Judgment: in Christianity, the judgment of humanity at the end of time.
  • metope: a square space between triglyphs, often decorated with sculpture.
  • mihrab: a niche in a mosque that is in a wall oriented toward Mecca.
  • minaret: a tower, particularly in a mosque, from which the faithful are called to prayer.
  • monoliths: a large sculpture made from a single piece of stone.
  • monotheism: the belief in or worship of only one god.
  • polytheism: the belief in or worship of more than one god.
  • portal: On a cathedral, an entrance one walks through or under.
  • relics: sacred objects associated with a holy person, such as a body part, jewelry, or piece of clothing.
  • syncretism: belief in aspects of more than one religion.
  • triglyph: a relief of three raised bands found in a frieze.
  • triptychs: a painting comprising three panels.

Prehistoric and Ancient Sacred Sites

While much about the prehistoric site Stonehenge is still a mystery, it is clear that it was a sacred site designed with agricultural concerns in mind. The massive stones (monoliths), each weighing up to twenty-five tons, used to create Stonehenge were transported from at least twenty miles away and then placed at specific angles in precise spots to create a timepiece that calculates both hours and the planting season. Stonehenge was designed as circle of monoliths, with additional monoliths laid on top (trilithons) to create a connected stone circle. Within the circle was a similar design of monoliths created in the shape of a horseshoe, opened towards the northeast. A single monolith called the Heel Stone lies directly northeast of the circle. During the summer solstice, when one stands inside the stone horseshoe and faces northeast, one will see the sun rise over the Heel Stone. It is unknown what type of rituals took place in prehistoric times, but today visitors flock to witness the sunrise on the summer solstice. Many human remains have been found at Stonehenge, suggesting that the site was a burial ground with significant meaning in prehistoric times.

The site of Teotihuacan, near today’s Mexico City, was one of the largest cities in the world around 500 AD, when it contained at least six-hundred pyramids. Like Stonehenge, only a small portion of the site has been excavated thus far and there is still much to be understood about this site. Similar to the emphasis on the solstices at Stonehenge, rituals take place on the Spring equinox that include dance, song, burning of incense, and the climbing of the Pyramid of the Sun. The Pyramid of the Sun lies to the east of a street called the Avenue of the Dead, which runs from north to south. The pyramid, roughly 700 feet long and 210 feet tall, is stepped on four sides—each aligned closely to the cardinal directions. The temple faces west, toward the direction of the setting sun and the Avenue of the Dead, and was built on top of a cave and a spring, both of which the people of Mesoamerica believed to be linked to the gods, the underworld, creation, and the afterlife.

In the southern region of Teotihuacan lies the Ciudadela, a sunken plaza, and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (the Feathered Serpent). Ciudadela is below ground level because it symbolizes the underworld. The Temple of Quetzalcoatl is decorated with serpent heads to represent Quetzalcoatl, a symbol of battle, and jaguar heads with large circles for eyes to represent the rain god Tlaloc, who is a symbol of fertility.  Throughout the area, human remains and evidence of human and animal sacrifice have been found.

The Parthenon from ancient Athens, Greece, was built as a temple to Athena, the goddess of war. The Parthenon was built high atop a hill overlooking the sea, so Athena could watch and protect the Greeks from further attacks. The first temple at the site was made of wood and contained a wooden statue of Athena. Both burned to the ground during a war with the Persian army in approximately 479 BCE. An olive tree, the symbol of Athena, grew from the ashes and was thought to be a symbol that Athena wished the Greeks to rebuild. The Parthenon and more structures on the surrounding Acropolis were then built of marble. The Parthenon itself is an open rectangular temple, loosely oriented towards the cardinal directions, with the entrance designated towards the east.  Within the Parthenon stood a colossal ivory and gold statue of the goddess Athena, which was later melted down for its gold.

Each of the two pediments of the Parthenon, now on display at the British Museum, show scenes that relate to the power of Athena: the birth of Athena from Zeus’s head and the triumph of Athena over Poseidon to gain control of Athens. The metopes within the frieze on the exterior of the Parthenon show battles scenes between the Lapiths and the centaurs, which symbolize the battles between the Greeks and the Persians. The frieze that covered the interior of the Parthenon shows the Panathenaic procession, part of a festival that occurred every four years to celebrate Athena’s birthday. The festival included games and a procession up the hill to the Acropolis, in which Athenians carried the sacred robe of Athena to be placed in the temple.

Sites built for polytheistic religions

The Great Stupa in Sanchi, India, contains some of the ashes of the Buddha, the great teacher, or “The Enlightened One” for Buddhists. A stupa is a large mound made of stone that typically contains the ashes or remains of the Buddha or another important religious figure. This stupa was built under the orders of King Ashoka in the third century BCE, a king who built thousands of stupas throughout India, most of which contain some of the Buddha’s remains. The Great Stupa is surrounded by four toranas, or gateways, placed precisely at the cardinal points (north, south, east, and west). Each torana is carved depicting stories from the Buddha’s multiple lives. While the Buddha himself is not depicted figurally, signs and symbols indicate his presence, such as footsteps, throne, or wheel. This is because Buddha did not wish for his image to be worshipped, but instead for followers to meditate on his teachings. However, sculpture of the Buddha becomes common in later periods.

Pilgrims to the Great Stupa enter through the east torana and circle the mound in a clockwise direction, mimicking the path of the sun.  Each cardinal direction symbolizes important moments in Buddha’s life: Buddha’s birth (east), Enlightenment (south), First Sermon (west), and Nirvana (north). The purpose of circumambulation is to meditate on the lives and teachings of the Buddha, and to walk in the teacher’s steps. The stupa and its surroundings are meant to be a mandala, a three-dimensional recreation of the universe, and the central spike symbolizes the axis through the earth’s center around which the universe revolves. Just as the universe is hard to imagine, so too is Enlightenment.

Kandariya Mahadeva is part of a large Hindu temple complex in Khajuraho, India. Kandariya Mahadeva (one hundred and two feet high) faces east, towards the direction of the setting sun. The site and temple are dedicated to Shiva, the creator and destroyer of the universe, and many aspects of the temple signify the harmony created by the unification of opposite elements (Shiva represents birth and death, male and female, fire and water). For example, the sculpture that covers the exterior of the temple is made up of sensual and erotic scenes that represent the universal harmony created by the joining of male and female and the dance of life. All the site’s temples have dynamic and intricate sculptures carved on their exteriors and are structured to represent cosmic mountains (shikhara) reaching towards the sky. In this way, they represent the home of the gods and the site of creation, Mount Meru.

Most Indian temples include a central shrine with a statue of the god to whom the temple is dedicated. Kandariya Mahadeva has three sanctuaries, including a small shrine dedicated to Shiva, a shrine dedicated to Shiva’s wife, Parvati, and a central sanctuary that houses a large phallic that is symbolic of Shiva (Shiva Linga). Visitors circle the exterior of the temple before entering the very small shrines within. This difference in size between the telescoping exterior and the confining interior are another example of opposing elements in Hinduism that complement and enhance one another.  The many sculptures on the exterior grab the pilgrim’s attention, and the contrasting simplicity of the interior enhances the pilgrim’s ability to mediate in the shrines.

Ise Jingū (Temple/Shrine of Ise) in Japan is a site that demonstrates the reverence of nature to those who practice Shinto. The site itself is a complex of one-hundred and twenty-five shrines built to worship spirits in nature, called kami, most importantly the sun goddess Amataerasu Omikami. This goddess has also been worshiped as the ancestral kami of the imperial family and so, was originally worshipped at the site of the imperial palace.  Around 0-50 AD, however, Princess Yamato began searching for a new site to worship the goddess and when she came upon the region of Ise, the goddess was said to have appeared to the princess and said, “It is a secluded and pleasant land. In this land I wish to dwell.”

Ise Jingū is a complex site that that is made up of a large number of Shinto shrines centered on two main shrines, Naiku and Geku. The goddess’s Yata no Kagami (Sacred Mirror) is housed within the Shrine of Naiku, which is one of the greatest treasures of Japan and represents divine support of the royal family. Mirrors symbolized truth in ancient Japan and the Yata no Kagami also signifies wisdom. The chief priest or priestess who has guarded and cared for the site over the centuries has always been a member of the imperial family.

Two equally-sized adjacent plots, one to the east and one to the west, are used alternately to rebuild the primary shrine of Naiku every twenty years; this ritual last took place in 2013. Japanese cypress trees that grow in the region are used to build a new shrine adjacent to the previous shrine while the old shrine is taken apart; this process signifies the destruction and regeneration of nature. When the old shrine is completely taken down, a “heart pillar” is buried to mark the central spot where the next shrine will be built and the plot of land is covered with white rocks. The new shrine is built almost identically to the one that began the ritual of rebuilding in 690 AD. The shrine is thirty-five by eighteen feet, with the long southern side containing the entrance. The building is raised to preserve the wood for the next twenty years and a veranda encircles the entirety of the shrine. The temple’s structure consists of cypress trees used as beams that rest on free-standing columns and a pitched roof made of thatched reed. Festivals are held throughout the year at the shrine to pray for and celebrate rain and harvests, but only a member of the imperial family may enter the shrine.

Sites built for monotheistic religions

The Cathedral of Chartres (southwest of Paris) shows the development of the Gothic style, as architects utilized flying buttresses and rib vaults to achieve unprecedented height, bringing the people, both figuratively and literally, closer to heaven. Cathedrals often have a special Saint whom they venerate, determined by the history of the town and the cathedral’s relics. Christian pilgrims would travel to different cathedrals, including Chartes, to view and pray to these various relics. Chartres was built over a spring thought to have sacred healing powers in ancient times and owns part of the tunic believed to be worn by Mary at the time of Christ’s birth, giving Chartres a long history of worship to the Virgin Mary. When the tunic survived a great fire of 1194, which destroyed all but the west façade of the cathedral, the townspeople believed this to be a sign that Mary continued to protect them and wanted them to rebuild.

Rose windows, such as the ones found at Chartes, are deeply integrated into the symbolism of Mary. For example, stained glass was often used as a metaphor in literature and art for the Immaculate Conception; that is, just as light passes through glass and enters the great cathedral without breaking the glass, the Holy Spirit entered into Mary while still preserving her virginity. Stained glass windows is an innovation of the Gothic period.  When building the Abbey Church of St. Denis in Paris, Abbot Suger spoke of bathing the church in divine light through the use of stained glass windows that depicted biblical stories. Pioneering flying buttresses and rib vaults allowed for thinner walls and the ability to use substantial stained glass in place of walls. The North Transept rose window in Chartres is an example of the complex iconography of many stained glass windows. The rose window shows the Virgin and Child Enthroned in the center surrounded by angels, kings (in the squares), and prophets in the outermost scenes.  Below are five lancets; the central one shows Saint Anne enthroned with the infant Mary, and below them is the coat of arms of the House of France.

The floor plan of all Gothic cathedrals is the shape of a (Latin) cross, symbolizing the crucifixion.  The congregation enters through a portal at the foot of the cross and walks down the nave towards the altar. Cathedrals are also commonly oriented so that the altar is placed on the east end, symbolizing the resurrection of Christ, to allow morning services to face the rising sun. The congregation then exits to the west, where scenes of the Last Judgment, designed to remind followers of Christ’s sacrifice and their duties as Christians, are usually found on the western facade. The journey of pilgrims is symbolized by an intricate labyrinth on the floor of the Chartres, which people follow while saying prayers.

The Great Mosque of Isfahan (Masjid-I-Jami) in modern Iran was begun in the late eighth century AD and has had numerous additions even into the twentieth century. Mosques all have certain architectural elements in common: each is designed to support and guide prayer towards Mecca five times per day. Mecca is significant to Muslims for several reasons. The prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca around 570, and it is the site of the Kaaba, a large, black, cube-shaped building built by Abraham for God. While many other sacred spaces are oriented in relation to the cardinal directions, Muslims are concerned with the direction of Mecca. Tall towers surround most mosques and are/were used to call the townspeople to prayer. Within each mosque is a prayer niche, called a mihrab, which is placed on the wall that faces towards Mecca and thus, the faithful know the direction of Mecca if they are in a mosque anywhere in the world. Pools and sources of water often surround a mosque so that worshippers may cleanse before entering.

The Isfahan Mosque is known particularly for its four iwans (entrances or gateways), richly decorated in complex architectural forms reminiscent of honeycombs (muqarnas). Within the mosque are two domes, one of which is engulfed in an exquisite gold maqarnas design. The interior decoration, often made with glazed tiles, is covered with abstract floral designs and script from the Koran, the sacred text for Muslims that records the word of Allah as told to the prophet Muhammad. Islamic art never depicts the figure of God so as to discourage the worship of idols rather than worship of Allah.  While humans are depicted in some Islamic art, they will not be found in the holy space of a mosque.

Sites sacred or spiritual to multiple religions

At times due to the location of a work of architecture or due to changes of power within a region, worshippers of more than one religion share a sacred space. The reuse or altering of a sacred space multiple religions can be either harmonious or controversial. For example, the Parthenon was utilized as a Christian church in the sixth century; the entrance to the temple was moved to the west (from the east) and the eastern portion was used for an altar.  In 1456, the Ottoman Turks invaded Athens and the Parthenon was turned into a mosque by the end of the century.

Consider the three examples discussed below in terms of their ability to be universal sacred spaces—or spaces in which more than one religion can be practiced.  The Dome of the Rock affords a unique opportunity to discuss how people of different religions have had to coexist because of the incredibly sacred nature of a site. Hagia Sophia is another example of a religious site whose religious importance and use has changed over time. The Rothko Chapel is an example of a sacred space designed to welcome people of any religion.

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is built on a site (Temple Mount) that is sacred to Jews, Muslims, and Christians. The gilded domed octagonal structure was built to surround a large rock called the Foundation Stone, which Jews believe is the site of the beginning of the world and Muslims believe is the rock from which Muhammad ascended to heaven. To Jews and Christians, this site is also thought to be the place where Adam was created and where Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son. It is important to emphasize that although the Dome of the Rock is a sacred space that Muslims visit, it is not a mosque, but a shrine. The Dome of the Rock was completed in 692 under the Islamic ruler Abd al-Malik, but one can see clear Byzantine influences in the mosaics that decorate the building the exterior of the building. Similar to central planned churches created in the Byzantine period, the height and diameter of the dome, and the length of each of the walls is sixty-seven feet in order to create proportional harmony and balance. In 1993, King Hussein of Jordan donated eight million dollars of his own money to gild the aluminum dome with gold. On the interior, verses from the Koran surround the rock that pilgrims read as they circle it. Only Muslims are allowed within the Dome of the Rock, non-Muslims are restricted to the Temple Mound outside of the building at select times.

Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) was built during the Byzantine Empire under Emperor Justinian as a place of Christian worship. It was revolutionary for its central dome, which, at one hundred and eighty feet from the ground, was the largest built during its time. Forty windows encircle the base of the dome and when light shines through the windows, it seem as if the dome is floating. Christian and imperial-subject mosaics covered the walls, including a Pantokrater (image of Christ) in the center of the dome. Some of these artworks were whitewashed during the Iconoclastic Controversy in the eighth and ninth centuries to prevent worship of idolatry.

Hagia Sophia was changed into a mosque in 1453, following Fatih Sultan’s Mehmed’s conquer of the city. Over the next several centuries, some Christian scenes were painted and plastered over, and writings from the Koran were painted on the walls. A mihrab, minbar (pulpit in a mosque), and four minarets were added. The colossal circular panels, called panes, with large calligraphic writing, were added from 1847-49. Today, although the site is still considered sacred to many, one of its main purposes is as a museum.

The Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, was designed as a sacred space open to people of all belief systems. The interior of the octagonal shaped chapel is covered with fourteen paintings by Mark Rothko for the space, meant to inspire contemplation and meditation. The rectangular painted panels, half black on a maroon background and half ranges of dark purple, are extremely large in scale, and triptychs hang on three of the walls. The exterior of the building is the shape of an even-sided Greek cross. Outside of the chapel is a reflecting pool with a seemingly precariously sculpture entitled Broken Obelisks, made by Barnett Newman in 1967. Dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr., Newman’s artwork helps to highlight that the Rothko Chapel is also a site that promotes human rights issues.

At the End of Class...

Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, Near Mexico City, 150-225 AD.

To emphasize the similar aspects of these spaces, discuss some of the following questions. Several of these questions directly address the themes introduced at the beginning of the lecture and initiate comparisons between the architectural works above:

  • How do pilgrims or visitors to these sites experience the space? It what ways are they guided in their religious practice by the architectural design?
  • How are images or relics of gods and goddesses incorporated into each of these sacred spaces? Were the wishes of a spiritual being considered in the making of any of these artworks?
  • Consider the involvement of rulers in the development of sacred spaces. Discuss the motivations for a ruler to spend their wealth and power on the building and enhancement of sacred spaces.
  • How is each sacred space designed to harmonize with nature? Consider any correspondences with the cardinal directions and the sites relationship to the heavens, including the sun.
  • How is symbolism used within each of these structures? Consider geometry and important objects. From 1801-1805, the Parthenon Marbles were taken to London by British Ambassador Lord Elgin, who was given permission by the Turks then in control of Athens. Controversy exists today regarding whether these marbles, which still remain in England—should they be returned to Greece? Share this with your students and have them consider whether objects lose some of their meaning when removed from the sacred space for which they were made.
  • Compare aspects of two or more sacred spaces that were not made for the same religion/s. For example, at the Parthenon, Chartres, and Ise, the female that was worshipped requested a building or rebuilding of a sacred space at that specific site. Compare each story, consider the similarities and differences, and why such stories are common in the building of sacred spaces.

In addition, students could imagine and discuss the design of a universal sacred space, or a space in which people of more than one belief system could practice their religion or spiritual practice. As students consider this exercise, many will find this an impossible challenge. Based on the information they have gathered on these sacred spaces, have them explain why. Most students will realize that the greatest challenge derives from the need for worship of a single god in many religions. Therefore, many of the solutions students suggest will be either a space that is somewhat like a flower, wherein each petal is a private space for each religion, or instead, a more neutral building that is very much integrated with nature with few references to specific religious symbols or relics.

Debra DeWitte (Author) is coauthor of Gateways to Art: Introduction to the Visual Arts, published by Thames & Hudson (2011 & 2015). Her research focuses on nineteenth-century drawings, their exhibition, and their reception. She is currently a PhD candidate at University of Texas at Dallas.

Amy Raffel (editor) is a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. She has a Master’s degree in Contemporary Art history from the Institute of Fine Arts (NYU) and has taught Introduction to Modern Art as a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Lehman College since 2010. Currently, Amy is a genome contributor for Artsy and editor and contributor of Art History Teaching Resources.