Tuesday, January 31, 2006


"Would you call that a steeple or a tower?"

While driving through the city, my sister and I were seeing tall, pointed steeples; short, square towers or stubbs of steeples and everything in between. There seemed to be no standard. The topic arose because I had pointed out that small churches, built in the last 50 years, often have the vestige of a steeple on the roof; a little, silly, pointy cap, intended to identify the structure as a church. Larger, modern churches sometimes have a sculptural structure, not necessarily rising from the roof, which serves as a bell tower. My sister commented that she'd like to survey all the churches in one area and photograph those that had "real steeples". But what IS a real steeple?

The Oxford English Dictionary definition: A lofty tower forming part of a church, temple, or other public edifice (often serving to contain bells); such a tower, together with a spire or other superstructure by which it is surmounted.

The word, steeple, comes from the old English word "staup" which (not surprisingly) means "steep". Architecturally, a steeple is defined as having three parts: the base (often a squat, square tower), a spire, which is the tall, pointed part, and a cupola which connects the two, and which often serves as the belfry. So what we thought of as a "real steeple" is actually the spire. It's not unusual in north-western Ohio, where we were driving, to see county churches with only the base of a steeple. It's a good bet that there was once a spire. It may have deteriorated or been blown down, and proved too expensive to repair or replace.

In the days when the church spire was the tallest structure around, it served as a landmark, a marker for getting oriented geographically. It was also a watch tower and a signal tower, a la Paul Revere. A steeple-chase was originally a race on horseback, across the countryside to a distant steeple, overcoming all the obstacles in between. The term, steeple, can be applied to anything that has a tall, pointed shape.

So what IS a real steeple? That's up to the beholder. But my definition would include a tall, narrow spire, architecturally integrated into the roof a church, and preferably containing bells.


Post a Comment

<< Home