The World's Greatest Churches

Course No. 7842
Professor William R. Cook, Ph.D.
State University of New York, Geneseo
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Course Overview

The great churches of Christianity represent some of the world’s most stunning masterpieces of architecture and art.

  • Built by a Byzantine emperor, Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia is an architectural space of overwhelming grandeur, emblazoned with colored marbles and sublime golden mosaics.
  • The monumental Cathedral of Siena boasts massive pictorial floor decoration; the Maestà altarpiece by Duccio; and sculpture by Michelangelo, Bernini, and Donatello.
  • Dreamlike and otherworldly, Gaudí’s Sagrada Família in Barcelona soars toward the heavens, fashioned inside and out as a single, vast spiritual artwork.

But artistic stature is only one measure of the significance of the great Christian churches. In their essential religious role, the buildings themselves instruct, edify, and inspire the communities that worship in them, using iconography, symbolism, and the language of architecture as ultimate expressions of faith.

  • The decoration of Georgia’s Cathedral of Nikortsminda, one of the world’s most glorious religious buildings, unfurls a resplendent theological vision of Old Testament stories, ecstatic angels, and multiple representations of Christ incarnate.
  • The iconography of Chartres Cathedral, apogee of the Gothic style, is a handbook of medieval Christian spirituality written in elaborate carved stone and stained glass.
  • The remarkable Wieskirche of Bavaria uses the carefully calibrated symbolism of its Rococo decoration to teach spiritual lessons of forgiveness, penance, and reconciliation.

In all eras, the masterworks of church building have been focal points for communities, cultures, and nations. A familiarity with the greatest of Christianity’s churches and cathedrals offers you:

  • knowledge of an astonishing spectrum of world treasures of art and architecture;
  • understanding of the symbolism and theology behind these buildings, and how they instruct Christians in living the values of the faith;
  • significant insight into how different cultures adapt the concept of a Christian house of worship to their own ways of expression;
  • comprehension of the political, economic, and intellectual importance of churches; and
  • a deep look into one of humanity’s most important religious and cultural traditions, as it has developed across two millennia and spread across the globe.

In the 24 visually dazzling lectures of The World’s Greatest Churches, Great Courses favorite Professor William R. Cook of the State University of New York at Geneseo takes on the full scope of this compelling subject, leading you in a detailed guided tour of the churches and cathedrals that he, as a celebrated Christian historian and medievalist, considers to be among the most outstanding, memorable, and meaningful in the world.

Beginning in the Holy Land, you’ll travel the globe to find the jewels of this tradition, visiting not only preeminent churches in Western and Eastern Europe, but also in Africa, the Middle East, the Americas, and East Asia. In all, you’ll study churches in 19 countries, spanning 5 continents, in a survey encompassing a range from the grandest metropolitan cathedrals to less-known gems such as the stave churches or Norway, pilgrimage shrines of Latin America, and the mysterious cave churches of Turkish Cappadocia. Lavishly illustrated with breathtaking photos, detailed floor plans, and 3-D models, these lectures take you deeply into the culture and theology of a global faith through its most important and magnificent buildings.

Encounter a Globe-Spanning Tradition

Of central importance within the course’s narrative, you’ll explore the flowering of church building in European Christendom. This area of the inquiry takes you from the Renaissance grandeur of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to Western Europe’s foremost Gothic cathedrals to exquisite churches of Russia, Armenia, and Georgia. High points include Sicily’s Cathedral of Monreale, with decorative richness and superlative narrative mosaics that place it among the world’s most beautiful church interiors.

You’ll also discover a strikingly diverse range of churches across the world, such as

  • Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre—Within this icon of early Christian history, visit the church’s multiple chapels marking the Stations of the Cross. Also view the “aedicule,” believed to be the actual site of Jesus’s burial and resurrection.
  • The Painted Churches of RomaniaUnique in the Christian world, the churches of Romanian Moldavia are richly decorated with frescoes on both their interiors and exteriors. Study the phenomenal exterior paintings, their theological themes, and the churches’ dramatic and sumptuous interior decoration.
  • The Rock-Hewn Churches of EthiopiaAn extraordinary wonder of architecture, the churches of Ethiopia’s Lalibela are each carved entirely from a single piece of rock. Learn how these churches were carved down into the rock from the top, creating illusory “vaults” and “columns,” and study their mysterious religious artworks.
  • La Compañía in Quito, Ecuador—Among Christian spaces in the New World, explore La Compañía’s ornately sculpted façade, imposing Spanish Baroque details, and shimmering golden interior, which exemplify the glories of Latin American church building.
  • Iceland’s Hallgrímskirkja—Experience how the architecture and décor of this starkly beautiful modernist church evokes the geology of the Icelandic landscape, and expresses the ethos of Lutheranism and Christian values of humble adoration and simplicity.

Discover the Rich Meanings of Christian Architecture

A historian, scholar, and award-winning teacher who has traveled extensively and studied Christianity throughout the world, Professor Cook is ideally qualified as your guide on this unique journey into faith, art, and history. Through his enthralling commentary, and nearly 2,000 vivid photos he personally shot, you’ll learn how to observe and interpret the theological meanings of Christian churches through careful attention to details of their architecture and art.

In the majestic pilgrimage church of Sainte-Foy in France, you’ll study the key theological lessons aimed at pilgrims, depicted in the elaborate carvings on its façade. In the Bavarian Wieskirche, you’ll see how each element of the church’s decoration, from its symbolic color scheme to its narratives of Jesus and imagery of the Prodigal Son, illustrates themes of repentance and forgiveness. And you’ll grasp how the elegant simplicity of a Quaker meetinghouse speaks deeply of the values of Quaker spirituality.

You’ll also study how widely differing cultures have adapted the concept and building type of a church to their own contexts and experience. In the fascinating cave churches of Turkish Cappadocia, you’ll see how the concept of a Christian sacred space was modeled by a lineage of hermetic monks who carved their churches into the sides of mountains, adorning them with richly expressive frescoes. At the great shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, you’ll learn how one of the world’s most important pilgrimage centers was founded on a local peasant’s extraordinary visions of the Virgin Mary. And you’ll observe how Korean architect Kim Swoo Geun built great churches that reflect Christian faith and meaning in a culture far from our own.

In The World’s Greatest Churches, you’ll come to understand the architecture, art, and theology of some of the world’s most beautiful buildings, as they express Christian spirituality across an astounding range of cultures and periods. Join a brilliant historian of Christianity in discovering these architectural masterworks that rank among the most revered, most beloved, and most iconic buildings of world civilization.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    The Earliest Churches
    Begin by considering what defines a church, encompassing both its religious uses and its functions as a place of assembly. Learn how the first churches came into being, based architecturally on the secular pagan “basilica.” Study some of the best surviving basilica-type churches in Italy, noting their structural features and their remarkable mosaic decoration. x
  • 2
    The Church of the Holy Sepulchre
    In visiting this iconic church of the Holy Land, trace the history of the building and of the medieval reconstruction we see today. Study the church’s unusual structure, incorporating the “aedicule” believed to be the site of Jesus’s burial and resurrection, as well as individual chapels reflecting events of the passion of Christ. x
  • 3
    Hagia Sophia
    Learn about the dramatic past of this jewel of Constantinople, which served as a church for 1,000 years before becoming a mosque. Discover one of the world’s most extraordinary architectural spaces, highlighting its awe-inspiring dome and grand interiors. Also linger over its superlative mosaics, carved columns, and decoration in colored marbles. x
  • 4
    The Cave Churches of Cappadocia
    Here, ponder the highly unusual churches of Turkish Cappadocia, elaborately carved into the sides of mountains within a mysterious and otherworldly landscape. Glimpse the lives of the monks and hermits who lived here, and study the churches’ astonishing frescoes that richly illustrate biblical scenes and the life of Jesus. x
  • 5
    Great Churches of Russia
    Discover the extraordinary beauties of the churches of the Russian Orthodox tradition. Learn about the religious culture that inspired these structures, with their characteristic gilded domes and striking decoration of sculpture, frescoes, and tile work. Visit outstanding cathedrals in Vladimir, Suzdal, and Yaroslavl, as well as the Kremlin churches of Moscow. x
  • 6
    The Painted Churches of Romania
    The churches of Romanian Moldavia, unique in the world, are richly adorned with frescoes both inside and outside. Explore examples of the extraordinary exterior paintings, noting how narrative themes are consistent on north, west, east, and south-facing walls. Study the three-room church interiors, and the frescoes’ remarkable range of religious themes. x
  • 7
    The Churches of Armenia
    This lecture takes you deeply into the Armenian artistic heritage of Christianity. In visits to a spectrum of beautiful churches and monasteries, encounter the rich detail and ornate elaboration of stone carving depicting religious iconography, as well as architectural traditions such as unusual vaulted domes and “khachkars” (free-standing stone monuments). x
  • 8
    The Churches of Georgia
    Continue with the superlative decoration of the historic churches of Georgia. In Mtskheta, Santavro, and Ruisi, study exterior stone carvings evoking striking Christian imagery. Delve into the extraordinary theological vision and stunning frescoes of the Ateni Sioni church, the cathedral of Nikortsminda, and the World Heritage site of Gelati. x
  • 9
    The Rock-Hewn Churches of Ethiopia
    Visit the monolithic churches of Lalibela, each completely carved from a single piece of rock, creating the illusion of columns and vaulted ceilings. Study their mysterious architectural details and their interior artworks, rich with religious symbolism, and learn about Ethiopia’s links to the Old and New Testaments. x
  • 10
    The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba
    Contemplate the remarkable history of this hybrid religious structure, a medieval cathedral built entirely within a majestic former mosque. Explore the striking Islamic archways and scalloped dome, leading to the Renaissance/Gothic cathedral with its imposing vaulting, sumptuous decoration, and monumental wood-carved choir—a compelling and unforgettable juxtaposition of cultures. x
  • 11
    The Stave Churches of Norway
    Journey to the picturesque landscapes of rural Norway, which are home to a unique tradition of wooden churches dating from the 12th century. Study the complex, multi-tiered construction of the churches, featuring intricate carving, painted sculpture, and a strikingly beautiful blending of indigenous Norwegian decoration and medieval Christian art. x
  • 12
    The Pilgrimage Church of Sainte-Foy
    Walk in the shoes of pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela in this visit to the magnificent church at Conques. View the bejeweled reliquary of the martyred Sainte Foy, pause to appreciate soaring Romanesque vaulting and extraordinary carved capitals, and decipher the imagery of the superlative tympanum that vividly dramatizes the Last Judgment. x
  • 13
    The Cathedral of Monreale
    Uncover the cosmopolitan character of this beloved Sicilian cathedral that encompasses Muslim, Byzantine, French, Italian, and Jewish influences. Delve into the remarkable decoration of the great cloisters, 12th-century doors, and above all the cathedral’s ceiling and sublime narrative mosaics, comprising one of the world’s most beautiful church interiors. x
  • 14
    Chartres Cathedral
    This grand edifice is widely considered the most outstanding cathedral of the Gothic style. Look deeply into its huge and complex decorative scheme, highlighting the explosion of biblical sculpture on the façade and side porches, and the masterful stained-glass rose and lancet windows, a richly detailed view into medieval life and theology. x
  • 15
    Winchester Cathedral
    Winchester Cathedral stands as a virtual handbook of later medieval architecture, blending decorative elements of extraordinary beauty and rarity. In particular, study the breathtakingly ornate “fan” vaulting, uniquely important tombs, rare medieval frescoes and woodcarving, and the spectacular illuminated pages of the Winchester Bible. x
  • 16
    The Cathedral of Siena
    Discover how Siena's wondrous cathedral, in its construction and decoration, reflects the civic pride and history of the Sienese. Explore masterpieces of Renaissance and Baroque art, from the elaborate, inscribed marble floor and Duccio altarpiece to sculpture by Michelangelo and Bernini, and the phenomenal carved pulpit by Nicola Pisano. x
  • 17
    St. Peters Basilica
    Experience the splendor of the world’s largest church and the seat of the papacy, among the most iconic creations of the Christian world. Trace the history of the complex as you take in the resplendent dome by Michelangelo and the Renaissance grandeur of statuary, monuments, papal tombs, and the grand baldacchino by Bernini. x
  • 18
    The Wieskirche in Bavaria
    This dazzling church in southern Germany embodies the joyful exuberance of the Rococo style. In studying its almost overwhelming decoration of florid ornamentation, lyrical paintings, and animated statuary, observe how the detailed symbolism of the artworks ingeniously expresses the church’s themes of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. x
  • 19
    La Compania and Las Lajas Sanctuary
    In this first look at New World churches, visit the Spanish Baroque “La Compañía” in Quito, Ecuador. Study the elaborately sculpted façade, the stunning golden interior, and the profusion of sumptuous artworks. Also encounter the remarkable Las Lajas, a neo-Gothic pilgrimage church built to enclose a cave painting of the Virgin Mary. x
  • 20
    Guadalupe and the Cathedral of Mexico City
    Journey to one of the most important pilgrimage centers in the world, the Mexican shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, followed by Mexico City’s great metropolitan Cathedral. At both sites, observe how the buildings’ construction, art, and iconography vividly convey the mixture of Christian, indigenous, and Spanish cultures in the New World. x
  • 21
    Four Great American Churches
    On our own soil, explore two classic churches of the New England tradition, whose characteristic features form part of the American landscape. Then observe how the elegant simplicity of a Quaker meeting house embodies Quaker values, and how the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. expresses both its Anglican roots and a distinctly American character. x
  • 22
    La Sagrada Familia
    This spellbinding creation by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí interprets the Gothic cathedral through Gaudí’s visionary, modernist style. Study the striking sculpted decoration of the exterior portals, the dreamlike interior with its columns fashioned as stylized trees, and the powerful Christian iconography of this unique melding of the traditional and the radically new. x
  • 23
    Icelands Hallgrimskirkja
    Discover how the dramatic exterior of this contemporary basilical church reflects the geological features of the Icelandic landscape. Investigate the themes of the church’s decoration, as they express the Passion-centered character of Lutheranism, the stark beauty of Iceland, and a Christian spirituality based in simplicity and humble devotion. x
  • 24
    Two Churches in Seoul, Korea
    In the final leg of your journey, grasp how Korean architect Kim Swoo Geun blended elements of Buddhist temples, modern Western architecture, universal church practices, and Korean Christian history to create beautiful and meaningful Christian spaces. Conclude with reflections on the diversity, cultural adaptations, and ultimate universality of the great buildings you’ve studied. x

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  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 192-page printed course guidebook
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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 192-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

William R. Cook

About Your Professor

William R. Cook, Ph.D.
State University of New York, Geneseo
Dr. William R. Cook is the Distinguished Teaching Professor of History at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he has taught since 1970. He earned his bachelor's degree cum laude from Wabash College and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa there. He was then awarded Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Lehman fellowships to study medieval history at Cornell University, where he earned his Ph.D. Professor Cook teaches courses...
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Reviews

The World's Greatest Churches is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 70.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Amazing diverse architecture I'm only part way through this course. I've done a number of them before and so far this is easily my favorite BY FAR. I had done the professor's other course on the Gothic Cathedral and found his presentation clear, well delivered and most importantly dynamic. This course is extremely interesting because of the unbelievable diversity of the architecture ! It's really amazing.
Date published: 2019-06-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great entertainment and education I bought this course having watched the Cathedrals course ans enjoyed it. Cook's depth of knowledge and his enthusiastic presentation is very engaging and the graphics and photography are beautiful. As well as being educative this is a thoroughly entertaining experience and recommended to all ages and all levels of learning.
Date published: 2019-05-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding This was an excellent video course, and I thoroughly enjoyed every lecture. The professor is a compelling speaker, has expert knowledge, and provides outstanding photographic documentation of the churches. Apparently he is also an accomplished photographer, because many of the pictures he took himself. In my opinion, he has an excellent, relazed presentation style that is conversational in nature. He is fun to listen to, his photographs are excellent, and I really liked everyting about the course.
Date published: 2019-03-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful The lecturer was really engaged in the subject. Especially enjoyed the lessons on Armenia and Georgia.
Date published: 2019-02-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding video You must view the appropriate lectures before you visit any of the churches described in this course. The photos are spectacular along with the explanation of each one. For the non-traveler, this course is a great substitute for actually being at the sites. In fact, I have visited some of these churches and now wish I had seen the lecture on those churches prior to my visits. I would have appreciated what I was seeing much more.
Date published: 2019-01-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from It's a great course on the structures of churches I thoroughly enjoyed this course as it enabled me to see and explore churches that I wouldn't have otherwise never knew existed and I enjoyed the simple chimney style churches as well as the cathedrals... I just wish it could have been a long series or at the very least have two parts.
Date published: 2019-01-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great summary of some great churches The professor provides an enthusiastic look at numerous old churches. He concentrates on the Gothic style, while including great old structures, could have been expanded to more on other styles, including some more modern. The professor is quite animated which adds to the enjoyment of the presentations. The series uses the older Great Courses technique of a lectern rather than teleprompter, which also adds to the natural feeling of the lectures.
Date published: 2018-12-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great material and photos This has fascinating material and such a great variety of churches! Love the photos and the architectural and historical discussion as well as learning the liturgical names of places and features. I look forward to each lecture and am not disappointed. I will have to say the professor needs to vary his inflection a bit because he sounds over-the-top about everything. But he is very well versed and his excitement can be contagious. He mixes in just enough of the religious aspect to give that dimension, which would be unfinished if left out. I an totally enjoying this one!
Date published: 2018-10-13
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