Churches which were considered as scared places have been built to express the feelings, needs of the human to have a special and unique place to worship and pray for their God.
Although the Churches in Sri Lanka have not any uniform pattern of Architectural design, they still remain unique and distinct, and different from each other, but all of them have the common features such as alter, sanctuary, dome,belfry and crucifix.
Roman Catholicism was the first religion introduced to Sri Lanka by the western nations.When the Portuguese brought this new faith, Buddhism was the prevailing main religion of the Island and the religious architectural patterns reflected the concepts of Buddhism. Therefore there was a great necessity to introduce a different and distinct type of architectural structure for their house of prayer.
Due to the war and revolts of that period churches were seriously damaged and sometimes completely destroyed. It is a disadvantage for studies that archaeologically it is not possible to locate any one of Portuguese churches at present.
However according to the remaining historical documentary evidence the first Church built was the temporary structure set up to hold Mass when Lourenco de Almeida landed in Colombo which was dedicated to St. Lawrence.
These preliminary churches were open type structures with cadjan or straw thatched roofs, mud huts constructed with timber having an open hall with an Alter at one end with a cross at the top of the church building.
However these structures gradually gave way to more elaborated constructions which were rectangular in form and of a great height with magnificent facade and square or rectangular large number of windows. They were mainly in two types of constructions, one of the colonnade types with a central nave supported by columns and the other the open hall type. Many churches also had a belfry or a special place for a bell, which was an invitation to prayer, a signal for the congregation to gather.
During the period of Dutch colonial Protestant Oder the Catholic faith was not recognized by them,however after about six years when the British administration came to power the Governor of Ceylon gave full emancipation topriests who were belonged to the Roman Catholic faith and the right to exercise of their religion.
Thereafter the Catholic community gave financial support and labour to build churches. It is said to be that the St. James Church Mutwal is one of such kind of constructions. The land for the Church was gifted and the whole parishioners participated in the construction.
Most of the Churches built during these period imitated abroad styles based on columns of Corinthian architecture, the Greek pillars or the combined patterns of Roman Churches. The Bona Morte Church in Hultsdrof and St. Anne’s Church in Navagamuwa are the examples for the both features of Portuguese architecture and the Dutch influence. The colonnade type of the central wooden pillars isfrom Portuguese architecture while the introduction of verandah with number of windows was a concept of Dutch.
Many of other churches depicts the designs which werepopulated in Europe, the prominent Gothic style at All Saints Church Borella, the Fatima Church Maradana imitate the cathedrals in France, St. Lucia’s Cathedral in Kotahena on the design of the Basilica of Rome.
After the second half of the 20thcentury, there can be seen Churches using traditional Sri Lankan motifs such as lotus shaped pot of plenty at Philip Neri’s Church Katukurunda, and arch style (“Thorana”)and the roof of the belfry constructed according to the architectural style of the Kandyan era at the Church of the Holy Rosary Badalgama. At the entrance of some churches there can be seen even the carved moonstones.
The pot of plenty (“Punkalasa”) which is carved delicately, filled with lotus flowers and leaves which are on the either side of the main door at Philip Neri’s Church Katukurunda.
While the arch depicting the shape of the Arch of Dragon the steeple in front and the tower at the back take the shape of the roof or the “paththiruppuwa” of the temple of Tooth Relic.
The Church of the Holy Rosary Badalgama and at the entrance there can be seen a carved moonstone.
The earlier pillared interiors of the Church are shifted to the open spaces from where the congregation could see the Altars.There are several designs of shapes like octagon, hexagon and circular shapehave been introduced to reduce the wastage caused by rectangular corners. The circular shape is seen in the Church of Scared Heart in Rajagiriya and St. Joseph’s Church Kanuwana.
While the architecture and designs were modifying to the social and cultural needs of the community of the country, Catholic art forms were changing. Most of the stain glass windows of the Churches which built in early 20thCentury were designed and imported from France. All Saints Church Borella, St. Anthony’s Church Kollupitiya, Our Lady of Snows Periyamulla and St. Mary’s Church Bambalapitiya have exquisite stained glass windows. However due to high cost of stained glass windows, the newly constructed Church of St. Joshep’s at Kanuwana, has skillfully created an innovation of glass paintings.
The artists too have been innovative and are attuning themselves to the social and cultural needs with the concepts and the designs familiar to the community.
The earlier paintings of the Church of St. Marys Grand Street Negambo and St. James Church Mutwal were very similar to the European style and can be identified as a reproduction of European traditional Christian paintings. However the famous artists Richard Gabriel and David Paynter have changed the conventional pattern of Christian art in to a very attractive and creative manner with a unique modern theme in their paintings. This could be seen in the paintings of the Sacred Heart chapel at Archbishop’s house by Rev. Fr. Priyantha Silva.
Although at the inception the tabernacle placed within the alter itself symbolic of the idea that “God live within the house of prayer”, churches nowadays develop new concept that tabernacle is isolated and occupies a central position without alter support.
The Wolvendaal Church is the oldest Protestant Church in Sri Lanka and is a living edifice of Dutch colonial architecture as well as an outstanding example of combination of two cultures and traditions of Dutch and the Sri Lankan.
The church was constructed in the Doric style and the foundation takes the shape of a Greek cross. The walls of the building are in nearly five feet thick and constructed out of local material of “kabook” with lime mud and coral plaster. Certainly they would have obtained the instructions and the technical skills of Dutch Engineers.
The dome was originally arched with brick and there was a brazen lion which had a crown on its head, holding a sword in one hand and seven arrows in the other hand, representing the seven united provinces of the Dutch Republic.
Due to the destruction occurred in 1856 as a result of lighting, the original dome and the lion have been seriously damaged. Thereafter the roof was replaced with an iron covering which served the building well.
There are many mural tablets on the walls of the Church and can be seen many famous names of Dutch, Burgher, Tamil, Sinhalese and English on the floor which is paved with tombstones of those who lie buried within the church.
St.Marys Grand Street Church Negambo
Painting of on the life of Christ on the ceiling which were done by N.S. Godamanne, a local Buddhist painter
Stained glass window
Inside the Church, where the ceiling is painted with alabaster images of Mary with saints.
St. James Church Mutwal
The painting of “Last Supper”
St.John the Baptists Church Mutwal
St. Lucia’s Cathedral Kotahena
St. Lucia’s Cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Colombo in Sri Lanka which is dedicated to Saint Lucy which traces its origins to a small structure for worship constructed during the Dutch regime.
The statue of Saint Lucy in the inner Alter in between two twisted decorated columns while on the wooden panel over it has written “Only say the word and I shall be healed”
Wooden decorated Cathedral (The chair of the Bishop)
All Saint’s Church Borella
St. Theresa’s Church Nakandapola
St.Theresa’s Church of Thibirigasyaya
These murals are very innovative and there is a strong eastern and especially Sri Lankan indigenous touch in these murals.
The large painting just above the Alter, St. Theresa is shown in glory with the cherubs playing tambourines (“rabana”), dancing with wooden sticks (“Lee Keli”) and blowing the wind instrument called “horanewa” which reflect the typical Sri Lankan instruments.
The Virgin Mary and cherubs have eastern features in these paintings and the creator of these splendid murals, Gabriel has tried to maintain the local identification of this country.
Above this painting there is another painting which depicts the presentation of the holy Rosary to saint Dominic who is the founder of the Order of Dominicans.
The classic paintings connected to the Rosary by Richard Gabriel at St. Theresa’s Church Thimbirigasyaya which depict the fifteen medallions show the fifteen decades of the Rosary.
Richard Don Gabriel
Being a Roman Catholic, Richard Gabriel had a strong Catholic background, and had used his inexhaustible talent to communicate the depth of his faith towards expressing his dedication to the religion.
Gabriel attended St. Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya. St. Peter’s provided him a very liberal education which would have given him an awareness of Sri Lankan’s antiquity and its people dedicated to the teachings of the Buddha. He is not mere a painter only but also skilled at the easel, sculpting in wood and also as a muralist.
Carved magnificent images of ‘The Risen Christ’ (in red satinwood) for the Jesuit chapel in Bambalapitiya, ‘The last supper’ at St. Aloysius’ seminary in Borella, the Madonna and the child Jesus carved for the National Seminary in Ampitiya Kandy, the murals for his parish church Christ the King Church in Pannipitiya and Also the six foot plaster crucifix at the Seminary in Ampitiya are some of his master pieces of religious paintings, murals and sculptures.
He is treated as one of the revolutionist in Catholic Art and he is being treated as a painter who has tried to maintain the local identification of this country in Catholic paintings. The famous paintings at Chapel of the Trinity College Kandy “Washing feet of disciples by Jesus” ,the paintings of ‘Successful return to Jerusalem”, “Burial” and also the painting of “Crucifix of Jesus” which has been painted at the chapel of the St. Thomas College of Mt. Lavenia are some of his valuablecreations.
St. Marys Church Bambalapitiya
This church building is about a century old and it is said to be that the foundation stone of St. Mary’s Church, Bambalapitiya, was laid on 12 July 1908.
There areapproximately eighty six in number some of the finest and most beautiful examples of stained glass windows in the island can be found at St. Mary’s Church in Bambalapitiya and also it is said to be the only church where every window is of stained glass.
Our Lady of Lanka (Thewatta) Basilica
Retreat House Tewatta
Fatima Church of Maradana
The Architecture of the Cathedral, especially the nave and the roof is a combination of architecture of the periods of Polonnaruwa and Kandy, the “Gedige” type brick vaulted image houses of Polonnaruwa and the “Paththiruppuwa” of the Temple of Sacred Tooth Relic of Kandy.
Chaple of Benedict xvi Cultural Institute Boyawalana
The Chapel of the Catholic Training Collage, which has been renovated and transformed in to this newly, constructed Cultural Institute which was recently opened by the name of Pope Benedict xvi. The new concept of lotus flower motif is introduced and molded with wooden crafts. This skilful wood craftsmen who worked for the glory of God is Mr. Raymond Fernando and Mr. Risil Fernando
The ‘Na’ Flower represents the intercession of Mary the Mother of God who was always encouraging her son to go towards the will of Abba Father
The Pelican piercing its own breast and giving its blood to the young pelicans,symbolic of the idea that the Sacrifice of Christwhere the Last Supper of Jesus Christ took place.
The Crown of Thorns symbolize the idea thatthe passion sacrifice and the death of Jesus Christ
The Lotus with eight petals in two layers prefigures the resurrection to come after the death on the cross and
The Lamb of God, with the Flag of Resurrection symbolize the idea that the Christ Our Lord is risen and not dead anymore. It is He who awaits for us in the tabernacle ready to feed us with His sacrificed body and make us partake in the forgiveness and ready to give us free of charge.
The Design of the conventional Sinhalese design ‘DiyaWela’ symbolic of the idea that Blood and Water from the side of the crucified Christ and the two rivers flowing down from the threshold of the temple of Jerusalem
In-cultured painting of three kings visiting the Baby Jesus which depicts the conventional Sri Lankan Kandyan art style.
- Reflections of Faith by Manel Abhayarathna
- Historical Studies by Rev. Fr. S.G. Perera
- “Sanga Lowa Kara” by Rev. Fr. Jayalath Balagalla
- Art of Painting Sri Lanka by Henry Lakshman Silva