What are the roofs over statues called?

Eric asks:

Hi Patrick,

I’m turning to you for an architectural/statuary question. Can you tell me what the structure/canopy found often over the statues of holy people is called?

Statues with baldachins from the west facade of Strasbourg Cathedral. Photo by Coyau / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

In the field of art and architectural history, it often seems like there is a special name for everything, often French in origin to ensure you will always spell it wrong.

As it happens, we are making history today because Eric has discovered an exception to that rule. As far as I know, there isn’t a definitive name for this architectural feature when it specifically houses a statue.

The first thing to note is that the whole structure – including the roof and the floor – can be called a niche. 

But Eric asked about a name for the roof part, and I think there are really two possibilities. The first is a word Eric used in his question: canopy. The second is a related term: baldachin or baldacchino. These are really the same word so use whichever feels more natural and/or elegant.

Fun fact! The word baldacchino derives from Baldacco, the Italian name for Baghdad, Iraq. The city was known for its brocade fabrics, from which many canopies were made.

Both baldachin and canopy are standard church architectural phrases that describe a roof or covering meant to distinguish something important below. Typically we talk about baldachins covering the altar and/or tabernacle, but they can be used to give significance to anything, really.

Baldachins are especially effective aesthetic devices in humongous spaces, because they naturally draw the eye to what is beneath. Think about a huge church like St. Peter’s or the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in D.C. The priest and altar are the most important parts of the whole building, but they’d look like specks compared to the massive surroundings. Baldachins bridge the gap between tiny altar and soaring vaults.

Baldachin at the National Shrine in Washington, D.C. Photo by GryffindorOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

On the outside of a gigantic building – like the photo above from Strasbourg Cathedral – these niches are used to draw importance to statues that might otherwise look comically puny. There are also practical benefits, too, like protection from the elements.

There is also some symbolism involved. In Christian society, we give importance to something by covering it. Think of a bridal veil.

What’s more, we can note that the baldachins over the statues are crafted to echo the design of the church they adorn. This is an intentional choice. The church building is supposed to represent Paradise, the Heavenly Jerusalem, and the location of these statues inside a churchy-looking niche makes it clear to the townsperson, entering through the doors below, that he is entering the presence of God and the Communion of Saints.

So, Eric, I’d say you can use baldachin/baldacchino or canopy interchangeably. You are also free to create your own term – leave a comment and let us know what you come up with.

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