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The Difference Between a Cupola and a Steeple

Some famous churches are known for their iconic steeples. However, most churches also have a cupola on top of their buildings. Sometimes cupolas do not get as much recognition as a steeple, but buildings that are not churches have cupolas on them. However, most people will recognize a steeple, but not many people may know what a cupola is.

What is a Cupola?

A cupola is a small fixture that goes on the top of a dome or roof. It is enclosed but has openings. The word cupolas comes from the Latin word “cupula” which means small cup. Cupolas' original purposes were to ventilate and provide natural light for the church or building underneath. It could enclose the town’s bell or display a flag. Cupolas can have many different shapes. It can also be moved, removed, or exchanged.

Because they are outside year-round, cupolas need maintenance throughout the year. Therefore, there is a potential for a lot of damage due to the weather and seasons changing.

A great example of a cupola is the one on top of Faneuil Hall in Boston Massachusetts. It is called “the Cradle of Liberty” by the National Park Service. In 1742, colonists used it as a gathering place, it has been one since then.

Sometimes people can reach a cupola. You would be able to reach it by climbing a staircase to it. This type of cupola is called a “belvedere” or “widow’s walk.” Some cupolas are called “lanterns” because they give natural light into the building and illuminate the rooms below. These types of cupolas are normally found on dome-shaped roofs.

Today, cupolas are used mostly for decorative purposes on buildings. Most of these buildings are used for religious purposes and a cross will reside on the top of a cupola. However, cupolas are often on other buildings as well. Other items a cupola holds today are flags, weather vane, or other finials. The size of a cupola can be completely up to you. It is recommended that the base of the cupola be a minimum width equal to one inch for every foot of the roofline. You can also install two smaller cupolas rather than one large one.

What is a Steeple?

Before steeples were adopted by the church in AD 600, the military used them as watchtowers. Originally, steeples were not even attached to the roof of a church, they were a separate building. Now, steeples are staples for the majority of churches or religious buildings.

Today, the steeple has become more of an aesthetic for a church. The main purpose of a steeple is to remind people to look upward towards the heavens. It was a reminder of God on top of churches as people were going into church.

Steeples were also used to drive away any evil spirits. Some churches even added gargoyles to the base of their steeples to help ward off those evil spirits. Because of their height, some steeples are vulnerable to lightning and earthquakes can often damage steeples.

Like cupolas, steeples were used to house clocks and bells that would ring so people would know when church service was about to begin. Because clocks were hard to come by back then and steeples were so tall, you could hear the bell throughout the area and tell the time.

The Difference

While both steeples and cupolas hold bells, a cupola can only hold one bell because it is much smaller than a steeple. A steeple can hold many bells. A cupola is not as lofty as a steeple.

Due to maintenance, sometimes cupolas can be moved when roofs are repaired. A steeple cannot move on the roof once it is installed. Steeples are normally recognized on religious buildings. As mentioned prior, cupolas can be spotted on various different types of buildings. In New England, many barns and garages use cupolas for ventilation purposes. You can often see cupolas on government buildings as well as well-known buildings.

How We Can Help!

Whether you are looking for a cupola or a steeple, American Steeples can make the perfect one for you. We have a variety of different types of steeples and cupolas that we can customize to make them perfect for your church or any building. Send us an email or give us a call today and we can figure out which is best for you.

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