Orthodox churches generally take one of several shapes that have a particular mystical significance. The most common shape is an oblong or rectangular shape, imitating the form of a ship. As a ship, under the guidance of a master helmsman conveys people through the stormy seas to a calm harbor, so the Church, guided by Christ, carries us unharmed across the stormy seas of sin and strife to the peaceful haven of the Kingdom of Heaven. Churches are also frequently built in the form of a Cross to proclaim that we are saved through faith in the Crucified Christ, for Whom Christians are prepared to suffer all things.
Almost always Orthodox churches are oriented East – West, with the main entrance of the building at the west end. This symbolizes the entrance of the worshipper from the darkness of sin (the west) into the light of truth (the east).
On the roof of Orthodox churches are usually found one or more cupolas (domes with rounded or pointed roofs). A peculiar feature of Russian Orthodox churches is the presence of onion-shaped domes on top of the cupolas. This shape reminds believers of the flame of a candle, burning upward to heaven.
Every cupola is crowned with a Cross, the instrument of our salvation. In the Russian Church, the most common form is the so-called three-bar Cross, consisting of the usual crossbeam, a shorter crossbeam above that and another, slanted, crossbeam below. Symbolically, the three bars represent, from the top, the signboard on which was written, in Hebrew, Latin and Greek, Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews (John 19:19); the main crossbeam, to which the hands of Jesus were nailed; the lower portion, to which His feet were nailed.
The three-bar representation existed in Christian art from the very early times in Byzantium, although usually without the bottom bar slanted, which is particularly Russian. The origin of this slanted footbar is not known, but in the symbolism of the Russian Church, the most common explanation is that it is pointing upward to Paradise for the Good Thief on Jesus’ right and downward to Hades for the thief on His left (Luke 23:39-43).
The interior of an Orthodox church is divided into several parts. The first is the Narthex (Vestibule; Lity – Greek; Pritvor – Russian), in ancient times a large, spacious place, wherein the Catechumens received instruction while preparing for Baptism, and also where Penitents excluded from Holy Communion stood.
The main body of the church is the Nave, separated from the Sanctuary (Altar) by an icon screen with doors, called the Iconostasis (Icon stand). The walls of the Nave are decorated with Icons and murals, before many of which are hanging lit lamps (lampadas). Especially noticeable in traditional Orthodox churches is the absence of any pews. The Fathers of the Church deemed it disrespectful for anyone to sit during the Divine services (except at certain explicit moments of instruction or Psalm reading) and the open spaces were seen to be especially conducive to the many bows and prostrations typical of Orthodox worship.
At the extreme Eastern end of the church is found the Altar (or Sanctuary), with two rooms – the Sacristy and the Vestry – at either side, separated from the Nave by the Iconostasis.
Holy Icons – Theology in Color
One of the first things that strikes a non-Orthodox visitor to an Orthodox church is the prominent place assigned to Holy Icons. The Iconostasis is covered with them, while others are placed in prominent places throughout the church building. The walls and ceiling are covered with iconic murals. The Orthodox faithful prostrate themselves before Icons, kiss them, and burn candles before them. They are censed by the clergy and carried in processions. Considering the obvious importance of the Holy Icons, then, questions may certainly be raised concerning them: What do these gestures and actions mean? What is the significance of Icons? Are they not idols or the like, prohibited by the Old Testament?
Icons have been used for prayer from the first centuries of Christianity. Sacred Tradition tells us, for example, of the existence of an Icon of the Savior during His lifetime (the “Icon-Made-Without-Hands”) and of Icons of the Most Holy Theotokos immediately after Him. Sacred Tradition witnesses that the Orthodox Church had a clear understanding of the importance of Icons right from the beginning; and this understanding never changed, for it is derived from the teachings concerning the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity – Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The use of Icons is grounded in the very essence of Christianity, since Christianity is the revelation by God-Man not only of the Word of God, but also of the Image of God; for, as St. John the Evangelist tells us, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
“No one has ever seen God; only the Son, Who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known” (John 1:18), the Evangelist proclaims. That is, He has revealed the Image or Icon of God. For being the brightness of [God’s] glory, and the express image of [God’s] person (Hebrews 1:3), the Word of God in the Incarnation revealed to the world, in His own Divinity, the Image of the Father. When St. Philip asks Jesus, “‘Lord, show us the Father,’ He answered him: ‘Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father'” (John 14:8-9). Thus as the Son is in the bosom of the Father, likewise after the Incarnation He is constubstantial with the Father, according to His divinity being the Father’s Image, equal in honor to Him.
The truth expressed above, which is revealed in Christianity, thus forms the foundations of Christian pictorial art. The Image (or Icon) not only does not contradict the essence of Christianity, but is unfailingly connected with it; and this is the foundation of the tradition that from the very beginning the Good News was brought to the world by the Church both in word and image.
St. John of Damascus, an eighth-century Father of the Church, who wrote at the height of the iconoclastic (anti-icon) controversies in the Church, explains that, because the Word of God became flesh (John 1:14), we are no longer in our infancy; we have grown up, we have been given by God the power of discrimination and we know what can be depicted and what is indescribable. Since the Second Person of the Holy Trinity appeared to us in the flesh, we can portray Him and reproduce for contemplation of Him Who has condescended to be seen. We can confidently represent God the Invisible – not as an invisible being, but as one Who has made Himself visible for our sake by sharing in our flesh and blood.
Holy Icons developed side by side with the Divine Services and, like the Services, expressed the teaching of the Church in conformity with the word of Holy Scripture. Following the teaching of the 7th Ecumenical Council, the Icon is seen not as simple art, but that there is a complete correspondence of the Icon to Holy Scripture, “for if the Icon is shown by Holy Scripture, Holy Scripture is made incontestably clear by the Icon” (Acts of the 7th Ecumenical Council, 6).
As the word of Holy Scripture is an image, so the image is also a word, for, according to St. Basil the Great (379 AD):
“By depicting the divine, we are not making ourselves similar to idolaters; for it is not the material symbol that we are worshipping, but the Creator, Who became corporeal for our sake and assumed our body in order that through it He might save mankind. We also venerate the material objects through which our salvation is effected – the blessed wood of the Cross, the Holy Gospel, Holy Relics of Saints, and, above all, the Most-Pure Body and Blood of Christ, which have grace-bestowing properties and Divine Power.”
Orthodox Christians do not venerate an Icon of Christ because of the nature of the wood or the paint, but rather we venerate the inanimate image of Christ with the intention of worshipping Christ Himself as God Incarnate through it.
We kiss an Icon of the Blessed Virgin as the Mother of the Son of God, just as we kiss the Icons of the Saints as God’s friends who struggled against sin, imitating Christ by shedding their blood for Him and following in His footsteps. Saints are venerated as those who were glorified by God and who became, with God’s help, terrible to the Enemy, and benefactors to those advancing in the faith – but not as gods and benefactors themselves. They were the servants of God who were given boldness of spirit in return for their love of Him. We gaze on the depiction of their exploits and sufferings so as to sanctify ourselves through them and to spur ourselves on to zealous emulation.
The Icons of the Saints act as a meeting point between the living members of the Church [Militant] on earth and the Saints who have passed on to the Church [Triumphant] in Heaven. The Saints depicted on the Icons are not remote, legendary figures from the past, but contemporary, personal friends. As meeting points between Heaven and earth, the Icons of Christ, His Mother, the Angels and Saints constantly remind the faithful of the invisible presence of the whole company of Heaven; they visibly express the idea of Heaven on earth.
The most prominent feature of an Orthodox church is the Iconostasis, consisting of one or more rows of Icons and broken by a set of doors in the center (the Holy or Royal Doors) and a door at each side (the Deacon’s Doors).
A typical Iconostasis consists of one or more tiers (rows) of Icons. At the center of the first, or lowest, tier, are the Royal Doors, on which are placed Icons of the four Evangelists who announced to the world Good News – the Gospel – of the Savior. At the center of the Royal Doors is an Icon of the Annunciation to the Most Holy Theotokos (the Mother of God), since this event was the prelude or beginning of our salvation. Over the Royal Doors is placed an Icon of the Mystical Supper (the Last Supper) since, in the Altar beyond, the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist is celebrated in remembrance of the Savior Who instituted the Sacrament at the Last Supper.
At either side of the Royal Doors are always placed an Icon of the Savior (to the right) and of the Most Holy Theotokos (to the left). On either side of the Royal Doors, beyond the Icons of the Lord and His Mother, are two doors – Deacon’s Doors – upon which are depicted either saintly Deacons or Angels – who minister always at the heavenly Altar, just as do the earthly deacons during the Divine services. Other Icons of particular local significance are also placed in the first row of the Iconostasis, for which reason the lower tier is often called the Local Icons.
Ascending above the Local Icons are three more tiers of Icons. Immediately above the Icon of the Mystical Supper is placed an Icon of the Savior in royal garments, flanked by His Mother and John the Forerunner and an array of other saints, included the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, the Apostles Peter and Paul and bishop saints and martyrs. This tier is called the Deisis (prayer), since all in this tier are turned to Christ in supplication. The tier immediately above this contains Icons of the principal Feasts of the Lord and of the Theotokos.
The top row contains the Old Testament Prophets – in the midst of which is the Birthgiver of God with the Divine Infant Who is from everlasting and Who was their hope, their consolation, and the subject of their prophecies. At the very top of the Iconostasis is placed the Holy Cross, upon which the Lord was crucified, effecting thereby our salvation.
The Altar which lies beyond the Iconostasis, is set aside for those who perform the Divine services, and normally persons not consecrated to the service of the Church are not permitted to enter. Occupying the central place in the Altar is the Holy Table, which represents the Throne of God, with the Lord Himself invisibly present there. It also represents the Tomb of Christ, since His Body (the Holy Gifts) is placed there. The Holy Table is square in shape and is draped by two coverings. The first, inner covering, is of white linen, representing the winding-sheet in which the Body of Christ was wrapped. The outer cloth is made of rich and bright material, representing the glory of God’s throne. Both cloths cover the Holy Table to the ground.
Written by Bishop Alexander of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad
From Orthodox Christian Information Center