St. Innocent of Alaska Monastery
9452 Hazelton, Redford, Michigan
Vol. 2: Why Orthodox Churches Look the Way They Do?



Written by St. Innocent/ FIREBIRD Multi-Media, a ministry of St. Innocent Religious Community, Redford, Michigan

This is the text of the narration, that doubles as an essay, of an up-coming 30-minute DVD that will be made, the second of a  DVD series, where icons, photos and video footage that correspond to the text, plus music, will be added to the recorded narration.

When a non-Orthodox person first walks into an Orthodox Christian church or temple, it can be rather overwhelming. We will try here to explain and make sense out of some of what you encounter, whether you are a new inquirer or a long-time Orthodox looking to better understand the great treasures of the Orthodox Church.

When you walk into an Orthodox church, or ‘temple’ as it frequently is called, it is very obvious that you are not in an auditorium or meeting hall. You are in the Temple of God on earth—His House— where you have a foretaste of being in God’s Presence in His Kingdom. Everything that surrounds you is supposed to evoke the Presence of God, and make the invisible — visible, the non-tangible — tangible. In the temple or church building design and in every aspect of its decoration, everything should be as beautiful as possible. Why? Because Beauty is a characteristic of God’s Nature — we worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness—and God is the Creator and Source of all Beauty. God is beautiful! Heaven is beautiful! Being in God’s Presence is beautiful! The Orthodox church building—the temple— makes the invisible divine realm and its beauty— visible. Also, to create Beauty is in itself a holy act, because it is a way of imitating and participating in God’s activity. In a prayer at the end of the Divine Liturgy, the priest says, “Sanctify those who love the beauty of Thy House.” This is why Orthodox churches are rather ornate and highly decorated, in order to be as beautiful as possible.

Definitely! It is precisely through the language of icons that the invisible world of God is made visible and tangible, and that our salvation history is made present before our very eyes. The Orthodox tradition throughout the centuries is that every inch of interior wall and ceiling space is covered with icons, with decorative motifs in between, to be as beautiful as possible. This conveys the overwhelming Beauty of God and His Presence in His Kingdom made visible on earth, and makes real to us that God is with us and dwells among us. This Divine Beauty made visible attracts us and leads us into desiring to participate to the fullest in the Beauty of God’s Kingdom and Presence and in the fullness of His Truth. When a church has not been so painted, then many icons are hung on all the walls instead. (The meaning of the language of icons will be explained in other volumes in this series.)

Another important concept behind Orthodox church architectural design and decoration, its icons and its whole liturgical life of Divine Services—most especially the Divine Liturgy—is the basic principle of “correspondence.” What this means is that the patterns of the things on earth correspond to the patterns or prototypes in God’s Kingdom in heaven. Naturally, of course, God is invisible and so is the heavenly realm. However, since the physical world reflects and corresponds to the divine world—because God the Holy Trinity created the world and all its creatures—the divine love and goodness expresses and manifests itself in the physical world. Therefore, we humans, who are created in the Divine Image and Likeness, but who are creatures of flesh as well as of spirit, can encounter the Divine in both physical and spiritual ways. The single most important concept behind Divine Worship is that what we do in God’s Temple on earth reflects — or corresponds to — divine worship before God’s heavenly throne. This is really obvious in various descriptions of heavenly worship in the Bible, especially in the Apocalypse (or Revelation) and in Hebrews. (This will be explained in greater detail in other volumes in this series, when the Divine Services will be explained.) This concept of correspondence in the Christian Church is directly inherited from the Old Testament and the Jewish Temple and its predecessor, the Tabernacle of Moses. When Moses encountered the Lord God on Mt. Sinai, the Lord told Moses how to construct the Tabernacle so that it would correspond to the pattern of the heavenly Tabernacle. Another way of expressing this idea is that the heavenly, divine Tabernacle and worship provide the prototypes of the visible temple and worship on earth. The Christian church inherits many of these Old Testament patterns, including the three-fold division of the temple, and the ancient precept that a temple is a place of sacrifice to God.

Following the pattern of the ancient Jewish Temple and Tabernacle of Moses, the Orthodox church building is divided into three parts, customarily called in English the “sanctuary,” “nave” and “narthex” (using the terminology of Western church architecture).

The first area of the church temple that you see when you enter the church, is an entrance vestibule, traditionally called the “narthex.” The size of the narthex can vary greatly. From the practical point of view, the narthex provides an entrance area into the church. However, symbolically, it represents the world outside the Church, but that which is beginning the journey into the Church. That a narthex can be covered with icons, shows that it represents the world beginning to be saved. The narthex also provides a transition, both physically and spiritually, between the world totally outside the Church and the Church itself. The narthex faces the west, and the west is where the sun sets and therefore represents the place of darkness and death. In ancient Christian times, the catechumens at times stood in the narthex during their period of preparation to be baptized. When a person is to be baptized, the service starts in the narthex, where evil, and the principles of the world under the control of Satan, are spit upon and rejected.

The second area of the church temple is what you see when you enter the church itself, the area where the people stand during Divine Services, that is usually called the “nave.” This is the area physically in between the narthex and the third area, the Sanctuary. Therefore it represents life lived while journeying from the world (the narthex) to heaven (the sanctuary). It is the ‘in-between’ time and place of our lives, where we stand with one foot on earth and one foot in heaven. The word “nave” comes from the Latin word for “ship.” This is because the Church represents a ship or ‘ark’ of salvation, as in ‘Noah’s ark.’ The symbolism is clear: the Church is an ark that transports people from earth to heaven. The nave is where the people stand, and where much liturgical action takes place. Especially significant is movement and processions back and forth between the nave and the sanctuary and sometimes the narthex.
We might point out here, to avoid terminology misunderstandings, that most Protestant churches do not have real sanctuaries with altars of sacrifice, and thus most Protestants call the entire church interior the “sanctuary.”

The third area of the church temple, the most important and essential part, is in the front, at the opposite end from the narthex. This normally faces east, the direction of the rising sun, and thus symbolizes Light and Life— and therefore, Christ, who is the Giver of Light and Life. This is the area that in English is customarily called the “sanctuary,” where the altar is located. (We should mention that in some languages, the sanctuary area is called the “altar,” and what in English we normally call the “altar,” is known as the “Holy Table.”) This area represents the “Holy of Holies” in the Jewish Tabernacle and Temple that contained the Ark of the Covenant, which held the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, written by God. This Ark of the Covenant made the Divine Presence visible and tangible, and thus, the whole sanctuary area symbolizes Heaven — where God’s Presence is revealed and made known among men. In the Tabernacle of Moses and the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, only the High Priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, and then, only once a year, on the Day of Atonement, when a sacrifice was made and the blood sprinkled on the people and holy objects, for their sanctification. In contrast, the Orthodox priest is allowed to enter the Holy of Holies not just once a year, but at any time to offer the Divine Services, along with the deacon and others who assist the priest in serving.
In the Tabernacle of Moses and the Jerusalem Temple there was a veil hung across the entrance to this Holy of Holies area. But with Jesus’ crucifixion, that veil which symbolizes the separation between people and God under the Old Covenant, was torn in two, according to the Gospels (St. Matthew 27:51; St. Mark 15:38; St. Luke 23:45). Therefore, in the Orthodox temple, the veil (or curtain), which is inherited by the Orthodox Church, is opened at various liturgical times to symbolize that God comes to us and reveals Himself to us and unites us to Himself, and in fact, during the week after Pascha, the curtain and doors remain open the entire week, symbolizing Christ’s reconciliation of the world to Himself in His voluntary death and third-day Resurrection.

The most essential and prominent part of the sanctuary, of course, is the altar, or Holy Table. It represents four things: it is the altar upon which the bloodless sacrifice is offered in the Divine Liturgy; it is the womb from which Christ is born, dwelling among us and revealing His Presence to us; it is the tomb from which Christ is resurrected; and it is the throne upon which Christ is enthroned.
The altar is always supposed to be square and of moderate size. In contrast to Western large rectangular altars placed up against the wall, the Orthodox altar is always free-standing. This is because there must be room for the clergy and servers to process behind the altar or to stand behind it, at various times in the liturgical action of the Services, and also to have space for the bishop’s chair (in the Slavic tradition). In the Old Testament Tabernacle and Temple, the altar was also square and free-standing, and was located in the area called the “Holy Place,” which was just outside the Holy of Holies, accessible for daily sacrifices. In the Orthodox Christian temple, the Holy Place and the altar are moved into the Holy of Holies, upon which the bloodless sacrifice of the Eucharist is offered. In Orthodox liturgical practice the bishop, priest or deacon serving always face east, that is towards the altar, when praying. Also, only a bishop, priest or deacon is allowed to touch the altar at any time, or to walk or stand in front of the Holy Altar, and then only at special liturgical times. The Orthodox have an extremely profound sense of awe and reverence for the altar and the sanctuary. Only those serving or fulfilling a specific function are supposed to enter the sanctuary, usually kissing the icon on the door first and then doing three prostrations upon entering, and the higher clergy kiss the altar. Frivolous talking or behavior is avoided, and one is always to be consciously aware of standing in God’s Presence in His special Holy Place, before His heavenly throne, where He comes among us and makes Himself known to us.

There are only a few sacred things allowed to be on the altar, and they are all associated with the revelation of God’s Presence among us. At the back is the tabernacle, which contains the reserved Body and Blood of Christ from Holy Communion, (specially prepared on Holy Thursday), and used to bring Holy Communion to the sick. This means that Christ is physically present in His Holy Temple at all times. The use of the word, “tabernacle,” is a direct reference to the physical Presence of God in the Tabernacle of Moses.
Also on the Holy Altar the Holy Gospels book is enthroned. The Gospels are customarily covered with gold metal covers with icons of the Crucifixion and Resurrection on the front and back covers. The book can be quite large and heavy, and the covers are as elaborate as a parish can afford. The reason that they are as ornate and beautiful as possible is because they represent Christ Himself, Who reveals Himself in the words of the four Gospels that tell us about His life and teaching. The Gospels book is frequently carried in various cross-processions, (such as on Holy Friday and Pascha). The most frequent procession is in the Divine Liturgy, when the Gospels are brought out by the deacon from the altar into the center of the church when the Gospel is to be read by a deacon.
Underneath the Gospels is placed a very special cloth called the antimins or antimension, folded in thirds and kept inside a larger red cloth. The antimins is opened up during the Divine Liturgy, and the sacred vessels containing the bread and wine to be consecrated are placed on it at the Great Entrance; the consecration of the Bread and Wine as the Body and Blood of Christ must be performed on the antimins. There are three characteristics of the antimins. First, this cloth has an icon drawing on it that depicts Christ being mourned, after having been taken down from the cross, and laid in the tomb. Second, it contains a particle of the relics of a martyr sewn into it. And third, it is signed by the bishop under whom the priest and the parish function. Every Liturgy is required to be served on an antimins signed by the bishop, and authorized to be used by the priest and/or in the parish.
The meaning of this is significant. First of all, it connects us to, and continues, the 2,000 year tradition of serving the Liturgy on the tombs of the martyrs. (A fully consecrated altar always has martyrs’ relics placed in it, for the same reason.) Second, this shows that a priest or a parish does not exist or function independently, but by the authority of the bishop. Each bishop’s authority in turn goes back through each generation and century all the way back to the Apostles, who received their authority from Christ Himself. This authority, passed down through the centuries through what is called the “Apostolic Succession,” is transmitted from one bishop to another through the Sacrament or Mystery of Ordination or Consecration, through the “laying on of hands.” The bishops in turn ordain priests as his assistants to serve in his place in his parishes. That the priests must serve Divine Liturgy on an antimins signed by a present or previous bishop of the diocese, shows that a priest has the authorization to stand in place of the bishop in a church in the bishop’s diocese.
To the side of the Gospels and the antimins during the celebration of Divine Liturgy are several sacred items used in Communion: the spoon for giving Communion; the small spear for cutting up the Holy Bread; a red cloth, held under the faithful’s mouth when receiving Holy Communion. (When the Divine Liturgy is not being served, these three items are located on the Table of Preparation—see below.) Also on the altar is the hand-cross which people kiss in veneration at the end of Divine Liturgy.
A seven-branch candelabra is placed at the far rear of the altar, in clear imitation of the seven-branched candelabra of the Tabernacle of Moses and the Temple in Jerusalem. Single candles are also customarily placed there.

There is one additional table always found in the Orthodox sanctuary, located against the north wall to the left of the altar—called the Table of Oblation, or Offering —where the holy bread and wine are prepared prior to the public part of the Divine Liturgy, in a rite called the Proskomedia. It represents the cave of Bethlehem, where Christ was born. In between Liturgies, the chalice for the Holy Wine and the diskos for the Holy Bread, along with the spoon, spear and red cloth used in Communion are kept on this table under veils.

Also usually found in the sanctuary are matching small round metal or wooden “fans” on the ends of poles, with cherubim and seraphim depicted on them. These signify the cherubim and seraphim who are constantly worshipping God around His throne in heaven. In the ancient Jerusalem Temple there were sculpted cherubim on the top of the Ark of the Covenant that spanned the entire width of the Holy of Holies. In the Orthodox Church liturgical practice, altar servers carry the fans in processions, along with candles and at times, a large crucifix, banners and sometimes icons.
Another sacred item in the sanctuary is the censor, in which incense is burned. Most of the Orthodox Divine Services include use of incense, which again is inherited from Old Testament Jewish tradition, and follows the heavenly prototype of incense being offered before the throne of God, as also described in the New Testament.

Stretching across the front of the church is a standing screen or wall of icons, called the iconostasis—or icon-screen— which separates the sanctuary from the nave, and has a curtain in the center that is opened and closed at particular symbolic times in the Services. A sanctuary screen with columns and curtains is always found in the very earliest Christian churches in Syria, dating even to the second century. Sometimes there are considerable open spaces in the icon-screen, especially in the Byzantine tradition, and sometimes, especially in the Russian tradition, the iconostasis can be a solid wall, frequently very high. The iconostasis is a very distinctive and indispensable characteristic of Orthodox church interiors. It is what people see in front them during the Divine Services. What is its meaning?

There are multiple layers of meaning. (1) The iconostasis is like scenery that sets the stage, so to speak, for the divine liturgical action that takes place in front of it. (2) The iconostasis connects the world with heaven, while at the same time shows the inherent separation between the world and God’s Kingdom. This helps us to recognize that God’s ways and humanity’s ways are very different and separate. (3) The wall and its veil also protect us from approaching the Divine casually and unprepared, just as Moses had to veil his head in order to protect the Hebrew people from seeing the overwhelming glory that surrounded him after being in the presence of God. (4) The iconostasis makes visible for us the invisible Kingdom of God by means of its icons. (5) The icons on the iconostasis make present and visible for us the history of our salvation, wherein God comes to us, reveals Himself to us, and unites us with Himself. This is depicted in its fullest on the very high five-tiered icon-walls that developed in Russia in previous centuries. On the lowest or “local” tier, always found on every iconostasis, are the Mother of God holding the Child Jesus (on the left), and Jesus the Savior (on the right), flanking the central doors. Usually to the right of Christ is an icon of the patron saint or feastday of the parish. The other saints on the local tier are those of particular meaning to the local parish, St. Nicholas and St. John the Baptist being especially popular. The different tiers above this bottom “local” level, depending on the height of a particular iconostasis, portray the saints interceding before Christ seated on His throne in Majesty (called the “Deisis”); the 12 major feastdays commemorating the central events of our salvation history; the Apostles; and the Old Testament prophets. There are also specific icons found on the doors of the iconostasis, which we will explain next. (A number of other programs in this series will explain in more detail the very important subject of the meaning of Orthodox icons.)

There are at least three doors in the icon-screen, that have both practical and symbolic meaning. In the center are double doors, called the “holy” or “royal” doors or gates. Most frequently depicted on the Holy Doors is an icon of the Annunciation, for it was through the Virgin Mary’s obedient acceptance of the message of the Archangel Gabriel that she was to be the Mother of God, that the Incarnation of God as the God-Man occurred, and our salvation was begun. Also usually on or around the doors are icons of the four Evangelists—the writers of the four Gospels, Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John— because it is through their Gospels that Jesus is made known to us. Only a bishop, priest or deacon is allowed to go through these doors (properly vested), and only at very specific liturgical times that represent the Lord coming to us, making Himself known to us, and reconciling God and man, heaven and earth. This occurs liturgically at times such as: the bringing out of the Gospel; the preaching of the sermon about the Gospel; the bringing out of Holy Communion; the Little and Great Entrances; the entrance of the bishop; and the giving of blessings—to mention a few of the most common examples. There are also two doors on the north and south sides of the central Holy Doors, called “deacons’ doors,” because during the liturgical action, the deacons come and go through them, (as well as the other servers). It is common to have icons on the deacons doors of either the Archangels Gabriel and Michael, who are the heavenly prototypes of deacons, or sainted deacons, such as the first martyr and deacon, St. Stephen and the martyr-deacon St. Lawrence.

Virtually every Orthodox church has a large wooden cross with a (usually) life-size icon of Christ on it, before which people pray and light candles, and customarily have prayer services for the departed. A distinctive characteristic of this icon of Christ is that it is detachable. There are large nails in His hands and feet that can be removed so that His Body can be taken off the cross. This is done at Vespers on Holy and Great Friday, when the Orthodox Church relives, and makes present today, Christ’s death on the cross. After the Gospel is read telling how His Body was taken down from the cross and placed in a tomb, the priest removes Christ’s Body from the cross, wraps it in a white cloth and places it on the altar. Whereas Orthodoxy emphasizes Christ’s Resurrection, we never lose sight of His voluntary suffering on the cross to redeem us, His fallen people, and thus to enable us to participate with Him in His Resurrected life.

The universal symbolism of light is very extensively used in Orthodoxy. Light basically represents life and goodness and the Presence of God, just as darkness represents death, evil and the work of the devil. The first act of God’s creation was to create light and to separate it from darkness (Genesis 1:3). St. John’s Gospel especially emphasizes Christ as the Light — Christ frequently refers to Himself as the “Light of the World” (St. John 8:12 and elsewhere), and the “Prologue” of St. John’s Gospel describes Christ as the Light that comes into the world (St. John 1:3-4,7-9). Therefore, Orthodox churches always have multiple chandeliers, with a large one in the center, under the dome. The chandeliers are turned on or off, up or down, to correspond to the joyful, repentant, or meditative character of a Service or the symbolism of a particular part of a Service. Also, oil lamps burn in front of many of the icons, showing that the light of the icons and those they portray shines on us, as well as being an offering by us to those depicted in the icons.
People light candles as they offer prayers for the living and departed, as an offering, and to symbolize the light-filled quality of prayer and its fiery power, as their prayers ascend as incense to the throne of God.

This is a fitting question with which to conclude this program. One of the most significant characteristics of Orthodox churches is the use of the dome. Why is that? The church dome symbolizes the dome of heaven, because when we look up to the heavens, what we see is a basically a huge dome. What this symbolizes in church design is that the church is a microcosm (that is, “a miniature world”), and that the Divine Services are done beneath the dome of heaven. This further confirms what was said earlier, that there is a correspondence between the church temple on earth and God’s heavenly Kingdom, both physically and in the worship offered. In the interior center of the dome there is customarily an icon of Christ, called the Pantocrator—the Almighty. When a church doesn’t have an interior dome, then frequently, as a substitute, a round icon of Christ the Pantocrator is painted where the dome would normally be, to convey the same symbolic meaning. This is in the center of the nave, near the front, where the large central chandelier hangs, representing Christ as the Light of the universe.

In conclusion, we have sought to briefly describe in this program why the Orthodox church temple looks the way it does, and to explain how the church building is in essence the Temple of God on earth—His House—where He reveals Himself to us, unites us with Himself, and where people have a foretaste of being in God’s Presence in His Kingdom. The Orthodox church temple is a holy place where God makes His Presence known on earth, and where His people offer Divine worship, joining with the angels and saints who continually worship around God’s heavenly throne.