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Religion Library: Eastern Orthodoxy

Sacred Space

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

The square shape of the building symbolizes the cross. There are also rectangular church buildings, which symbolize the Ark of Noah carrying the faithful to salvation. Octagonal church buildings symbolize the star that guides the faithful as the star guided the magi. Circular buildings remind the believer that the church is eternal, without beginning or end. Eastern Orthodox church buildings are recognizable by the large dome placed over the nave. The dome symbolizes heaven. It is typically painted with a large icon of Christ called the Pantocrator, or "Ruler of All." The domes of Russian churches have a distinctive onion shape, perhaps so that snow cannot accumulate. As side chapels were added to the main church building, more domes were added, leading to some spectacular examples of Christian architecture.

The church building as a whole and each of its parts, including the decorations and the careful arrangement of the icons, has its place in a system of symbols that informs the architecture and arrangement of the church. The icons, points of meeting between heaven and earth, are the visible evidence of heaven on earth. The icons of Christ Pantocrator, the Theotokos or Mother of God, and all the angels and saints assure congregants that the whole company of heaven is present during the Divine Liturgy. The icon-covered walls are believed to be open doorways between heaven and earth, so that the walls of the church open out into eternity. The church and all its parts comprise one great icon of the Kingdom of God, so Orthodox Christians are part of the great liturgy of heaven when they are in church. The building is a part of the world to come.

Every Orthodox church is consecrated to God, a saint, or one of the feasts, so that churches will have names like Church of Christ the Savior, Church of Saint Andrew, Cathedral of Saint Basil, or Church of the Annunciation. The most famous church building in all of Eastern Orthodoxy is the Hagia Sophia in modern-day Istanbul, or the Church of the Divine Wisdom. Hagia Sophia was used as a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in the 15th century, and is now a museum.

Study Questions:
1.     Describe the architecture of Eastern Orthodoxy’s churches.
2.     How do Eastern Orthodoxy’s followers move through sacred space?
3.     What is the iconostasis? What purpose does it serve?
4.     Should icons be viewed similarly to idols? Why or why not?


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