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Church Architecture

Title: Church Architecture

Subject: A detailed study of church architecture

Age: 3 to 10 years

Liturgical Time: Any

Direct Aim: These lessons intend to familiarize students with the terminology and architecture of the church structure.

An Introduction

"…that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth – in Him."
Ephesians 1:10

There is a variety of Orthodox Church building styles. Many of the earliest churches are in the style of a basilica, that is, rectangular with three aisles separated by rows of pillars. Some churches have a "cross-in-square" plan that began in Constantinople in the ninth century. The original church buildings were converted houses. It is believed that there were sizeable churches before Constantine's time, but the church structure as we know it today began after Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion in 313. Whatever the style, all Orthodox churches have common elements that are designed to facilitate our growth in Christ and union with God.

When we gather in church to pray we find both the Church Triumphant (represented through the icons of Christ, the Theotokos (Mother of God), the angels, the apostles, and the saints) and the Church Militant, that is, the faithful here on earth.

Churches are traditionally situated so that the congregation faces east. The main reason for this is that the sun rises in the east which is symbolic of Christ bringing light to the world and also His resurrection from the dead. Starting from west to east we find: the narthex, followed by the nave, the solea, and the sanctuary which includes the apse.

Sources: Orthodox Art and Architecture
Introducing the Orthodox Church by Anthony M. ConiarisBuild Your Own: Iconostasis and Altar by Boojamra and MatusiakBuild Your Own: Church by Boojamra and MatusiakLet's Take a Walk through the Orthodox Church by Anthony M. Coniaris

Lesson 1: Church Architecture

"And God said, ‘Let there be light'; and there was light." Genesis 1:3


The narthex is the vestibule at the west end of the church. In the early church, it was where the catechumens (people who were learning about the church but were not yet baptized) stayed during the services and also where they received their lessons about the Church. Today, it is considered a place of transition between "the world" and "the Kingdom." Certain rites are conducted in the narthex such as exorcisms that precede the Sacrament of Baptism and the Forty Day Blessing of Infants. The narthex contains icons for veneration and the candle lighting stand. Candles were used for lighting in the catacombs and for night services in the early Church. Now, they are lit to offer prayers. Also, lit candles represent that Christ is the light of the world and, as Orthodox Christians, we are to carry that light into the world.


There are numerous metaphors for the nave which is the central part of the church where the faithful gather for services. It is called "the ark of salvation," "the kingdom of heaven," or "heaven on earth." The word "nave" comes from the words: naval or nautical. The image of a ship when thinking about the nave is apt as we the faithful should see ourselves as being on a journey toward God.

In America, the churches have pews, although historically (and currently in monasteries), there were no pews. There would only be chairs along the walls for the people who were unable to stand throughout the services. The absence of pews allowed the faithful to move throughout the sanctuary in a more fluid and dynamic manner. It also allowed the community to mingle and avoid finding their "spot" within the sanctuary where they felt comfortable.

In most Orthodox churches, there is a dome above the center of the nave. In the center of the dome is an icon of Jesus the Pantocrator/Almighty. The dome represents the heavens. Unlike western churches which have spires to indicate that people reach up to God, the Orthodox Church uses domes and arches to indicate that it is God who bends the heavens and humbles Himself in order to reach us, His humility even led to His becoming a human being.

Just below the icon of Christ in the dome are the angels and archangels who serve Christ and carry out His work in the world. Often the four icons of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are equidistantly placed around the base of the dome. This is because, through their written words, the Gospel of Jesus has been disseminated to the "four corners" of the earth. Scenes of the Redemption of the world and icons of the saints are sometimes illustrated on the remaining parts of the walls and ceiling of the nave.

Lesson 2: Church Architecture

"And you shall hang the veil from the clasps, and bring the ark of the testimony in thither within the veil, and the veil shall separate for you the holy place from the most holy." (Exodus 26:33)

The raised part of the nave on the eastern end of the nave is the solea. This is where the Sacraments are administered. The faithful must step up, or exalt themselves, to meet God while God comes down, or humbles Himself, to meet His people. On the northern end of the solea is the pulpit from which the Gospel is read during the Divine Liturgy and the homily is delivered. The pulpit is said to represent the stone that covered Jesus' tomb. That is because, in Matthew's account, when the myrrh-bearing women reached the tomb, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. Sitting on the stone was the angel who told them the Good News about the resurrection of Jesus just as we are told about Jesus from the pulpit today. The Bishop's Throne, which represents the Judgment Seat of Christ, is set on the south side. The bishop oversees the Church. Every bishop serves in succession to the bishop before him, and so on up to one of the apostles ("Apostolic Succession") and ultimately to Christ. The bishop is a representative of Christ, as are all bishops. Also on the solea is the chanter's stand that contains the books used by the chanters and readers and the Baptismal Font is where infants are baptized. In the early Church, there was a separate building used solely for baptisms.

Iconostasis or Icon Screen
The iconostasis or icon screen is the partition between the nave and the sanctuary. It represents the boundary between earth (the nave) and heaven (the sanctuary) but also the unity of the two realms through the saints, the angels, the Theotokos, and the incarnation of Christ. The center gates are open during services to facilitate this union. These gates are called the Royal Doors because Christ our true King comes through them in the form and reality of the Eucharist. The Old Testament counterpart to the iconostasis is the veil in the Temple of Jerusalem that covered the Holy of Holies which was torn during the Crucifixion of Jesus (Matt. 27:51). This event expressed the opening that has been created by Christ between heaven and earth.

There is a specific order to the icons placed on the iconostasis that is typical in Orthodox churches. The first icon to the left of the Royal Doors is the Theotokos with the Christ child. The next icon to the left is the patron saint or feast of the church. On the door to the left is depicted the Archangel Michael. Then, next to the door, there are often icons of the first Christian emperor, St. Constantine, and his mother, St. Helen. Then moving right from the Royal Doors are the icons of Christ, St. John the Baptist, the Archangel Gabriel on the door, and then usually, the first archdeacon, St. Stephen. If there is room for more icons on the iconostasis, the particular church can choose which saints will be depicted. The reason for the archangels on the doors is that the angels "walk" through them to minister to the people.

Lesson 3: Church Architecture

"And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:15)


The sanctuary is the eastern part of the church behind the iconostasis. It symbolizes the Kingdom of God. There is a vital interaction between the nave and the sanctuary; between life on earth and in heaven. The nave represents Jesus as human whereas the sanctuary represents Him as God; and, also, the visible and invisible realms, respectively.

On the north side of the sanctuary is where the priest prepares the Holy Eucharist at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy at the Table of Preparation. On the south side is where the sacred books, liturgical implements, and vestments are stored. In the center of the sanctuary is the Altar Table. Behind the table is the large Crucifix that is part of Holy Friday services.

On the easternmost wall of the sanctuary is the apse, that is, the curved wall above with the icon of the Theotokos and Christ child. This is the area between heaven and earth. It represents the Incarnation of Christ when He becomes man thereby uniting heaven and earth. The Theotokos is the connection between heaven and earth since she gave birth to God. For this reason, she is described as "she who is wider than the heavens." The three stars on her veil represent her perpetual virginity (before, during, and after the birth of Christ). The Greek letters, "ΜΡ ΘΥ," are abbreviations for "Mother of God."

The architecture of the church tells the whole story of our Redemption. God descends from the heavens (the dome) through His incarnation (the apse), and entering our world (the Royal Doors), He abides with us on earth (the nave) through the meeting place between heaven and earth (the solea) in the Holy Eucharist.

Altar Table
The Altar Table is located in the center of the sanctuary. It is also known as "the Holy Table" because this is where the Sacrament of the Eucharist is celebrated. The cloth on the table is the antimension (meaning "instead of the table") which depicts Jesus in the tomb. It usually contains a relic of a saint to remind us that the Church was built on the sacrifices of the martyrs and saints. On the Altar Table are the Holy Gospel book, the blessing cross, the fans carried during processions, and the tabernacle (often in the shape of a church building). The fans have metal icons of the cherubim and seraphim representing all the angels. Of the Old and New Testaments, only the Holy Gospel books are on the Altar Table because they are the definitive word of God. All other books of the Bible are interpreted though the Gospels. Because of the importance of the Gospels, only the clergy read from them during services.

The tabernacle contains an emergency supply of the Eucharist that is consecrated annually on Holy Thursday. This is used for the sick and dying. Because the tabernacle always contains the Body and Blood of Christ, people bow and cross themselves as they pass before the Holy Altar.

Close with a prayer.


Walk around your church and identify the different areas of it.
Go to , click on ‘'Audio", then "Listen to Classes & Lectures", then "Introduction to Orthodoxy", then finally "Class 1" and follow along with the church tour.
Build a model of an iconostasis.
Observe the iconostasis in different churches to see which saints depicted are the same and which are different. Also note the similarities and differences in building style, dome, narthex, etc.
Walk through your church with the book, Let's Take a Walk through the Orthodox Church.
Build a model of a church.