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 men through the stormy seas to a calm harbor, so the Church, guided by Christ, carries men 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. Less frequently churches are built in the shape of a circle, signifying that the Church of Christ shall exist for all eternity (the circle being one of the symbols of eternity) or in the shape of an octagon, signifying a star, for the Church, like a star, guides a man through the darkness of sin which encompasses him. Because of the difficulties of internal arrangement, however, the latter two shapes are not often used.
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). This rule is violated only if the building had been previously constructed for another purpose, or if services are conducted in a private home, for example, when the entrance and main portion have been arranged according to convenience. On the roof of Orthodox churches are usually found one or more cupolas (towers with rounded or pointed roofs), called crests or summits. One cupola signifies Christ, the sole head of the Christian community; three cupolas symbolize the Most- Holy Trinity; five cupolas represent Christ and the four Evangelists; seven cupolas symbolize the Seven Ecumenical Councils which formulated the basic dogmas of the Orthodox Church, as well as the general use in the Church of the sacred number seven; nine cupolas represent the traditional nine ranks of Angels; and thirteen cupolas signify Christ and the Twelve Apostles.
A peculiar feature of Russian Orthodox churches is the presence of onion-shaped domes on top of the cupolas. In the early history of the Russian Church, especially in Kiev, the first capital, the domes of the churches followed the typical Byzantine rounded style, but later, especially after the Mongol Period, Russian churches tended toward the onion domes, which, in many places, became quite stylized. Historians are not in agreement as to the origin of this particular style, but some point to the possible influence of Persia on this peculiar feature of Russian church architecture, while others argue that since this style was more popular in the far North of Russia, it had a practical application, in that the shape was particularly suited to shed the large amounts of snow common in the region.
Every cupola, or where there is none, the roof, is crowned by a Cross, the instrument of our salvation. The Cross may take one of many different shapes, generally according to the national tradition of a particular local Church. 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 precious feet were nailed.
The three-bar representation existed in Christian art from very early times in Byzantium, although usually without the bottom bar slanted, which is particularly Russian. The origin of this slanted footboard is not known, but in the symbolism of the Russian Church, the most common explanation is that it is the pointing upward to Paradise for the Good Thief on Jesus’ right and downward to Hell for the Thief on His left (Luke 23). Sometimes the bottoms of the Crosses found on Russian churches will be adorned with a crescent. In 1486, Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible) conquered the city of Kazan which had been under the rule of Moslem Tatars, and in remembrance of this, he decreed that from henceforth the Islamic crescent be placed at the bottom of the Crosses to signify the victory of the Cross (Christianity) over the Crescent (Islam).
The Orthodox Church has a long history of constructing magnificent places of worship, ornately decorated on the interior with richly symbolic and vibrant iconography and topped by towering domes reaching to the heavens. Each country and culture has developed its own flavor of Orthodox architecture, and there are no set specifications for the size, shape or color of the domes. The colors of the domes carry deep theological significance and are intended to point their viewers toward God.
The use of domes in sacred architecture dates far back in Orthodox history. Basilicas, or large church buildings, date as far back as the fifth century. The best- known domed church, the Hagia Sophia, was raised between 532 and 537 A.D. in Constantinople, the city now known as Instanbul. The dome of this Church of Divine Wisdom was designed to inspire meditation on heaven and the mysteries of the Almighty. Since then, Orthodox domes have taken on many different appearances, from the onion-shaped structure common in Russia to the pear-shaped dome favored in Ukraine.
The colors of Orthodox domes are highly variable. For instance, the onion domes of the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Moscow are pure gold, while Saint Basil’s Cathedral in the same city is topped with domes painted in vibrant blue, green, red and yellow in many different patterns. Other architects favor domes painted black.
The number of domes on Orthodox churches carries theological significance. Some architects favor a three-dome arrangement to represent the persons of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Others choose a five-dome configuration to represent Jesus and the four Gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The symbolism of the colors of Orthodox domes is not strictly assigned, but can be extrapolated from the rules guiding Orthodox art. For instance, in Orthodox iconography, gold represents the light of God and his divine nature. Red is traditionally a reminder of the passion and suffering of Jesus and the martyrs, but also signifies the Resurrection and eternal life. Green is the color of the Holy Spirit, the natural world and new life. Blue is a color associated with the “God bearer,” or mother of Jesus, Mary. White is another symbol of the light of God, and is also used to denote righteousness, purity and holiness.