Russian Church Design

by Lisa Kies, aka Sofya la Rus
Notes from The Russian Orthodox Church (see Bibliography)

While Russian church architecture shares many characteristics with Christian church architecture around the world, it has developed a unique set of traits reflective of the Russian national character.

One of these traits is the multi-domed roof. The earliest churches in Russia were multidomed. They include the "thirteen domes" of the wooden St. Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod the Great (989), the 25-domed Desyatinnaya Church of the Dormition (989-996), the 13-domed stone St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev (1037-1043), the 7-domed St. Sophia Cathedral in Polotsk (1044-1066), and the 15-domed Archangel Michael Cathedral in Kiev (1078-1088).
[page 191 - St. Sophia, Novgorod] On-line Novgorod: St. Sophia Cathedral
[page 195 - St. Sophia, Kiev]  The Sophia Cathedral, Kiev

In addition, these domes were unlike the large wide, gently sloped domes of the Byzantine churches that would have been expected to have the greatest influence on Russian church architecture. From the beginning, Russian domes were smaller and mounted on narrow neck-like bases. The top of the church has been said to symbolize God as the head, supported by Christ as the neck, in turn supported by the Apostles and the evangelists (the pedentives, other domes, etc.) [image of the Hagia Sophia, etc.]
Great Buildings: Hagia Sophia
Princeton Byzantine Architecture Project: Hagia Sophia

The shape of the domes developed to become the famous onion-shaped dome associated with their use to symbolize Christ. The peak on the dome is like the flame of prayer and striving toward heaven as it reaches up toward the cross surmounting the dome - like the flame of an icon-lamp. Christ, as the Head of the dome, and as the Flame which illuminates us all and guides our striving toward Him. It also symbolizes the growing flame of Russia fed by its saints, martyrs and ascetics.

The multi-domed form that developed in Kievan Rus almost entirely disappeared after the fall of the Kievan state and the Mongol conquest in the 13th century. But its memory was preserved and cherished to begin reappearing in 15th century miniatures, and then in 16th century churches. These included the Church of the Transfiguration (12 domes at the base of a tent-roof) in Ostrov outside Moscow and the 16-domed Church of St. John the Baptist (1547) in Dyakovo. The fall of Kazan and Astrakhan was commemorated by the construction of the 9-domed Trinity Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of the Protecting Veil, or the Church of St. Basil the Blessed, on Red Square in Moscow. [Other multi-domed churches listed on p 195.]
Ostrov Church of the Transfiguration - in 3rd column of pictures.
Church of St. John the Baptist in Dyakovo - at the very bottom of the page.
St. Basils Cathedral

In the meantime, Russian churches were single-domed in a more severe style in keeping with the troubles under the Tatar conquest. These have been termed "warrior churches" because their outlines are reminiscent of warriors in armor. Accordingly, the architectural terminology expanded from "heads" and "necks" to include "helmets" and "foreheads" and "shoulders." Windows in the shape of loopholes added to the martial appearance and the scaled roofs strongly resembled the armor of the time. With all these characteristics, a Russian town such as Pskov with its 19 churches, looked like a group of generals leading troops made up of the churches of the surrounding settlements to defend the motherland.
Pskov Churches

Military symbolism, in both single and multi-domed churches, also harmonized with the fact that churches were often built to commemorate military victories. [page 193 - Church of St. Theodore, Novgorod]

Many of these churches have a characteristic pyramidal outline with a base that can be inscribed in an equilateral triangle - esthetically pleasing and a potent symbol of the Trinity. Such a church is the Church of the Transfiguration in Kizhi. Another type of equilateral triangle is the "spherical triangle" with curved sides, which symbolizes the manifestation of the Divine Will on earth in Christian architecture from Byzantium, Syria and the European Gothic. The Russian wooden church with the most domes, the 24-domed Church of the Protecting Veil near Vytegra, has such an outline. [page 198 - The Kizhi Pogost]
Kizhi Island Photos

Multi-dome churches also make use of the symbolism of numbers. For one thing, the number of domes often matches the number of altars in the church as in the 19 altars and 19 domes of St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev in the 18th century. This is not always the case, however.

At the church of the Transfiguration in Kizhi, only one of the domes is located over an altar. As in many other churches, the top 5 domes symbolize Christ and the four evangelists, and thus the church's dedication to Christ. The remaining 16 domes honored Elija and Moses and the 14 patronal feasts of the Kizhi Pogost pictured in the iconostasis.

A church with seven domes symbolizes the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, nine domes signify the nine orders of the Heavenly Powers and the nine orders of God's holy men, and thirteen domes represent Christ and the 12 apostles. And when taken as a whole, the number of domes in the whole church complex may also have symbolism. The total number of domes on the two cathedrals and the bell tower of the Kizhi Pogost was 33, probably symblising Christ's 33 years on earth. The number 25 is found in Revelations 4:2-4 and symbolises the throne of the Trinity with the 12 prophets and 12 Apostles alongside.

Wood was an abundant building material in Russia and was used for many of the numerous village churches, chapels and roadside crosses. Russian architects used the unique characteristics of this material to freely experiment outside the bounds of the Byzantine models. Many of the traditions of folk art they used came to be seen in the stone churches as well. These included the scaled roofs and kokoshniks.
[page 188 - The Church of the Deposition of the Robe, Borodavy] Borodavy Church Painting
[page 197 - Monastery of the Saviour, Suzdal] Transfiguration Church, Saviour Monastery
[page 199 - Suzdal]
[page 200-201 - Rostov Kremlin] Rostov Kremlin

Tent-roof churches began to be seen at the end of the 15th century and were widespread in the 16th and 17th centuries. This eight-sided tent-roof crowned by a dome with a cross has its own numerical symbolism based on the number 9 for its 8 sides/corners and their center at the peak. The number 9 here could symbolize the 9 orders of heaven, etc. as discussed above, but the arrangement suggesting a pattern of 8 and 1 provides a different symbolism. The Mother of God is symbolised by the 8-pointed star in the form of a blossoming cross with its center completing the 8 + 1 total of nine as in the tent-roof. In addition, the earthly life of the Mother of God is celebrated by 8 feasts plus a 9th feast celebrating Her Synaxis where the Lord makes Her, the Holy Theotokos, Queen of the Church and giving Her dominion over the 9 orders of the Heavenly Host and the 9 Orders of the Saints with their 3-stage hierarchy symbolized by the fact that from any vantage point the tent-roof seems to have 3 triangular sides that meet at the dome - all crowned by the dome symbolizing the Lord Himself. Alternately, just as the single-dome churches resemble a holy warrior marching to free his homeland, the tent-roof resembles the Mother of God standing in her robes as in certain most holy icons.

The Church of the Dormition in Uglich is one of the purest examples of such a Theotokos-Church. It has 3 tent-roofs on three tiers that stand over 9 altars dedicated to the feast days of the Mother of God, 3 altars under each tent-roof. The central tent-roof protrudes outward so that the crosses on the domes form an equilateral triangle inclining to the west as is perfectly visible on ascending along the main axis of the church up the hill from Kamenny stream toward the St. Aleksy Monastery. Trinity Cathedral on Red Square also uses this symbolism as the tent-roofed Church of the Protecting Veil is surrounded by domed side chapels that form an 8-ended cross reminiscent of the "Burning Bush" icon of the Mother of God.
[page 204 - Church of the Dormition, Uglich] Dormition Church (the big one in the picture)
[page 208 - St. Basil's Cathedral] (Trinity/Protecting Veil Cathedral is the same as St. Basils)

The Church of the Ascension in Kolomenskoye village takes the tent-roof symbolism a step farther. Its porch is supported by 14 pillars running around the cross shaped church centered on the tent-roof. This all corresponds to the arrangement of icons of Christ's Ascension where the Mother of God is depicted in the center, under Christ, and surrounded by 2 angels and the 12 apostles - the tent-roof in the center, under the dome, surrounded by 14 pillars.
[page 205 - Church of the Ascension, Kolomenskoye]
Church of the Ascension - halfway down page

Patriarch Nikon forbade the building of tent-roof churches in an attempt to bring the Russian church closer to the Byzantine models, but they continued to be built. In particular, the tent-roof was used in bell-towers (which were separate structures from the church) as a symbol of Good Tidings and the Annunciation.

The Mother of God was revered in Russia as an intercessor, a supporter, and as a source of consolation and victory. The icons of the Mother of God show up again and again in Russian history miraculously saving the Russian people from their enemies. From Novgorod to Smolensk to Moscow, Russian troops have carried icons of the Mother of God to victory and countless villages have been blessed by miracles performed through her icons. Thus She has had a special place in Russian hearts.

It should be remembered that Russian churches were designed with their spiritual meaning and purpose primarily in mind, not for pure esthetic effect, but this did not by any means interfere with the achievement of external beauty.

Church architecture after the time of Peter the Great began to feel the influences of Western European architecture and the Renaissance but still managed to preserve its unique character as it adapted foreign influences. [page 197 - Cathedral of the Dormition, Smolensk]

Bibliography Bradbury, Doris (translator). The Russian Orthodox Church. Progress Publishers: Moscow. 1982.
Russian Churches
Russian Church Architecture

Other images of Russian churches
[page 2 - a glorious, albeit slightly Westernized, church interior]
[page 4 - an extremely gilded iconostasis]
[page 9 - St. Olga, Equal to the Apostles]
[page 12 - St. Sophia, Kiev]
[page 13 - the churches of the Kremlin]
[page 34 - a Local Church council]
[page 44 - a Metropolitan conducting Divine Service]
[page 45 - a village procession]
[page 48 - administering Communion]
[page 61 - greeting an Archbiship]
[page 63 - pre-paschal blessing of kulichi and pasckhas]
[page 64 - Vladimir Mother of God, protectress of Moscow]
[page 82 - nuns making hay]
[page 83 - nuns sewing]
[page 120 - "The Invasion"]
[page 166 - icon of Christ Not made by human hands]

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