First Steps: Interior Layout of the Orthodox Church / Russian Pilgrimage

Translated and edited from:
The architecture of the Orthodox church differs from any other buildings. More often than not, the foundation for a church building is laid out in the form of a cross, since it is through the Savior’s Cross that we were freed from the tenets of devil. It is quite common to see it made in the shape of a ship symbolizing the fact that the Church, akin to the ship, and similar to Noah’s Ark, leads us along the sea of life towards the quiet harbor of the Kingdom of Heaven. Occasionally, it has a circle in its foundation, as a sign of eternity, or a Star of Bethlehem, a reminder that the Church, like a guiding star, shines brightly in this world.

A dome representing heaven adorns the top of the church building. An onion-shaped cupola sits atop the dome with the cross above – for the glory of the head of the Church, Jesus Christ. It is common to have not just one but a few cupolas: two mean two essences, Divine and human, of Jesus Christ, three cupolas signify three Persons of the Holy Trinity, five – Jesus Christ and four Evangelists, seven – seven kinds of Holy Mysteries and seven Ecumenical Councils, while nine symbolize nine Angelic orders or thirteen – Jesus Christ and twelve Apostles, and then, even few more cupolas are often added.

A bell-tower, or belfry, situated above the entrance to the church or next to it, is the tower holding the bells used to call the faithful to prayer and to announce the most important parts of the service at church.

The interior of the Orthodox church is made of three sections: altar (sanctuary), nave and narthex. Altar symbolizes the Kingdom of Heaven. The nave belongs to all the faithful. In the first centuries of Christianity, narthex was the only place made available to the catechumens, who were getting ready to receive the Holy Mystery of baptism. Nowadays, those who have committed a grave sin are being sent away to stay in the Narthex area to redeem their sin. Narthex is also a place where the candles are sold, notes of remembrance are handled, prayer for the living and panikhida remembrance services for the departed are ordered, etc. A church porch (parvex), an elevated platform embracing the entrance to the church, is sometimes added in front of the Narthex.


The Christian churches are built with the main altars facing east, towards the rising sun, whish is one of the names of the Lord Jesus Christ, as He shone His Heavenly light on us, is “the Sun of Righteousness,” He Who is “the Orient from on High.”

Each Orthodox church, as a place to worship God, is named in memory of one or another church feasts or after a certain God-pleasing saint. If there are several altars in the church, each one is dedicated to commemorate a special feast or a saint. All altars, save the main one, are called side altars. Altar is the holiest part of the church. The word “altar” means “an elevated table of sacrifice.” It is typically arranged on a raised platform. Here the priests celebrate services and the holiest part, the altar table, is located, since this is where the very Lord Himself is present mysteriously and the Mystery of Holy Communion is taking place. The altar table is a specially sanctified table clothed in two vestments: the lower part made of white linen and the top of expensive brocade material. The table holds holy articles that can be used exclusively by priests.

A place behind the altar table, by the eastern wall, is called the High Place and it is made to be elevated.

The altar is separated from the middle portion of the church building by a special kind of wall, upon which the icons are hung, called the iconostasis. The iconostasis has three doors or gates. The middle and largest is found in the very center of the screen and called the Royal Gates, as through them passes the very Lord Himself, Jesus Christ, the King of Glory, Who comes in the Holy Gifts invisibly. No one is allowed to pass through, or in front of, the Royal Gates but the clergy. A curtain is hung across the Royal Gates on the inside, which is drawn and withdrawn during the course of the divine services.

To the right of the Royal Gates there is always an icon of the Saviour, and on the left, one of the Mother of God.

The altar’s side doors are sometimes called the “deacon’s doors,” since the deacons and altar servers use them.

On the far ends of the iconostasis, next to the deacons’ doors, are placed the icons of especially revered saints. The first icon to the right of Christ the Savior icon is almost always the icon of the church, that is, the representation of the feast or a saint to whom the church building is dedicated.

There are icons attached to the walls of the church, either in special large frames or shrines, or on analogions, high, slanted stands, all of them available for veneration.

(All the icons inside the church can be venerated by faithful, who apply their faith by asking for intercession, healing, and their daily cares they hope to receive help for. One may make a sign of the cross first and the kiss the icon’s glass or frame lightly. No lipstick is allowed in church).

The raised platform, upon which the altar and the iconostasis stand, extends several feet forward into the middle portion of the church. This elevation in front of the iconostasis is called the solea. The solea is reserved for the clergy and altar servers’ use, and for the choir.

Rules for lighting and placing candles inside an Orthodox church:

The candles can be placed before, during certain allowed moments during, and after the church services.

Tall rounded-shaped candle-stands are used for placing the candles for the living faithful. These candle-stands are usually strategically placed next to, or right in front of, the icons. One may light a candle first from another candle, place it on a stand, make the sign of the cross, and then venerate the icon next to it.

Usually on the side of the nave there is a small and low rectangular-shaped table for the reposed, with an image of the Crucifixion, before which the candles are placed. This is where the faithful commemorate and ask for intercessions for their beloved departed friends and family members, or any deceased Christians they may want to place a candle and say a prayer for.


Censing is performed before the Holy Altar, around the church interior and the icons and the expression of our feelings of respect and reverence. When the faithful inside the church are censed around, the smoke from the censors enveloping the church means that the silent prayers ascend up to Heaven as sincere manifestation of the faith deep inside their hearts. Consequently, the Grace of God enshrines them all the same as the smoke envelops the church.

While being censed, the faithful should respond with a bow.

Here is an uplifting example what one may hear during the censing at the Liturgy of Pre-Sanctified Gifts, one of the Lenten services.

Psalm 140 – Let My Prayer Arise!
by Russian composer Dmitry Bortniansky
Choir of the St. Tikhon’s Seminary, USA

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