Unlike Western churches which are designed with high spires that aim worshipers towards the realm of God, Orthodox churches are designed to bring the Holy Spirit to the earth. Many Orthodox churches are dominated by domes and cupolas.

Western churches are structured so that the attention of the congregation is focuses towards the pulpit or the altar. By contrast, Orthodox church have a solid screen called an iconostasis that divides the sanctuary from the rest of the building and conceals the Communion Table from the worshipers. The priest usually remains behind the screen and appears only during a procession before the congregation

The east end of the Orthodox Christian church is off limits to all but the priest. During a services the priest comes and goes through the Holy or Royal door at the middle of the iconostasis. On the ceiling hang small silver, gold or wax votive offering, sometimes of arms, hands, torso, ears—representing afflicted body parts that people want to be healed—and even boats and trucks.

Many Orthodox church are painted blue, red or green. They are often richly adorned with frescoes, sometime on their outer walls.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is regarded as the greatest Orthodox Christian church. It was the largest religious building in the world until St. Peters was completed in Rome. But what was even more amazing was that it was finished 1000 years before St. Peters was even started. Also known as Saint Sophia and Aya Sofya, it was described soon after it was completed by the historian Procopius wrote as “a most glorious spectacle, extraordinary to those who behold it and altogether incredible to those who are told of it. It is distinguished by indescribable beauty, excelling both in is size and the harmonies of its measures.”

Seven centuries later Prince Vladamir of Russia chose Christianity over Islam as his country's religion—even though Islam promised to fulfill all his carnal lusts in heaven—after his emissaries visited Constantinople and reported back that only God could have created a church as great as Saint Sophia.

Haghia Sophia is comprised of a large dome attached to half domes and semicircular niches. It has more interior space than the Pantheon in Rome but does not rest on solid walls. The rectangular basilica measures 230 feet by 250 feet and the dome is 180 feet above the ground and 100 feet across. Its interior spaciousness is created by the arrangement of arches, half domes and 40 stone ribs. Light enters through 40 windows and is focused on the emblematic sun at the dome’s center. There are also great columns and pillars, intricately designed ceramic tiles and some of the world’s most admired mosaics.

Hagia Sophia has been described as the “best built building ever.” It stoof through 10 major earthquakes, sustaining only minor damage. The walls and dome were made of cut stone and brick held together with poured lead. To decorate the interiors marble of different color was brought in from the all corners of the known world: black with white streaks from the Bosporus, green from Sparta, red an white from the Tarsus mountains and yellow from Libya. Wood was forbidden as a structural material to minimize any chance of the church burning down.

History of Hagia Sophia

"Haghia Sophia" is Greek for “Holy Wisdom.” It is an awe-inspiring site today, but just imagine what it must have been like for people who witnessed it when it was finished in A.D. 536 and there was nothing even remotely like it in rest of the world. Byzantine Emperor Justinian supposedly spent 320,000 pounds of gold to build it and upon seeing the completed product for the first time he exclaimed "O Solomon I have surpassed thee!"

The plans for the church, surprisingly, were drawn up in less than six weeks by an architect named Athememius, who also had the distinction of being the first person to draw an ellipse with a string tied around two fixed points, and the first person to install a steam driven machine in the basement of a friend's house as a practical joke to make him think it was being rattled by an earthquake.

The architectural advancement Athememius devised that made the building of the great church possible was the balancing of the massive 184-foot-high, 252-foot-long and 234-foot-wide dome on top of a square. Before that domes were built on set of columns arranged in a circle, a design much weaker structurally than a square.

To speed up construction the 5,000 men building one side of the church were pitted against the 5,000 men on other side. When it was finished five years, ten months and four days later a huge celebration was held in which a thousand oxen, six thousand sheep, six hundred stags, one thousand pigs and ten thousand chickens and fowl were served up.

Twenty years after the church was completed an earthquake cracked the dome and five years after that a piece of the dome and an arch collapsed. A second, higher and more stable dome was built, and this one survived major earthquakes in 989 and 1344. In the 16th century the great Ottoman architect Sinan added some buttresses to shore up the building even more. Today some of the columns are tilted, the floor has subsided a bit and the dome is slightly disfigured, but the massive pink building itself stands as proudly and gloriously as ever.

The Byzantines filled the interiors of Saint Sophia with frescoes and gilded mosaics. When the Ottoman Turks claimed the church in 1452 and turned it into a mosque called Aya Sofya, they covered the Byzantine artwork with Arabesque designs and scripture from the Koran, and added four minarets to the outside of the building. Muslims considered images of humans and animals to be sacrilegious, which is why you only see designs and arabic writing in Aya Sofya today. The Ottomans however weren't the only ones that disfigured the church. The crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204 and stripped Saint Sophia of its silver and gold.

When Atatürk (an atheist) became president in the 1920's, he declared Aya Sofia to be a museum, open to everyone. Since then some of the plaster walls have been taken down, revealing the splendid mosaics and frescoes underneath. One of the mosaics in the gallery on the second floor depicts Empress Zoë (980-1050), one of Byzantium's female rulers, and her third Husband Constantine Monomachus.

Today, Haghia Sophia is a source of fighting between Christians, Muslims and secularists. Orthodox Christians want it to be restored as a church. Muslims want it to be restored as a mosque. Secularists want it to remain a museum. It almost became a mosque again when an Islamic political party too power in 1996.

Cathedral of St. Sophia in Kiev

Cathedral of St. Sophia is Kiev's oldest church and one of the oldest Orthodox Christian churches. Occupying an entire block, it was initially built between 1017 and 1031 under Yaroslav the Wise, the son of Prince Vladimir, to commemorate a battle victory over the Pechenegs. Over the centuries it has been used for coronations and the burial of important people and houses Russia and Ukraine's first library and school.

Named and modeled after Haghia Sofia in Istanbul, St. Sophia is famous for its soaring blue bell tower, 11th century mosaics and frescoes and its golden domes which blaze brightly at sunset. Adjacent to the church is a monastery as well as a royal palace and home of the Metropolitan.

Virtually nothing that you see today dates back to the 11th century. Most of the structures have been added or altered over the centuries. The Baroque cupolas and much of what is visible were constructed in the 17th and 18th centuries. You can see the original brickwork were the stucco has been striped away. Models of the original can be seen near the entrance.

Some of the frescoes on the inside date to the 11th century but most were painted from the 17th to 19th centuries. The scenes are similar to those found in other Orthodox churches. Particularly impressive is the image of Christ, surrounded by four archangels, staring down from the central dome. Between the windows and the dome are the Apostles. Mark and one of the archangels are originals from the 11th century.

The central apse features the six-meter-high, 11th-century mosaics of the Virgin Orans. Below her is an image of Christ presenting a child to the Apostles. In the main nave you can see a few original figures from the 11th century fresco of Yaroslav the Wise and his family. Yaroslav lies in marble sarcophagus in a northeast of the cathedral. The northern arcade has some exhibits pertaining to the cathedral.

Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir

Assumption Cathedral (Vladimir) is the most famous building in Vladimir. It was the inspiration for the Assumption cathedral in the Kremlin and in turn was inspired by the brick Byzantine churches of Kiev. It is now is a working church, often filled with worshippers and pilgrims. Begun in 1158 and expanded after a fire in the 1180s, but largely unchanged after that, this white-stone church is a simple structure with a central dome, five outer domes, five aisles and beautiful carvings. It was built to house the Byzantine icon of the Virgin, brought from Kiev and now known as the “Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God” (currently in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow).

Among the treasures that remain are a few restored mural of peacocks and saints painted between 1158 and 1160 on the inner wall of the north side and the “Last Judgment” fresco painted by Rublyov and Daniil Chyorny in 1408 in the central nave and inner south aisle under the choir gallery.

Palekh (100 miles northeast of Vladimir) is a village near the Volga River regarded as the home of the best icon painters in Russia. Icons, lacquer boxes and miniatures from Palekh can sell for thousands of dollars. They are so famous in fact that art markets in Europe and the United States have been flooded with fake Palekh art. The Cathedral of the Raising of the Cross contains lovely 14th to 19th-century icons and frescos and has been transformed from a museum into a working church since the break up of the Soviet Union. A good collection of icons and frescoes can also be seen in the National Museum of Palekh Art. Icons and boxes are sold at local shops.

Assumption Cathedral in the Kremlin in Moscow

Assumption Cathedral (past the State Kremlin Palace) is where many tsars—including Ivan the Terrible—were married and crowned. It has the focal point of the Russian Orthodox church from the 1320 to the 1900 and is where many Patriarchs and important figure in the church have been buried. Today it is the first major Kremlin building that visitors see that they can actually enter.

Assumption Cathedral is recognizable by it five massive, helmet-shaped golden domes and four semicircular gables. Almost every inch of the cathedral's interior is covered with icons, frescoes and religious paintings, even the columns. Church officials say this is because "the columns support the ceiling and the saints support the church." Another reason is that most people who entered the church around the time it was built couldn't read and the various images told them the stories of the saints.

Assumption Cathedral was designed by the Italian architect Aristotle Fioravanti after a tour of Vladimir and Suzdal and built between 1475 and 1479. It replaced a smaller cathedral built in 1326. In 1812, the French used it as a stable and looted 295 kilograms of gold and five tons of silver (most of it was later recovered). During the communist era the cathedral was turned into a museum. In October 1989 the first Russian Orthodox Service was held there is in 70 years.

Interior of the Assumption Cathedral

The tomb of many religious leaders are near the north, west and south walls. Next to the south wall in the tent-roofed wooden throne made in 1551 for Ivan the Terrible and known as the Throne of Monomakh because it contains carved scenes of the life of the 12th-century Grand Prince Vladamir of Monomakh of Kiev.

Hanging from the ceiling are huge chandeliers and lined up on the walls are priceless icons. The iconostasis was raised in 1652. The oldest icons are on the lowest level. They include “Savior with the Angry Eyes” (made in the 1340s) and an early 15th century, Rublyov-school copy of the “Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God” (the original is at the Tretyakov Gallery). The oldest icon, “St. George”, made in Novgorod, dates back to the 12th century. Most of the murals were painted in the 1640s. A group of three on the south wall date back to the time when the church was built.

The cathedral's most prized procession is the skull of St. John Golden Tongue, believed to watch over anyone who possesses it, and only recently given back to the church. A close second is a silver tabernacle called the Great Jerusalem. Decorated with likenesses of the Twelve Apostles, the silver vessel was a gift from Ivan the Terrible.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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