Orthodox church in Saint Petersburg Russia

Since ancient times, the Christian religion was filled with special signs that were embodied in the architecture of temples. What is the meaning of the shape, color, and the number of domes of the Russian Orthodox Church?

Color of the domes

Gold. The most common color of Orthodox domes represents eternity and heavenly glory. Temples with golden domes were dedicated to Christ and the great church holidays: Christmas, Present, Annunciation. Such chapters crown the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Savior and Kremlin cathedrals.

Today, domes are not lined with gold, but earlier the metal was dissolved in mercury, and then the resulting amalgam was applied to a hot copper sheet. The gilding process was very expensive and time-consuming. For example, it took 100 kilograms of gold to cover the dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral in Saint Petersburg.

St. Isaac's Cathedral in Saint Petersburg
St. Isaac’s Cathedral

Blue with stars. Temples with such domes are most often dedicated to the Virgin. The blue color symbolizes the purity of the Virgin Mary, and the stars refer to the Star of Bethlehem, which marked the birth of Jesus Christ.

Green. This color is considered a sign of the Holy Spirit. Most often, it can be found in churches dedicated to the Holy Trinity. One of these buildings is the Holy Trinity Church “Easter cake and Easter”. The idea to give the church the shape of traditional Easter dishes belonged to the customer of construction – Prince Alexander Vyazemsky.

Silver. This color in Orthodoxy is associated with purity and holiness. Churches dedicated to saints are crowned with silver domes – for example, St. Nicholas Church on Lipna near Velikiy Novgorod and St. Sophia Cathedral in Vologda.

The multicolored domes in the Orthodox tradition remind of the beauty of Heavenly Jerusalem. This is how the domes of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood look like in St. Petersburg and St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. Foreign travelers admire the colored patterns of the domes and compare them to the scales of a cedar cone, pineapple, and artichoke. This type of head was acquired after the fire of 1595 – then the temple was rebuilt.

St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow
St. Basil’s Cathedral

Form of the domes

The spherical dome in the Orthodox tradition symbolizes eternity. The Romans began to build temples with similar domes: in the 2nd century, they learned how to build ceilings of a large area without supports. The Roman pantheon built this way in 128 AD has survived to our days.

The onion dome in Orthodox architecture is the embodiment of prayer, the desire for heaven. According to researchers, such a dome on the base of the drum resembles a candle flame. Bulbous chapters are characteristic of Russian architecture of the 16th – 17th centuries.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

The tent, instead of the traditional dome, is interpreted in Christianity as the image of the Virgin or the Light of heaven. Tent temples were common in the 16th century, although similar churches were built before. Usually, they were constructed from wood: it was very difficult to repeat the design of the tent in stone.

How many domes does the Orthodox Church have?

One dome reminds believers of the unity of God. One-domed temples were especially popular in pre-Mongol times. The most famous of them is the Church of the Intercession on the Nerl and the Dmitrievsky Cathedral in Vladimir. Both temples were built in the 12th century – they survived the devastating Mongol-Tatar invasions and exist to this day.

Two domes are infrequent and mark the divine and human nature of Jesus Christ.

Three domes are associated with the Holy Trinity. Three chapters crown the St. George Cathedral of St. George Monastery – the oldest monastery in Velikiy Novgorod.

Five domes are a symbol of Jesus Christ and the four evangelists: John, Mark, Luke, and Matthew. Five-domed churches are found in Russia more often than others.

Russian Orthodox church domes
Avraamiev Epiphany Monastery

Seven domes mark seven Orthodox sacraments for the Orthodox, seven Ecumenical Councils (congregations at which the main Christian dogmas were adopted) and seven main Orthodox virtues. Seven-domed cathedrals are not as common as three- or five-domed ones.

Nine domes are associated with nine angelic ranks. According to the Christian tradition, heavenly angels are divided into nine levels: cherubs and seraphim are closest to God, and angels and archangels are closest to man.

Thirteen domes remind of Jesus Christ and his associates, the twelve apostles.

Twenty-five domes mean the praise of the Most Holy Theotokos – the glorification of the Most Holy Virgin with 25 Old Testament prophets. In addition, the number 25 symbolizes the vision of the heavenly throne and the 24 elders surrounding it, described in the Revelation of John the Theologian.

Thirty-three domes symbolize the years of Christ’s life on earth. Such temples were built very rarely.


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