Russian Orthodox church architecture: How to read its sacred elements (INFOGRAPHICS)

Church buildings sometimes seem incredibly complex, but in fact they have a precise structure where everything has meaning and significance. We’ll help you understand the details so that you can easily identify the architectural elements of Russian churches.

Originally appeared at: Russia Beyond

The cupola (dome)

Natalya Nosova

The most typical and most recognizable element of Orthodox churches is the dome, crowned with the eight-pointed Orthodox cross. The most commonly encountered ones are onion domes (3). In addition to their purely practical function (snow doesn't pile up on such a surface, which is extremely important during the snowy Russian winters when tons of snow can simply crush a building), they also have a symbolic meaning - the onion shape, pointed upwards, resembles the flame of a candle.

It is believed that onion domes began to be widely used after the construction of St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, i.e. starting in the mid-16th century. Many older, pre-Mongol churches – dating from the 12th-13th centuries – often had helmet-shaped domes (2).

From the late 16th-17th centuries, tent-roof churches (4) with small golden cupolas on top also became popular. In addition, churches often had tent-roof bell towers attached to them.

Later, churches could also have spherical cupolas (1), which symbolize eternity.

As it happens, you can tell to whom a church is dedicated based on the color of its domes.

  • Golden domes mean the church is dedicated to Christ, 
  • blue domes dotted with stars, to the Mother of God, 
  • green domes, to the Trinity or the Blessed Saints,
  • silver domes signifies the saints. 
  • And black domes are frequently encountered in monastery churches.

The number of domes is also important.

  • Three symbolize the Holy Trinity,
  • five, Jesus Christ and the four Evangelists, 
  • seven denote the Holy Sacraments, 
  • nine, the number of levels in the angelic hierarchy, 
  • 13 represent Christ and the Apostles, 
  • 25, the number of Old Testament prophets. 
  • Even 33 domes occur - to denote the number of years of Christ's life.

Different numbers such as 11 or 15 can also be encountered, but they are, if anything, the exception.

The drum

Natalya Nosova

The dome stands on a cylindrical drum - the baraban (it is commonly wider in diameter than the dome itself). Most drums are pierced with narrow window openings, which are not just a design feature but also an important source of light for the church. A blind drum without windows is called a sheya (neck).

Cube of the church

Natalya Nosova

The principal volume of the church can be cubic in form (not necessarily in the strict sense of the word since it is frequently elongated in length or height) - and then it is called a chetverik (cube) (1).

There are also churches with an eight-sided design - such a structure is called a vosmerik (octagon) (2).

Many churches, moreover, have a multi-tiered structure, and one much-employed design was the vosmerik na chetverike (octagon-on-cube).


Natalya Nosova

The main volume of a church can have a variety of different architectural extensions. An important part is the apse (apsida) - a semicircular projection from the building that houses the altar. It is a little lower in height than the main volume of the church. There are single-apse churches, and also churches with three or even five apses (for instance, the Cathedral of the Dormition in the Moscow Kremlin).

Zakomara (the gable) and kokoshnik

Natalya Nosova

An important architectural feature of a church is zakomara (the arched gable) (1) - the semicircular or keel-shaped element that crowns one of the sections of the main wall of the church. The gables repeat the forms of the interior structure of the church. If gables are present, it means the church has vaulted roofs.

There are also false gables with a purely decorative function - these are known as kokoshniki (corbel arches) (2). In churches built in the uzorochye style (literally "pattern work" – the Russian version of baroque), there could be many of them.

Pryaslo and pilasters

Natalya Nosova

The vertical section of a wall crowned by a gable is called the pryaslo (1). Decorative columns – pilyastry (pilasters) (2)– are frequently present between neighboring pryasla, continuing the lines of the arched gables.


Natalya Nosova

Certain churches in the Classical style have fronton (pediment) instead of gables - triangular double-pitched elements crowning the facade.


Natalya Nosova

The papert (porch) is an enclosed or open wing of the church. As an ancient tradition, those afflicted by sickness or some disability would gather here to beg alms.

Side chapel

Natalya Nosova

The pridel, or side chapel, is an extension to the main church, or a specially allocated section inside the church where an additional altar for divine worship is located. Each side chapel has an individual dome. For instance, St. Basil's Cathedral has eight side chapels arranged around the church’s main chapel - making nine chapels in total. The principal one is the chapel of the Intercession of the Mother of God, and, in fact, only one of the side chapels is dedicated to St. Basil.

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