The Theology and Symbolism of Eastern Rite Church Architecture

Most Ukrainian churches are divided into three sections called the narthex, the nave, and the sanctuary (also known as the altar). While this is not a strict requirement, there are strong traditions within the liturgical context of Eastern Rite ecclesiastical architecture that call for Ukrainian churches to be constructed in this manner. We can view the church building as an architectural icon — an image of a mystical prototype.

The nave represents the place where the Jews prayed
in the temple – Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, North Battleford, SK

The Church as the Old Testament Temple

The structure of an Eastern Rite church serves as an architectural icon that prefigures the Old Testament Temple of Solomon. In the symbolism behind this image, the narthex represents the temple courtyard. In ancient times, one could often purchase live animals in the courtyard of the temple and these would be used for certain sacrifices as instructed by the old Jewish scriptures. Today the narthex of a Ukrainian church is often the place where the parish sells candles, books, etc. While this does not imply a link between the two types of sale, it is interesting to note that in both instances the buying and selling is kept outside of the holy place.

The nave, which is usually the central and largest part of the church, represents the holy place in the Temple of Solomon where the Jews came to pray. Christ was angered when he entered the temple and saw the various forms of commerce that had been moved inside the temple. This should be taken as a warning to us that all our actions within the nave must be highly dignified ones. In an Eastern Rite church the congregation gathers to participate in the Divine Liturgy and other holy services. Because this part of the church is a place of meditation and prayer, all talking and noise in general must be kept to a minimum to show respect for its holiness.

The Altar area represents the Holy of Holies –
St. Mary Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Szypenitz, AB

The sanctuary represents that part of the Old Testament Temple of Solomon known as the Holy of Holies in which was contained the Mercy Seat and the Arc of the Covenant. The sanctuary is usually separated from the nave with an iconostas (icon screen). It is here that we find the altar of the church and, as in olden times, this is the most holy place in a church. No one should ever enter the sanctuary without having a very specific reason to do so.

The Church as a Representation of the Cosmos

While there are many areas where mysticism plays a part in the Eastern Rite, one witnesses it most readily by simply walking into a traditional church. The architecture is designed to represent the magnificent union of heaven and earth, because this is the meeting point between God and mankind. The building is an architectural icon of the entire cosmos. St. Simeon of Thessalonica said of the church, “it represents what is on earth, what is in heaven, and what is above the heavens.”

The most significant part of an Eastern Rite church is the altar located in the centre of section called the sanctuary. The altar is the throne of Christ and this section of the temple is commonly called “the Altar”. The bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist are mystically transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ on the altar table. The altar in an Eastern Rite church is usually a freestanding cube constructed of wood or stone. Places of worship were over burial sites of martyrs in the early Church — often in the catacombs. For this reason, relics of saints are placed in the altar at the time of the consecration of the altar and church. The altar embodies the mystical presence of the celestial throne of Christ and the relics symbolize that the Church was built on the blood and bones of the martyrs.

The altar represents the throne of Christ in heaven —
St. George Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, Saskatoon, SK

In this architectural icon of the cosmos, the sanctuary therefore represents heaven and is separated from the rest of the church by the iconostas. The nave, where the congregation stands, is the earth. The Royal Doors in the centre of the iconostas represent the entrance to paradise. They are normally closed but are opened during the Divine Liturgy and it is then heaven spiritually illuminates the earth and God meets His creation. An Easter hymn reminds us of this: “Christ rose from the grave and opened the doors of Paradise unto us.”

The Royal Doors represent the gates to paradise – Dormition of
the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Ottawa, ON

As St. Maximus the Confessor wrote, “the sanctuary and the nave communicate: the sanctuary enlightens and guides the nave, which becomes its visible expression.”

The third section in our tripartite floor plan is the narthex, which symbolizes the unredeemed part of the world. In ancient times, this space was for penitents and catechumens; however, nowadays the narthex is frequently used as a vestibule. This is also the spot where infants were brought for baptism and chrismation.
The term “iconostas” originates from the Greek words “eikon” (icon) and “histemi” (place). It can either be a solid wall or a grill like structure. It might be fairly low with a single row of icons or it might go from floor to ceiling with several rows of icons. In an Eastern Rite church the iconostas is a very important architectural feature and should not be viewed as merely decorative. The iconostas is the border separating the two worlds of humanity and divinity. However, at the same time, it has a purpose in uniting these worlds, since, as Ouspensky said of the iconostas: “Standing on the boundary line between the Divine and the human, it reveals by means of images as fully as possible the ways to this reconciliation.”

The iconostas of St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral,
Edmonton, AB

Normally, an Eastern Rite church usually has an east west alignment. In both Canada and Ukraine, some churches are not aligned this way; however, that is not a serious matter. Nonetheless, there is definitely a purpose to the more traditional alignment.

A church is like a boat embarking into open space directed toward the East and this is why many Ukrainian churches have a ship-like appearance. The alignment toward the East comes from several references in the Bible. For example, “Therefore in the east give glory to the LORD . . .” (Isaiah 24: 15). Jesus Christ foretold, “For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man,” (Matthew 24: 27) and for this reason we pray facing the East. The four parts of the church interior are symbolic of the four cardinal directions. The sanctuary represents paradise lying in the East. Conversely, the West represented by the narthex is where the dead reside, anticipating the resurrection of the body and Christ’s final judgement. The middle of the church, with its four sides, is where we find the world of the living and it represents the earth.

The sanctuary represents paradise lying in the East –
St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Orthodox Church near Theodore, SK

Over the ceiling of centre of the church is a dome representing the dome of the sky over the earth. We often see stars painted on the ceiling of our churches. When Christ is painted in the interior of the central dome, he is placed at the highest point of the church and this represents that he is ruler over all of the cosmos of heaven and earth.

Christ in the central dome of St. John the Baptist
Ukrainian Catholic Church, Ottawa, ON

In the Ukrainian Church, participation in the liturgy is nothing less than the mystical union of humanity with the saints, the company of heaven, and God. Christ became man that He might die and rise again for the salvation of humankind and in the liturgy man is deified in the process of salvation. This is what St. Athanasius meant when he wrote, “He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God.”

The Divine Liturgy is filled with movement –
Holy Trinity Ukrainian Orthodox Church (historic), Canora, SK

Experience of the Eastern Rite Divine Liturgy is the experience of heaven on earth and we employ all of the five senses in this ritual. One hears the chanting, sees the glorious temple, smells the incense, touches the icons, and tastes the bread and wine.

In a traditionally decorated Ukrainian Church, one is keenly aware of the multitude of icons having a special place in worship. The people enter the Church, light candles before the icons, and lovingly kiss them. This experience unites the Eastern Rite believer with the glorious company

We stand during Divine Liturgy –
Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Ukrainian Catholic Church, Antonivka, SK

of saints in the sacred temple. The service, the architecture, and the iconography are in liturgical harmony with each other. The people’s processions — lighting candles, venerating the gospels, etc. — are liturgically in tune with their surroundings. The congregation stands because they are co-servers with the priest. The introduction of pews in Ukrainian-Canadian churches is a relatively recent innovation due, at least in part, to Western influence. However, pews almost compel the participants to be stationary observers instead of participants in the cosmic ritual.

Divine Liturgy at Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church
(OCA), Star-Edna, AB

The importance of these Eastern Rite traditions cannot be ignored in the study of Ukrainian churches. The important thing to remember is that everything has its place and its specific meaning. Nothing in a Ukrainian church is without purpose when the church is designed and decorated according to Eastern Rite tradition.