Russian Orthodox Symbols & Meanings

Russia is famous for onion-domed cathedrals, such as St. Basil's in Moscow.
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The Russian Orthodox Church is a direct descendant of the Byzantine Church and shares many similarities, especially in the importance of icons. Over the centuries, however, the Russian Orthodox Church has developed its own traditions and symbolism native to Russia -- particularly regarding architecture, feast days, the types icons popularly depicted and the use of an iconostasis during holy mass.

1 Architecture

When the Grand Prince of Kiev, Vladimir, married a Byzantine princess in the tenth century, he agreed to convert to the Christian religion. Immediately he commissioned Byzantine artists to travel to Kiev and create icons and Christian churches. The first Christian church in Kiev was the Tithe Church, which established the general layout of Russian Orthodox churches for centuries to come. The layout is cruciform in shape, with a large central dome to symbolize Jesus and four smaller domes at the end of each arm, symbolizing the four evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In later centuries these domes developed into "onion" shapes.

2 Feast Days

There are twelve feast days throughout the Russian Orthodox calendar year, representing the twelve apostles. The most important feast day is Pascha, or Easter. It begins at midnight on Saturday, when the congregation waits in darkness for the priest to light a candle from the unsleeping flame on the altar, symbolizing the Miracle of Holy Fire that happens every year at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The flame is then used to light all the candles in the church and icon lamps, which are given to parishioners to keep burning throughout the year.

3 Icons

Just as in the Byzantine Church, icons were a central feature of the Russian Orthodoxy. These were images blessed in a church and copied directly from miracle images, such as the Veil of Veronica, and provided a direct connection between the viewer and the holy person depicted. Every feast day is accompanied by its own icon, along with icons of Jesus and the Virgin Mary that are displayed in churches or homes throughout the year. St. Nicholas, the patron saint of Russia, is a popular icon and is identifiable by his mitre, liturgical clothing and hooked staff, reflecting that he was the Bishop of Myra. Other symbols reflect one of the three miracles he is famous for: three gold balls as a gift to three daughters, a ship to reflect his stilling of a storm and three youths in a barrel, whom St. Nicholas brought back from the dead.

4 Iconostasis

A typical element in a Russian Orthodox church that is unique is an iconostasis, or a wall of icons that separates the altar, the holiest part of the church, from the nave and the non-clergy. The icons are arranged on the iconostasis in a set theological order, with doors that are opened during the course of the liturgy, allowing the congregation to have glimpses of heaven and eternity. The doors themselves are typically decorated with symbols of the four evangelists .

Natasha Brandstatter is an art historian and writer. She has a MA in art history and you can find her academic articles published in "Western Passages," "History Colorado" and "Dutch Utopia." She is also a contributor to Book Riot and Food Riot, a media critic with the Pueblo PULP and a regular contributor to Femnista.