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The development of the Church and Its architectural forms

The arrangement of an Orthodox church is based on centuries-old tradition, going back to the first tent-temple, the tabernacle, which was erected by the Prophet Moses some 1500 years before Christ.

The Old Testament Temple and its various liturgical items — the altar, the seven-branched candelabrum, the censer, the priestly vestments and other objects — were all made in accordance with divine revelation. As the Lord said to Moses, "According to all that I show thee, after the pattern of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all the instruments thereof, even so shall ye make it¼ And thou shalt rear up the tabernacle according to the fashion thereof which was showed thee in the mount" (referring to Mount Sinai; Exodus 25:9; 26:30).

Approximately 500 years later, King Solomon replaced the movable Tabernacle (the tent-temple) with a magnificent stone temple in the city of Jerusalem. During its consecration, a mystical cloud descended from the sky and filled the temple, and the Lord said to Solomon: "I have hallowed this house, which thou hast built, to put My name there for ever; and Mine eyes and Mine heart shall be there perpetually" (see 1 [3] Kings 8-9 and 2 Chronicles [2 Paralipomenon] 6-7).

Over the course of centuries, from the reign of King Solomon till the time of Jesus Christ, the Temple of Jerusalem was the center of religious life for the entire Jewish people.

Our Lord Jesus Christ visited and prayed in this temple, which had been destroyed and then rebuilt. He demanded that the Jews respect the Temple, citing the words of the Prophet Isaiah, "Mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people," and He drove from the temple those that conducted themselves in an unworthy manner (Isaiah 56:7; Matt. 21:12-13; Mark 11:16-17; John 2:13-20).

After the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles continued to frequent the Old Testament Temple and pray in it, following Christ’s example (Acts 2:46). At the same time they began augmenting the Temple services with special Christian prayers and sacraments. Specifically, on Sunday ("the Lord’s Day") the Apostles and the first Christians would gather in the homes of the faithful, or sometimes in buildings designated as houses of prayer (oikoi). Here they would pray, read the Holy Scriptures, "break bread" (celebrate the Liturgy) and partake of Holy Communion. This is how the first house-churches developed (cf. Acts 5:42; 12:12; 20:8; Col. 4:15). Later, during the persecutions carried out by the pagan rulers, Christians used to gather in the catacombs (underground rooms), where they would celebrate the Liturgy at the graves of the martyrs.

During the first three centuries of Christianity, because of the relentless persecutions, Christian church buildings were rare. Only after the proclamation of religious freedom by Emperor Constantine the Great in 313 did Christian churches begin to appear everywhere.

Initially, churches were built in the form of a basilica — a long rectangular building with a small projecting structure at the entrance (the portico or porch) and a curved apse at the opposite end. Rows of columns divided the interior of the basilica into three or five sections called naves (meaning "ships"). The central nave was higher than those on the sides and had windows in it. Such basilicas were characterized by an abundance of light and air.

Soon churches were being built in other forms as well. Beginning in the fifth century, there were churches built in Byzantium in the form of a cross, with arches and a dome or cupola over the central part of the church. Occasionally, but more rarely, round or octagonal churches were built. The church architecture of Byzantium had an enormous influence on the Orthodox East.

Russian church architecture appeared as soon as Christianity was accepted in Rus. Its distinctive characteristic is the shape of the cupola, which resembles the flame of a candle. Later other architectural forms appeared; for example, in the West there was the Gothic style of churches with tall spires. And so, the shape of the Christian church building developed over the centuries, with each country and each era acquiring its own inimitable style. Since ancient times churches have adorned cities and towns. They became the symbols of the spiritual world, the images of the future renewal of the universe.

The number of cupolas on a church has its own significance. A single cupola honors the One God; three — the Holy Trinity; five — Christ and His four Evangelists; seven — the seven sacraments; and thirteen — Christ and His twelve Apostles.

The belfry or bell-tower is located over the entrance to the church or a little to the side. The sound of bells ringing reminds the faithful of the services conducted within the church. The slow tolling of the largest bell is called blagovest ("glad tidings"). This type of bell-ringing is used before the commencement of divine services, such as before the Vigil or the Divine Liturgy. The joyful and melodious ringing of all the bells, called the trezvon ("triple peal"), is carried out on feast days. In pre-Revolutionary Russia, the trezvon was rung during every day of Bright Week (Easter Week). The mournful tolling of various bells in succession, called the perezvon, is used at funerals.

"The sound of the bells is not simply a gong that summons people to church; it is a melody that spiritually permeates the environs of the church, serving as a reminder to pray for those who are busy with work, those who are traveling, those who are immersed in the monotony of everyday life¼. The ringing of the bells is a kind of musical sermon, one which carries beyond the threshold of the church. It proclaims faith and the life which is penetrated by the light of faith; it rouses the sleeping conscience" (Archpriest Alexander Men).

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