The Layout of the Byzantine Church Building
Since ancient times, it has been customary to hold Christian liturgical services in a space set aside specially for that purpose. (Some early Church writers even considered the consecration of a church building to be one of the sacraments or Mysteries of the Church!) Each liturgical tradition has its own requirements and expectations for the liturgical space; in this article, we will look at the church building and its symbolism in the Byzantine tradition.
Note: In English, we use the word church to describe both the community of Christians, and the building in which they meet for worship. Orthodox writers often use the word temple for liturgical space. In teaching at the MCI, we normally use the word "church", but do keep in mind the distinction between the particular church (a local Christian community with its bishop), the universal Church (all Christians, with their bishops), and the church building.
The most ancient plan of Christian architecture is probably the basilica, the large rectangular room used for public meetings, and many Byzantine churches today are organized around a large liturgical space, called the nave (from the Greek word for a ship, referring to the ark of Noah in which human beings were saved from the flood). The nave is the place where the community assembles for prayer, and symbolically represents the Church "in pilgrimage" - the Church in the world. It is normally adorned with icons of the Lord, the angels and the saints, allowing us to see and remember the "cloud of witnesses" who are present with us at the liturgy.
In many church buildings, the nave opens upward into a dome, with the icon of the Pantokrater (Christ as "ruler of the universe") above the congregation. The nave is also provided with lights - candles, chandeliers, or other illumination - so that at specific times the church interior can be brightly lit, especially at moments of great joy in the services.
The nave need not be rectangular; some churches are round, representing the endlessness of eternity. The principal church building of the Byzantine Rite, the Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople, employed a round plan for the nave, and this was imitated in many Byzantine church buildings, while others use a cruciform ("cross-shaped") layout to represent the cross of Christ by which we are saved.
In traditional church architecture, there are no pews or permanent seating, to allow worshipers to move freely within the church buildings; portable chairs may be used, with benches for the elderly or infirm. Even where there is permanent seating in the nave, there are normally side aisles left clear so that processions may take place around the nave.
If the nave represents the gathered assembly of Christian believers, the narthex ("entry room" or vestibule) represents that part of the world which awaits redemption. In ancient times, those were were not yet baptized, or those who had committed grave or public sins, would go no father than the narthex, and ask the prayers of those who made their way into the temple.
The initial portions of the baptismal and wedding services take place in the narthex, and during feast-day Vespers, a procession may take place to the narthex to pray for the needs of the world. Doors usually mark the boundary between the narthex and nave, and choosing to cross this boundary brings us deeper into the presence of God.
The sanctuary (the "holy place" or "holy of holies"), at the opposite end of the nave from the narthex, represents heaven and the heavenly liturgy. In contains a square table, the holy table or altar, at which the sacrifice of the Eucharist is offered. The holy table has many layers of symbolism, and represents both Christ and his empty tomb. The Gospel book, a cross, and a tabernacle containing the Body and Blood of Christ (kept for distribution to the sick or dying) are placed on the holy table, along with candles for illumination.
The sanctuary is usually a semicircular space (called an apse) containing chairs or benches for the clergy along the wall behind the holy table, with a central throne for the bishop. Like the nave, the sanctuary may be richly adorned with icons. Also within the sanctuary is the table of preparation or prothesis, at which the bread and wine for the Eucharist are prepared for liturgical use.
The icon screen (iconostasis)
A large icon screen or iconostasis is a particular feature of the Byzantine tradition; with doors at the center to allow the clergy to solemnly enter the sanctuary, and smaller doors at the side for access to the sanctuary at other times, it symbolically joins the nave and sanctuary, serving as the "gate of heaven." The icons here are arranged in a particular pattern, always including our Lord Jesus Christ and his Mother, the patronal saint of this particular community, and the other principal saint of the Byzantine tradition. Larger iconostases may include also icons of the twelve apostles and the twelve Great Feasts of the Byzantine Rite.
The central doors, called the holy doors, are only used for solemn processions; in fact, for some services such as daily vespers, they are never opened. During the Bright Week following Pascha, the feast of the Resurrection, on the other hand, they are left open for the entire week, to symbolize the fact that because of the Resurrection, "heaven is open to all." (The holy doors are also sometimes called "royal doors", but this term is more properly used of the doors from the narthex into to nave; the people who enter these doors are the "royal nation" who have been called out of darkness into the light of Christ; 1 Peter 2:9).
The space before the iconostasis is called the solea, and may extend out in a semicircle into the nave; the priest reads the Gospel from the solea, facing the people, and the deacon stands on the solea, facing the sanctuary, to lead the petitions of the congregation to God.
In the particular tradition of our church, a small four-legged table called the tetrapod may stand before the solea, with an icon of the saint of the day, which the faithful venerate with a bow and a kiss when they come into the church. At various times, the Gospel book or cross may also be placed on the tetrapod for the people's veneration.
Prayer to the East
Since ancient times, Christians have prayed facing the east: the place of the dawn, representing spiritual illumination. (Christ is referred to in the Scriptures as the Orient or East, and as the "dawn from on high"). It was also believed that, at his Second Coming, Christ would come from the East.
For this reason, the sanctuary is placed wherever possible at the eastern end of the nave, so that the priest at the altar or before the iconostasis, and all the people, can face the East to prayer. This in turn places the narthex at the western end of the church, the place of sunset, suitable for representing the world that resides in darkness, awaiting its fulfillment in the light of Christ. During the baptismal services, for example, the catechumen turns westward to renounce Satan, then turns to the East to profess his or her faith in Christ.
Even in churches whose location makes this traditional orientation impossible, we speak of the points of the compass in the traditional sense, so that "Eastward" means "toward the sanctuary", and the smaller left and right doors in the icon screen (through which the deacon passes) are said to be the northern and southern doors.
Other parts of the church building
The church building may also include:
- one or two cantor stands (usually at either side of the solea) from which the cantor(s) lead the singing
- a baptistery, or place set aside for baptism. In the Byzantine Rite, baptism is normally by immersion.
- bells, used for calling the faithful to worship, and marking particularly important moments in the services.
- a sacristy (diakonicon or "service room") where books, vestments, and other items for worship are stored.
Cantors should become thoroughly familiar with the church building in which they are to serve, and should plan to come early to services in order to pray before fulfilling their task of leading the congregation in sung prayer.
for Life: Part Two, The Mystery Celebrated.
(Pittsburgh: God With Us Publications, 1996).
An excellent introduction to Byzantine liturgy. This is the second volume of a widely-used Byzantine Catholic catechism.
- Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware. The Festal Menaion. (South Canaan, Pennsylvania: St. Tikhon's Seminary Press, 1969). Contains essays on liturgy in the Christian East, an explanation of the liturgical cycles, and a summary of the elements of the liturgy.