Layout of an Orthodox Church

Layout of an Orthodox Church
by Priest Alexander Borodin

The basic form and features of Orthodox Church buildings developed out of deep antiquity. In order to understand the current layout of Orthodox Churches, it is vital to understand what they developed from and why. The history of the layout of the Christian Church is firmly rooted in the pre-Christian history of the Jewish religion.

Exodus and the Beginning of Organized Jewish Worship
We have all heard or read how Moses led the Jewish people out of captivity in Egypt. We have heard how the first Passover established the beginnings of the Paschal sacrifice. We know how Moses received the Ten Commandments, inscribed on two stone tablets, on Mt Sinai. Having received the Law of God, the Israelites constructed the Ark of the Covenant to house the tablets, as well as Aaron’s rod and manna. The Ark was built out of wood and was covered in pure gold. On its lid were two Cherubim, and it had two poles which served as carrying handles.

While the Jews were on their march towards the promised land, they undertook sacrificial worship in a mobile temple called the Tabernacle, which was a demountable compound which contained a tent, within which were the Holy of Holies, a veil, an Altar of Incense, a 7-branched candlestick, tables of shewbread. Outside, in the compound were the Altar of Burnt Offering and a Laver of water.

A specially ordained group called the priests performed worship services. Within the worship services, different priests were assigned different roles. Some were assigned to burn the offerings, others tended to the Altar of Incense. When the Jews eventually reached their Promised Land of Israel, and established their capital at Jerusalem, their nomadic way of life ceased. However, the basic forms of worship continued.

The Temple in Jerusalem and the Synagogues
Before Christ’s incarnation on Earth, and indeed, during His time in the World, the Jewish people had two types of common prayer (or liturgical prayer). One type of common prayer was focussed on the local Synagogue, or prayer house, and involved reciting of the scriptures of what we call the Old Testament today, singing, and religious instruction. This type of worship was rabbinical in nature – that is it was lead by a rabbi or teacher.

The other type of prayer, was based around the Temple of Solomon, of which there was only one in the world, and which was in Jerusalem. This second type of prayer was based around the offering of sacrifice – the highest example of which was the ritual killing of cattle, and their ritual burning on the Altar. This second type of common prayer was priestly in nature, as it was led by a priestly caste, who inherited their divine vocation along family lines.

Temple worship was considered the highest form of worship, since it was based on sacrifice. Sacrifice had always been a part of the Jewish religion, but it became especially important at the time of Moses and the Passover (Pesach or Pascha) when the Jews departed from Egypt in miraculous fashion after the ritual sacrifice of lambs.

Solomon established the first permanent Temple in Jerusalem, which was completed in 960BC. This was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586BC. The (Second)Temple was rebuilt on the same spot after 516BC.

See the basic layout of the Temple in Jerusalem. This is important, as we can begin to see some parallels with the Christian Churches.


The key features to note are:
The Sanctuary, or Holy of Holies, containing the Ark of the Covenant, and which has a veil and interleaved doors. No one was permitted to enter this space except the High Priest once per year to perform cleaning duties, and even then he had a tied by a rope around his waist in case he died and needed to be dragged out by the other priests – such was the sanctity of this place.

  • The Altar of Whole Burnt Offerings – where the sacrificed animals were burnt
  • The Altar of Incense
  • The Cherubim within the Sanctuary
  • The Brazen Sea – used for ritual washing
  • The tables with shewbread

We know that Christ visited and prayed in the Temple often, in accordance with Jewish custom. Although He overturned the tables of the money changers at the entrance to the Temple Mount, He never ceased to consider the Temple itself to be important. From the Gospel accounts, as read during Holy Week, we know that when He died on the Cross, the Veil in the Holy of Holies was torn asunder from top to bottom. The Early Church Fathers saw the rending of veil to mean that Christ had opened Heaven to human beings. What was once closed off because of human sin, was now available through repentance. Whilst the Temple of Solomon itself was destroyed, Christ did not destroy Temple worship – rather He fulfilled it, and therefore the form of worship, the priesthood and the buildings within which it took place were fulfilled and transfigured accordingly.

In 70AD, only 37 years after Christ’s death on the Cross and His Resurrection, the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans. The priestly caste within Jewish society ceased to function in practical terms. The Synagogues became the sole place Jewish common prayer. Christians understand this to mean that the blood sacrifices undertaken by the Jews have been replaced by the bloodless sacrifice of the Eucharist, which is the Body and Blood of Christ. Christians see that Christ’s words had been fulfilled “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:2) and “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:42-43).

In the next section, we will see how the ancient Jewish temple layout has been transfigured into the Churches we are familiar with today.
Altar Scheme
Earliest Churches
The earliest places of Christian worship were those synagogues that followed Christ, whilst the first exclusively Christian places of worship were homes or houses belonging to members of the communities who took great risks in hosting their Christian brothers and sisters in worship, as persecution and the death penalty were frequently applied by the pagan Roman rulers of the day. Often, the people supplying the house of worship were wealthy, and would provide access to their mansion’s main hall (called a basillica), which could hold many people. These rectangular halls were the basis for the earliest cathedral type – which took its name from the hall. As Christianity spread as an underground movement throughout the Roman Empire, so did the need for places of worship.

The priests who followed Christ, recognized the Eucharist as being the ultimate sacrifice, and began to serve according the fulfilled rites of Judaism. The first Christian Liturgical rite was assembled by the Apostle James (and is still sometimes used to this day on the Feast of St James). The Altar table, which previously had been outside of the Sanctuary, moved into the Sanctuary – for no longer was it a firepit for the burning of dead animals, but it had itself been sanctified by the Blood of the Saviour. The concept of the Sanctuary no longer excluded human beings, provided they were ordained and were present there for the purpose of serving. The Altar of Incense also moved into the Sanctuary. The Cherubim remained, as did the Seven-Branched Candlestand. The Brazen Sea transformed into the Baptistry, and was no longer the sole reserve of priests, but of all of those wishing to follow God. The wall separating the Sanctuary with its interleaved doors and curtain remained, however, as a reminder of the barrier that exists between life in the World and life in Heaven. The Temple became distributed among the Christians worldwide – no longer was it exclusive to Jerusalem.

In some parts of the world, Christians found that basic Temple form became used for some unexpected purposes. For example, in Egypt, where Christianity took an early hold, the persecuted Christians built Churches designed to be fortresses, with secret passages and hiding places. The Iconostasis separating the Sanctuary from the people was able to be fully locked down – providing just enough time for the priest to disappear to a secret passage in order to have time to consume the Holy Gifts, thus saving them from the pagans, before being captured and killed. In these Churches, the people took communion by approaching a small “window flaps” which were present instead of the Deacon’s Doors, and which were guarded from the inside of the Sanctuary by the deacons, and able to be closed at short notice for the reasons described above.

When persecution ceased under Emperor Constantine the Great, a great flourishing of Church building began under the protection of the Empire. Church architecture became ever more elaborate and grand, culminating in the building of the greatest of all Churches – the Church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople. Whilst the designs became grander, the basic forms did not change. In the Western Empire, the Basilica became the preferred layout, and the iconostasis screen was reduced in form (to the Rood Screen) – and later removed almost entirely from use. In the East, Cross-shaped, square, star-shaped or round Churches were preferred – though basilican forms were also common.

In the Christian East, special attention was given to iconography. The written word was throughout most of history the preserve of on a tiny minority of society, therefore it was understood that communicating events and personal qualities of those who lived through those events would necessarily require the use of images. Icons came to adorn every wall on Eastern Churches as frescoes – either painted or mosaic. Except for a short period during the reign of the Iconoclast heretics, iconography has been an important and powerful means of communicating spiritual concepts to the worshipper.

Contemporary Orthodox Churches
Today’s Orthodox Churches include all of the elements of ancient Churches. Additionally, through historical organic accretion, they have added to these basic elements, depending on the national traditions in which they have developed. For example, it is common in Greek Orthodox Churches for the choirs to be in the North and South apses, whereas Russian Orthodox churches usually have the choirs on the either Ambo, or in a special location above the Narthex. Greek Orthodox Churches will also have the icon of the Feast in the Narthex, while Russian Orthodox churches usually place it in the middle of the Nave. Greek Orthodox churches usually include stasidiseats around the outside of walls, whilst Russian Churches generally only have simple benches. In the main, however, the differences between modern and ancient Eastern Christian Churches are minor, and it is still possible to trace the heritage of the Church building back to the Temple in Jerusalem.