What explains the shape of the domes on Orthodox churches?
What explains the shape of the domes on Orthodox churches?

From the domes on the Orthodox church, one can understand not only the time of its construction and regional affiliation, but also what it is dedicated to. Early Christian basilicas and ancient Roman temples often had one huge dome in the shape of a hemisphere. Russian churches could be crowned with a different number of domes, which appeared in different forms.

If the temple has three domes, they symbolize the holy trinity, five domes - Christ and four evangelists, 13 - Christ and the apostles. There could even be 25 domes, as, for example, in the first stone Orthodox church, built at the end of the 10th century in Kievan Rus. In addition to Christ and the apostles, other domes designated 12 Old Testament prophets. This temple has not survived to this day.

Reconstruction of the alleged view of the Tithe Church in Kiev

However, the domes of that church did not at all look like an onion. For a long time, helmet-shaped domes were widespread in Russian church architecture. As the name implies, their shape resembles the helmet of a Russian hero. We can see them on the oldest surviving temples.

St. Sophia Cathedral of the XI century in Veliky Novgorod, one of the oldest surviving churches in Russia Assumption Cathedral of the XII century in Vladimir Cathedral of John the Baptist of the XIII century in Pskov

However, onion domes have become one of the symbols of Russia and the main distinguishing feature of Orthodox architecture. The shape of the onion symbolizes the flame of a candle. "This completion of the temple is like a fiery tongue, crowned with a cross and sharpening to the cross …" - wrote the religious philosopher Yevgeny Trubetskoy in his treatise Three Essays on the Russian Icon.

Church of the Transfiguration of the Lord of the 17th century on the island of Kizhi, Republic of Karelia

The bulbous head ("poppy") is the final part of the dome, which is installed on a cylindrical base ("drum"). In this case, the diameter of the onion is wider than the drum.

Domes of the Verkhospassky Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin

Historians disagree about when the bulbous domes first appeared, and most importantly, what served as a model. These are visible on many miniatures and icons from the end of the 13th century. True, these churches themselves have not survived.

Introduction to the temple

Where did this form come from in Russia? Some scholars believe that the images of the Jerusalem kuvuklii (chapel over the Holy Sepulcher), which hypothetically existed in the 11th century, hypothetically existed, were images of the Jerusalem kuvuklium (chapel over the Holy Sepulcher) that came here as a model.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem

Other historians believe, on the contrary, that the bulbs were adopted from mosques, which in the 15th century began to often have elongated domes.

Mausoleum Gur-Emir in Samarkand, early 15th century

Why exactly onions? There is no consensus. There are suggestions that the bulbous form is more practical - snow and water do not linger on it. According to another opinion, it was easier to fold an onion out of wood than a helmet-shaped dome - and already from wooden architecture, the form flowed into stone churches. Other scholars suggest that architects in general sought to lengthen the forms and greater elevation of church architecture - which coincided with European Gothic tendencies.

Canon of the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery

Canon of the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery. 1407 - Public Domain

Most of the onion-domed temples that have survived to this day were built in the 16th century and later. One of the most famous examples is St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square, built under Ivan the Terrible.

Basil's Cathedral, ser

St. Basil's Cathedral, ser. XVI century - Igor Sinitsyn / Global Look Press

The spread of onion domes could also be facilitated by the appearance of hipped-roof churches in the 16th-17th centuries. The tent - a tall, multifaceted pyramid - was an alternative to the drum dome. Scientists concluded that it seemed insufficient for the architects to simply crown the hipped-roof structure with a cross - and they would add an onion dome.

Such designs were widespread both in wooden churches and stone churches - they can still be seen in the Russian North, as well as in Moscow, Vladimir and Suzdal. In addition, in many churches with more familiar architecture, a tent is crowned with a bell tower.

Church of St. John Chrysostom of the 17th century in the Arkhangelsk region Church of the Transfiguration of the Savior in the village of Ostrov, Moscow region, XVI century

Like the number of domes, their color has a symbolic meaning. Often there are golden domes - they symbolize heavenly glory, most often they are crowned with cathedrals or the main temples of monasteries. Such cathedrals are often dedicated to Christ or twelve feasts (12 most important holidays of Orthodoxy).

Church of the Transfiguration in the Novodevichy Convent, 17th century

Blue domes with stars mean that the temple is dedicated to the Mother of God or the Birth of Christ.

Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ in Suzdal, XVIII century

Green domes are installed in churches dedicated to the Holy Trinity or to individual saints - silver domes are also dedicated to them.

Church of the Nativity of John the Baptist in Uglich, 17th century

Black domes are installed on monastery churches.

Solovetsky Monastery, XVI century

Solovetsky Monastery, XVI century - Legion Media

It is believed that the multi-colored domes of the Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed symbolize the beauty of Heavenly Jerusalem, which, according to legend, appeared in a dream to the holy fool.

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