How To Read the Interior of an Orthodox Church

Last updated Jan 2015
Did You Know?

There are two things you will never see in an Eastern Orthodox church:

Musical Instruments:

Deemed as imperfect human creations, musical instruments are not allowed in churches.

Forbidden a long time ago in an attempt to break with the pagan past, sculptures have never made it into the churches.

The interior of a typical Orthodox church can seem chaotic and overcrowded with images, scents, and sounds.

At first, it might be hard to realize that every detail here follows a set of strict rules.


Colorful Orthodox frescoes at Rila Monastery's main church

For most of their existence, the churches served vastly illiterate congregations. The paintings on the walls were the visual encyclopedia of the religion. Naturally, scenes from the Bible with an easy-to-spot moral twist decorated the walls, thus aiding the sermon and adding the extra benefit of concentrating the mind.

The dome of every church is reserved for Jesus, surrounded by winged angels. The dome is carried on four concave, triangular pendentives, where the four evangelists reside.

The most important scenes from the life of Jesus are depicted between the dome and the walls. Further down are the scenes from his final week on Earth. The ground level usually shows more earthly matters like historical figures, kings, and church donors.

Probably the most famous portrait of a church donor can be found at the Boyana Church where the medieval ruler /sevastokratorof the city of Sofia Kaloyan and his wife Dessislava are symbolically offering the newly built Boyana church to St Nicholas.



Adulteresses punished at Doomsday, Rila Monastery nartex wall

The narthex is a transition hall at the church entrance. It exists due to a long-lifted ban of unbaptized individuals to enter the church, but this is not what is interesting about it.

As the internal narthex wall serves as an entrance to the church, and the first and last thing a believer sees between visits, tradition deemed it appropriate for a depiction of doomsday.

Long-tailed devils push sufferers into barrels of burning tar, a strict but just Jesus decides each soul’s upward or downward destination, and Mother Mary is at his side, pleading for mercy for the sinners.

These images show the simplistic views of the common folk about sin and punishment back in the Middle Ages.

Many tourists enjoy taking pictures of the details, and the narthex wall in the Rila Monastery is especially a favorite.


Orthodox church icon stand at St Cyril and Methodius Church in Sofia, Bulgaria

The iconostasis is a wooden wall of icons and elaborate woodcarvings that separates the church’s nave (main hall) in two. The space behind the iconostasis (the sanctuary) is considered more sacred than the rest of the church; the elevated status is symbolized by the few steps that lead to it and three sets of elaborate doors, which usually remain closed. Except clergy, only small boys (but not girls) are briefly let behind the iconostasis during baptism.



No Orthodox Church is complete without the smell and the sound of burning candles.
Candles in Orthodox Churches signify spiritual purity and victory over darkness. They are also a sourse of income for the church.

It is the custom to buy one or, more often, two candles, lit them and place them in one of the large candle holders inside. The secon candle usually goes to a sandbox on the floor for the souls of the dead.


Last updated Jan 2015
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candles in an orthodox church
candles in an orthodox church