The word Church with a capital C is used to name the Communion of Christians, while the same word with a small c serves to name the edifice were Church services are being held. This speaks clearly that the Communion of the faithful realizes itself as the Church of God, as a spiritual temple, in such a place where the Holy Liturgy is being served, i.e. in the church.
Orthodox architecture, therefore, has its liturgical significance through symbolism complementing the very symbolism of the Liturgy itself. History of church architecture is extensive and it includes a grand manifestation of national expressions and styles that depend on moments in time coinciding with the actual time respective churches were being built.
However, all Orthodox temples have one thing in common and this is the central idea that the temple of God is “Heaven on earth”, i.e. the place where by partaking in the Holy Liturgy of the Church we enter into communion (communication) with the “coming ages”, or the Kingdom of God.
The temple is usually seen as divided into three respective sections: entrance area or the vestibule (nartex), central section or the nave (naos), and altar section or the sanctuary – the mystical heart of the church. All three sections are decorated with fresco paintings and icons, which assist us in forging strong ties with saints – our intercessors in the Kingdom of Heaven. It is thus that we are able to taste the fullness of the Church at every Liturgy.
The material temple – the church, is not an end to itself. It is there to help us construct a spiritual temple – the Church of God.
Christian temples-churches are built to be orientated east-west. Altar section or the sanctuary takes up the eastern part of the structure. This is the most holy section of the temple containing the Holy Altar – Holy Table or the Throne, Prothesis or Proskomidia (Offertory), and Diakonikon (Sacristy). The Holy Altar must have following items placed upon it: Antimens, a Gospel Book, a crucifix, the Tabernacle (a receptacle in which the Holy Gifts of the Eucharist are preserved for the communion of the sick, or for the Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts during Lent), oil container – required for the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, an oil candle, and a service book.
Choirs are sections of the church located in front of the Altar area on both sides (north and south) of the iconostasis, usually separated from the rest of the nave by being raised a little by a few steps. There is sometimes only one choir section. During church services choir sections are occupied by actively participating chanters. They respond to Ektenials, chant, or read individual Church readings as prescribed by the Typikon.
Vestibule or nartex once included a baptismal font (Gr. kolymbethra) containing the water for immersion in Baptism. In fact, Baptism was performed in the inner vestibule, and new members of the Church were then led in a solemn procession into the main area of the church. During church service, apart from the catechumens (unbaptized learners, those preparing themselves for Baptism) vestibule was also intended to accommodate penitents waiting to be allowed to participate fully in the Eucharist again.
Nave or naos is the central area of the temple where the faithful gather for the celebration of Eucharist and for communal prayer. This is the place where they form the visible part of the Church headed by Christ. Its members are also the Most Holy Theotokos, prophets, apostles, martyrs and the holy who are visibly present owing to their images on icons and fresco paintings on the walls. It is in the nave of the church that we participate in the liturgical journey towards the end of history while we are, at the same time, being already received in the Kingdom of God.
Central doors on the iconostasis (altar screen), located in front of the Altar Table itself. Royal doors derive their name from the fact that it is through these doors that the Holy Gifts are being transferred from the Offertory table to the Altar Table; it is through these doors that the King of Glory passes through, in order to become food for the faithful.
They are also called Royal because it was the practice for Orthodox emperors to be anointed in front of it. At certain occasions emperors could also enter the altar area through this door to offer gifts to God. Only clergy, monks and those of the laity serving in the church may enter altar area. To the left and to the right of the Royal Doors there stand the north and the south door, also called deaconic or angelic since it is the deacons who come and go through them symbolizing angels.
Royal doors carry icons depicting the event of Annunciation. Archangel Gabriel is presented on the left wing, whilst it is the Most Holy Theotokos that is presented on the right wing of the doors.