Russian Orthodox Churches with their onion-shaped, colourful domes always fascinate foreigners. But the number of cupolas, as well as their colours are following the rules guiding by Orthodox art. We will try to help you understand their signification.
The use of domes in sacred architecture in Orthodox history dates as far back as the fifth century. The best example can be found in Istanbul with the Hagia Sophia which was raised between 532 and 537 A.D.
Since Orthodoxy was brought to Russia, domes have taken on many appearances, from the common onion-shape in Russia to the pear-shaped favoured in Ukraine.
In Russia, domes are known as onion-shaped domes or helmet-shaped domes. Helmet-shaped domes date back from the pre-Mongolian period and were replaced by what is now called onion-shaped domes. It is said that this new form of domes was thought to allow the snow to slide down from them.
Their numbers are very important. If one dome represent the Christ, the only head in Christianity, three domes symbolize the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Five domes is to honour the Saviour and the four Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Seven domes represent the Seven Sacraments.
Nine domes design the nine ranks of angels while thirteen cupolas represent the Saviour and the twelve Apostles. Thirty three domes mark the Christ's age on the earth.
Though the colours of the cupolas are not strictly assigned, they are often chosen according to the interpretation of the church symbolism.
For example, the golden colour, symbolising the celestial glory, often covers the cupolas of main cathedrals and churches, though corresponding to Jesus Christ and the Twelve Great Feasts.
Churches consecrated to the Mother of God are decorated with blue cupolas with golden stars. If a church has green or silver domes, it means that they are consecrated to saints.
And finally, in monasteries, churches are topped with black cupolas, symbol of monk-hood.
A bit of history…