(Moscow Times) - Just over a year ago, when Pussy Riot made its “punk prayer” inside Christ the Savior Cathedral, the English-language press was flooded with images of women in bright knitted masks – and iffy translations of church terminology. Many newspapers reported that the women performed on the church’s altar, when they were actually on the soleas and the ambo.
To help foreigners get better oriented, here’s a guide to the interior of a Russian Orthodox church, as explained by Father Hierodeacon Seraphim (Chernyshuk) of Sretensky Monastery on Ul. Bolshaya Lubyanka.
A Russian Orthodox church is divided into three parts: the narthex, or entrance; the place of worship (nave), which is open to the public; and the sanctuary.
The essential element of the sanctuary is the altar. Laypeople need to obtain a special blessing to enter the sanctuary, either on a permanent basis (such as the altar boys), or temporarily, on the invitation of a priest. Women are not allowed to enter the sanctuary. An exception are nuns in convents, who have a special blessing.
Bigger churches may also have side chapels located to the North and South of the main narthexnave- sanctuary. There is no seating in the nave, and worshippers stand during services. Churches are oriented to the East.
Candle box (свечной ящик)
Desk or store located on the church’s western side, where candles and other items are offered and commemoration notes are received. Usually serves as a receptionist’s place.
Elevated walkway that runs along the iconostasis. At either end of the soleas is a kliros, or section for the choir. In smaller churches, the kliros might be relocated to another part of the church (as at Sretensky Monastery, where the choir occupies an elevated wooden platform at the church’s western end). The kliros is accompanied by a lit stand for the Reader.
A stone half-circle with steps leading up to the soleas, symbolic of the stone that covered Christ’s tomb. Where the bishop or priest says the sermon, and offers Holy Communion.
Row of icons between the sanctuary and the nave. Originally, a mere piece of fabric or wooden barrier divided the two, with the ornate iconostasis arising over the course of centuries in the Russian tradition. The number of rows in the iconostasis can vary anywhere from one to seven (in 17th and 18th century churches). From bottom to top, they are: the Sovereign (which has an icon of the Virgin Mary located to the West of the Royal Doors, and an icon of Christ to the East), the Feasts, the Deisis (which contains an icon of Christ Enthroned, located directly above the Royal Doors), the Old Testament Prophets and Patriarchs, and the 12 Apostles. The Feasts and the Deisis are interchangeable, as are the Prophets and Patriarchs and the 12 Apostles. The only level that is obligatory is the Sovereign.
Deacon’s doors (дьяконские двери)
Located on the northern and southern sides of the iconostasis. The doors are used during the service by deacons to come out from the sanctuary, and by all men other than priests, deacons and bishops acting in the course of the service.
Royal doors (Царские врата)
The central doors separating the sanctuary from the nave. A curtain (katapetasma) is typically spread out behind the gates, and is usually pulled back when the doors are open. Sometimes, according to the course of the service, it’s opened fully or halfway (when the royal doors are closed).
Altar table (also holy table or throne) (престол)
The altar table, situated in the middle of the sanctuary, is used as a place of offering in the celebration of the Eucharist.
Table of preparation (prothesis or table of oblation) (жертвенник)
A small side table used to prepare the bread and wine for the Eucharist. According to Father Seraphim (Chernyshuk), in ancient churches including Hagia Sophia, the table of preparation was located in a separate building from the church, or in a separate room of the same church.
High place (also bishop’s throne or cathedra) (горнее место)
Raised seat that symbolizes Christ watching over the service; ascended by the bishop (if in attendance) during the divine liturgy. In post-17th century churches, where the elevation was often omitted, the high place is simply the space before the altar table.
Place where the vestments and vessels are stored when not in use during services. Usually located on the right side adjacent to the sanctuary, or in the basement.