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Understanding the Orthodox Church

As you wander into an Orthodox church, you may think that the seemingly endless supply of beautiful frescoes and icons, and liturgical rites in which a priest keeps disappearing and reappearing from behind the iconostasis are nothing short of chaotic. You'd be wrong. There is meaning encoded in the design and layout of the artful interiors and rituals. Before entering, look above the door. You'll see Christ and several angels, generally along with the patron saint for whom the church is named. As you enter the pronaos, on the left are images of the church's builders and financiers, while on the right are frescoes of the leaders and royalty during the church's inception. Various important saints will occur throughout; those who practiced healing during their lifetimes will be holding a spoon, while those who were martyred are depicted with a cross. Humans painted with wings are said to have lived their lives like angels.

In the dome above the pronaos, you'll see the Holy Mother praying for you, watching you as you enter; prophets of the Old Testament surround her. Also in the pronaos is a free-standing icon depicting Romanian saints; worshippers press their lips to this upon arrival. Typically, men occupy the right side of the church, while women are on the left. The angels painted on the inside of the main dome over the naos are said to come down from the heavens to take part in the service. The altar at the front of the church is the reserve of the priest, and sometimes other men are permitted to enter; the altar is screened off from public view by an iconostasis (basically a giant partition), with a number of painted doors. The Royal Door is in the center, and is painted with the Annunciation (Gabriel, carrying a flower, informing Mary that she will be the mother of God); the emperor who was permitted to approach the altar traditionally used this door.

From left to right across the iconostasis are the four royal icons: the saintly church protector, then the Holy Virgin, Jesus Christ, and finally the patron saint, after whom the church is named. At Mass, the priest will repeatedly disappear through these doors, returning with different icons and incense burners strung with bells; the bells emulate the sounds of the cherubim, while some say the incense denotes Christ in the Virgin's womb (incense holder). Above the royal icons, a series of smaller panels depicts major Christian celebrations, or events from the life of Christ; the row above that depicts Jesus, flanked by Mary, St. John the Baptist, and all the Apostles. Above that is a row of prophets. The nuns at Stavropoleos will happily elaborate on details of their faith, should you show an interest.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.