What Do the Onion-Shaped Domes of the Eastern Orthodox Church grouped in Threes Represent?

February 15, 2024

The Orthodox Church has a long tradition of constructing magnificent places of worship ornately decorated on the inside with richly symbolic and vibrant iconography and topped by towering domes reaching for the sky. The colors of the domes carry deep theological significance, and they are meant to point their viewers toward God. There are many theories about the meaning of the onion-shaped domes.

Some believe that the shape of the onion-shaped domes is a symbol of fire. Others, like religious philosopher Yevgeny Trubetskoy, suggest that the onion-shaped domes are reminiscent of the Edicule within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

But the most popular theory suggests that the domes have a much more practical significance. The bulbous shape of the domes reportedly prevents snow and rain from gathering on the roof. In addition, the onion-shaped domes are easier to construct than helmet-shaped ones.

Several scholars have pointed out that the domes of the Orthodox churches seem to reflect simple cupola coatings used by Byzantium and then gradually transformed into an onion-like structure. Vasily Tatischev, one of the first to record such an interpretation, believed that the five-domed design originated with Patriarch Nikon who liked to compare the central and highest dome with himself and the four lateral domes with other patriarchs of the Orthodox world5.

B.A. Rybakov, however, disagreed with those stereotypes. In 1940s he suggested that the onion-shaped domes, portrayed on miniatures in the Radzivil Chronicle of XV century, appeared in reality in the end of the XIII century. This position was supported by N.L. Pavlov.

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