Fire and Ice: the influence of Orthodoxy

Greek church dome

It’s some time since I last did a post on the influence of Byzantium & Greece on Russia. So today I want to look at one obvious link – Orthodox Christianity.

Vladimir of Kiev willingly adopted Orthodoxy as part of his alliance by marriage with the Byzantine Emperor. Priests, architects, icon painters, translators moved to Kiev to help establish Orthodoxy in this new land and soon churches started to spring up in the city.

The Byzantine basilica style of church architecture was adapted for the Russian climate. Initially Kievan churches were built out of wood before they moved to the use of stone. The familiar onion domes only became the main distinguishing feature of Russian Orthodox churches from the 13th century onwards. Before that churches featured either raised or helmeted domes. There doesn’t seem to be any convincing reason for this change in dome design: perhaps it was for practical reasons to stop snow settling on them and water coming through the roof; perhaps they were really meant to symbolise a candle, though I can think of shapes that more accurately mimic candles.

When Russians were baptised into the Orthodox Church they started to use the names of saints, many of whom were of course Greek. The custom was to name a child after the Saint on whose day the child was baptised. These names were contained in minei, books which described church services to be used each day and the saints to be venerated and also menologia, calendars of Saints’ days. Minei were among the first books to be translated from Greek into Russian. To the ordinary Russians these adopted foreign names must have sounded very strange and they continued to use the old pagan names alongside their new Christian first names right up until the eighteenth century.

Greek first names, suitably Russified, thus started to percolate through Russian society: Vasily, Dmitry, Nikolai, Aleksandr, Mikhail, Irina, Elena, Maria, Anna, Ekaterina, to name but a few. And it was icon painting that made these saints familiar to worshippers, a devotional form of art to which Russia became particularly attached.

In the fifteenth century, the penultimate Byzantine Emperor, John VIII Palaiologos, was desperate for a union of the churches in order to get military support against the Ottomans. So in 1439 at the Council of Florence he negotiated with the Papacy a union of the eastern and western churches that was never actually accepted by his own people. Tsar Vasily II rejected this agreement and in 1448 the Russian church appointed a Metropolitan of Moscow and All Russia, independent of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Five years later Byzantium had fallen.

Greek and Russian Orthodox churches today have some clear differences. Greek churches have seats in them whereas Russian churches have no seating at all, the congregation remains standing throughout the services. In the Russian church only the priest, the deacon and the choir vocally participate in services; in the Greek church services are a dialogue between the priest and psaltis (cantor) and normally (except in monasteries and cathedrals) there is no choir.  Interestingly in Russia it is becoming increasingly common for the congregation to join in the chanting of the Creed during the Liturgy.


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