Architecture of the Coptic Church
November 11, 2007
This article provides an in-depth description of the construction of the Coptic Church and the meaning of its architecture. The article also addresses the following topics: the meaning of the church, the church building, the symbolism of the Coptic Church’s architecture, the crosses, the church tower, pillars and ambon, the use of iconostasis, the ciborium, stairs, the nave, and the baptistery architecture.
“My father David had it in mind to build a house for the name of the Lord, the God of Israel” (1 Kings 8:17).
Architecture is the art and science of building. Besides providing shelter, architecture is a symbolic representation, and so it is defined as, “a mode of symbolic discourse, and where there is no symbol and therefore no discourse, there is no art.” The Church ought to be a “Temple” that manifests the Kingdom of God in people’s lives, and capable of preparing the inner hearts to be thrones of God.
During the early periods of persecution, Christians tried to deviate attention from themselves by gathering privately in homes of fellow Christians. The church, which is called ecclesia in Greek, meaning “the assembly,” was not a building, but it consisted of the people gathered together in liturgical celebration. Later on, Christians had to gather in a larger houses to celebrate the Agape, that is, “love feast,” and the Eucharist, that is, “thanksgiving.” Only baptized people could participate in this Liturgy.
The oldest Christian church “house” built (A.D. 232) that still exists on the Syrian-Iraqi border is in the city of Dura-Europus, a city established by Alexander’s army on the Euphrates River. During Emperor Constantine’s reign in the fourth century, Christianity expanded. One of the first and largest churches built under Emperor Constantine’s churches was the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome. New churches in the eastern part of his empire transformed to new structures. One of the first churches to amalgamate Roman & Greek architecture together was the church of San Apollinare in Classe, outside Ravenna, Italy (A.D. 549). The Coptic churches had a design that was derived from Egyptian, Roman, and Greek architecture.
The Church Building
The church is a representation of God’s house, and is considered the attachment of God with His people. The congregation lives at both an earthly level and a heavenly level at the same time in the church. For this reason, churches are designed with much symbolism. However, even though we use many different materials such as stone, bricks, wood, gold and silver and employ architectural designs, decorative arts and painting; the buildings are worth nothing without the Holy Spirit, who grants it a heavenly and spiritual nature!
God neither expected nor enforced any architectural style, specific language or culture for His house in the New Testament. He wished it to be in the form of a spiritual structure for believers of diverse backgrounds and cultures coming together: Jews, Samaritans, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Syrians, etc.
The innermost part of the church behind the iconostasis was the sanctuary where the priests and deacons alone were admitted to commemorate the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. Outside the sanctuary, the central part of the church was reserved for baptized Christians, while a third section at the entrance was left open for the unbaptized Catechumens. However, at an unknown date, the Catechumenate began to disappear, and with it the divisions of the church gave way to the perpendicular triple sections of nave and aisles.
Accordingly to the Apostolic Constitutions, “the church must be oblong in form and pointing to the East.” This tradition was mentioned in the writings of many early Church Fathers such as St. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Tertullian.
During the Liturgy we hear the deacon order everyone who is praying to look towards the east to see Emmanuel, the body and blood of our God present upon the altar.
St. Basil the Great says, “It is according to an unwritten tradition that we turn to the east to pray. But little do we know that we are thus seeking the ancient homeland, the Paradise that God planted in Eden towards the east.”
Symbolism in Coptic Church Architecture
One of the ways Coptic churches are built is in the form of a ship. This is symbolic of Noah’s ark: as those in Noah’s ark were saved from the flood, likewise the Church of God alone has the ability to save men. This describes the church in the form of a ship.
The church could also be built in the form of a cross and sometimes in the form of a circle.
The cross found its own place not only inside the church building, but also on the exterior of the church and on the towers.
Primarily, the cross is symbolic of the Church being under the authority of the Crucified Lord, living with His Law, guided by the Holy Spirit, and preaching the Gospel. In other words, this symbol reveals to the whole world that there is no other message to the Church except to follow the Crucified Christ.
Secondly, this uplifted cross refers to the Lord’s last advent. Our Lord mentions this eschatological importance of the Cross, saying: “Then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven” (Matthew 24:30). The Didache mentions that the appearance of the cross is the first sign of the Lord’s Advent. We can thus say that the cross, which surmounts the church tower or the church dome, is the church’s voice that addresses the whole world and calling it to prepare for God’s advent.
The most common type of cross used in today’s Coptic churches is the Trefoil Cross, the Cross Boutonnière, or the Cross Treflèe. The extremities of the cross’ arms are decorated with trefoils resembling a Trifoliate leaf which has three leaflets and a stem.
Domes and Towers
When seeing a Coptic church, the domes usually attract attention. These domes take the shape of a curved triangle-shaped spherical segment called a pendent. But when did the domes begin to be used in church architecture? Even though domes were used in earlier times such as in Mausoleum of Constantine in Rome, built in 350 A.D., on December 27, 527 A.D., the Church of Hagia Sophia was one of the very first churches to make use domes. When constructing the dome it appeared that the structure below was not enough to resist the outward thrust, so towers were added over the supported piers in the northeast and southwest aisles to increase the downward part of the dome’s thrust. Many Orthodox churches followed this approach. By the year 673 Constantinople had come under siege of Islamic armies and fully collapsed under Islamic control by 1453. By 1550 to 1650 churches were transformed into mosques, and so with respect to domes this is probably how many mosques have the same architectural style as Orthodox churches.
The representations of domes symbolize heaven. Some Coptic churches have one dome, called a cupola. The dome interior is usually painted with the icon of our Lord or in a blight blue color decorated with angels and stars. This resembles Jesus Christ as the Head of the Church who is seated in the heavens. Some churches have three cupolas, which represent the Holy Trinity. Other churches have five cupolas. The larger one is located in the center representing our Lord Jesus Christ, and the four smaller ones surrounding it represent the four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
In addition to domes, the churches have two towers, mainly found in Coptic monasteries. As ships have a watchtower, the church’s towers represent the Lord’s ship voyaging towards heaven. The church towers include a belfry, where the bells are hung. The bells replaced the trumpets of the Old Testament. Bells are rung during the offertory, during communion, and on feasts. The bells were also used to call the faithful to go to church.
There is usually one main doorway. There is rarely a curved arch, in most cases there is a pointed arch. The pointed arch is the strongest of any other kind of arch; it has a more vertical and a less lateral thrust than a semicircular arch. This dates back to Roman Architecture where it became famous especially in the Basilica of Maxentius, Rome 312. They mixed both arches and vaults which helped cover up space. An arcade is usually used in Coptic churches. Church doorways usually have the pointed arch where there is a cross placed in the keystone and the rest of the arch where the voussoirs are; they are usually made up of smaller crosses or are kept empty.
Pillars & Ambon
When walking into the church we sometimes see pillars that are between the aisles. People tend to think this is for support for the church building; however, there are other uses for these columns.
In the Old Testament in Solomon’s Temple two pillars were setup – the one on the right was named Jachin, and the one on the left was named Boaz (2 Chronicle 3:17). In the New Testament they referred to the disciples of Jesus Christ, usually as twelve pillars in the church. St. Paul called the disciples pillars (Galatians 2:9). Other churches that are not large enough to sustain twelve pillars have four pillars that represent the four evangelists.
In ancient churches, columns are decorated with different crowns (capitals). It is rare to find two crowns that are the same, for each one symbolizes those who will be crowned by our Lord, each receiving his own crown. The capitals and shafts of these pillars are usually from the Ionic and Corinthian Styles.
“If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name” (Revelation 3:12).
An ambon usually rests on one of the twelve columns, and is made of marble, stone or in most cases, wood. It is a high building that the bishop or priest stands on when preaching to the congregation. It refers to the stone of the Lord’s tomb on which the angel sat on and talked to the women. This is not usually found in modern churches.
Use of the Iconostasis
The iconostasis represents one of the most important architectural features of Orthodox churches. It is a rigid screen made of wood or marble, containing icons of our Lord, His angels and his saints. It lies between the sanctuary and the nave of the church.
The Iconostasis, which is derived from the Byzantine churches, contains three doors: the Royal door, which is the entrance to the main sanctuary; and a door on each of the other side for the side sanctuaries. The side doors were used for preparation of the host, which is still the case in the Byzantine churches, but not in the Coptic Church, where they are considered as Royal doors as well. On the inner side (side of the sanctuary) curtains are fitted, which are drawn open or closed depending on the church service. In ancient times and in some of today’s monasteries, curtains were placed behind the doors that were locked. The key would be kept with the archdeacon. It is opened during the Liturgy, and this symbolizes catching a glimpse of the splendor of heaven.
The Ciborium is the dome that is seen sheltering the altar with its four pillars. It is usually rich in paintings both on the inside and on the outside. The icon of the Lord with the Seraphim and Cherubim often occupies the center of the dome. It represents the heaven of heavens, where the lord and his heavenly creatures dwell. The icons of the four evangelists are painted on the four pillars that hold up the dome, as if the four corners of the universe are blessed by the word of the Gospel. On top of the dome is a large cross, and sometimes there are another four crosses on the sides, symbolizing the five wounds of our Lord. This same look is applied to the altar used on the day of Good Friday during Pascha Prayers, and also on the bishop’s throne.
Important things are determined by ranks or levels. In the Coptic Church, there are three steps that are recognizably higher than the rest of the nave. This is the position were the choir is located. This is considered a higher level from the rest of the world. The next step and final step above the choir is the sanctuary, which represents the heavenly Jerusalem. The altar is usually found on the same level as the sanctuary, following the commandment of not going up steps to God’s altar (Ex. 20:26). This rule has an exception in monastic churches where the altar is constructed on a step or a platform above the floor of the sanctuary. Also, some churches and monasteries do not have the three steps for the choir level; they only have the step that leads to the sanctuary. In some cases, beyond the altar there are three additional steps in the niche leading to the icon of Christ on his throne.
The nave gets its name from the Latin “naives,” meaning a ship. It is usually divided into two parts or “Choirs”:
- The Chancel, or Chorus of Deacons.
- The Chorus of Believers, or the nave of the church.
The chancel contains seats for deacons, two candelabra and two lecterns on which the lectionaries are placed. It is separated from the sanctuary by the iconostasis and from the rest of the nave by a screen or a fence. This is to show a distinction from the sanctuary to the rest of the church. It allows people to still see inside the sanctuary using its cross-shaped lattice appearance.
Attached or close to the chancel fence are the relics of the saints. These were kept under the altar in ancient times, to protect them and to be prayed upon during services. They are now set up at the chancel fence so that the congregation may be able to take the saints’ blessings.
The lectern (bookstand) is usually wooden with a sloping book rest that is moveable. It has many designs and carvings including crosses on it. The best design is the one in Old Cathedral in Cairo, belonging to the Hanging Church, which may be date back to the tenth century. The ivory enrichments give it a most delicate appearance as a finished work of art. The crosses and tablets are clad with Arabic inscriptions; they are solid blocks of ivory with the design in relief.
In ancient times the nave was divided into parts by a colonnade (a series of regularly spaced columns). The southern side (right) was reserved for the nuns, widows, virgins, women and their children. Nowadays there is no separation, yet the southern side is still used for all women. The north side (left) is for the men. So, the women sit on the right hand of the men, as the Queen sits at the right hand of the King.
The baptistery is the birthplace of a “new” Christian. According the Didascalia, the baptistery should be built at the northwestern side of the church (left side of entrance). While the altar faced the east, the baptistery is built at the west so it may act as a medium to transport those who are in the west to our Lord, our True East.
Until the fourth century the common shape of the baptistery was quadrilateral (four-sided), often with an apse at the end. By the beginning of the fifth century other shapes began to appear, such as the hexagon (six-sided), octagon (eight-sided), circle, and the cruciform. In any case, these various types symbolize the theological concept of baptism and its effect in the life of the Church.
The quadrilateral type resembles the shape of a tomb. The hexagonal type refers to the sixth day of the week (Friday), in which Christ was crucified and buried. It stresses the belief that baptism is a death and burial with Christ, as taught by the St. Paul the Apostle: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). “When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col 2:12).
The octagonal type symbolizes the day of resurrection of Christ, which is the eighth day of the week. This time it is about the resurrection with Christ in baptism. The circular type serves as a reminder of eternity, in which the baptized enjoys a life beyond all boundaries, in a heavenly atmosphere. The cruciform type is directly related to the manner of Christ’s death, showing baptism as a Cross. St. John Chrysostom says: “Baptism is a Cross. What the Cross was to Christ and what His burial was, that baptism is to us.”
The cover of the baptism includes a dome on it, when ascending from the water, the view of the dome above the baptized individual is meant to attract his/her thoughts to heaven. Baptism is the beginning of a heavenly life, where the newly baptized partakes of the kingdom of God.
There are also stairs in the baptistery as there is in the nave. One set is located on the east and the other is located in the west. On one of the stairs, the candidate descends and is submerged into the water, while the priest or deacon of the sacrament stands at the other side. The icon of St. John the Baptist baptizing Jesus is usually hung on the apse of the baptistery.
We have thus described the architecture of the Coptic churches, and saw that each part of the church has a symbolic meaning that remind everyone of the story of salvation, offered by Christ and through the Church. May God enlighten our souls and may the Holy Spirit guide us all to see in the church our means of salvation, and help us understand the church for what it really represents. Amen.
 Herbert Edward Read, The Origins of Form in Art (London, Thames and Hudson, 1965), 182.
 Apostolic Constitutions, Book 2, 57:61.
 St. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 7.
 Origen, Homily 5 on Numbers, 4.
 Tertullian, Apology 16.
 St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, 27.
 Alfred J. Butler, The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt, Vol 2, (Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1970), 2.
 St. John Chrysostom, Epistle to the Romans, 10:4.