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S. V. Zagraevsky


Forms of the domes of the ancient Russian temples


Published in Russian: .. ( ) . .: -, 2008. ISBN 5-94025-096-3.

Earlier the theses of the article were published in Russian: .. ( ) . .: (14 2006 .). . 2. , 2007. . 9-12. 


Professor S.V.Zagraevskys research is devoted to the forms of the domes of the temples of Ancient Russia. Basing on the analysis of ancient images, architectural and archaeological data and general trends of Russian and world architecture, he showed that the onion (bulbous) domes were invented in Russia not later than the second half of the XIII century, and the helmet domes appeared not earlier than the middle of XVII century as a stylization of "antique". Particular attention is paid to the origin and symbolism of the onion domes.



General terms


First of all, it is necessary to define what we call the domes of temples. Encyclopedias and manuals1 sometimes define them as synonyms of cupolas, sometimes as decorative coatings of cupola vaults, arranged on drums. It is known that domes can be onion (bulbous), helmet, pear-shaped, umbrella-shaped, conical, etc. Cupolas or cupola coatings, arranged not on light, but on decorative (deaf) drums, are also called domes.

We shall define the cupolas only as cupola vaults, and the domes as decorative cupola coatings, although in the context of our study this definition requires considerable refinement, associated with the understanding of the helmet domes. So the special form of cupola coatings, close to the ancient form of helmet, is called. Such conclusion we see today on the natural and the "paper" reconstructions of pre-Mongolian cathedrals of Vladimir-Suzdal land (Fig. 12) and of the vast majority of churches and cathedrals of XV-XVI centuries (Fig. 23).



Fig. 1. Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir. Nature reconstruction of 1888-1891. Section.



Fig. 2. Trinity Church in Chashnikovo. Reconstruction.

But a dome of a temple is a segment of a sphere corresponding to the form of a helmet only at the edges. Accordingly, in order to create a helmet design, it is necessary to arrange a wooden, metal or brick construction on the cupola vault. Then, an under-cross stone, with the hole, where the cross is inserted, is put on the dome or on this construction. Then all this is covered by roofing materials (iron, lead, copper, tile, etc.).

Thus, the helmet dome is very different from a simple cupola coating by roofing material directly on the vault. And even if an under-cross stone is placed in the center of the simplest cupola coating, the form of dome may be close to the helmet only in the case of a very small dome (Fig. 34). In the case of a large dome, an under-cross stone, coated by roofing material, will look like a little ledge on the cupola coating.



Fig. 3. Dome of the Church of Transfiguration in Bolshye Vyazemy.


Hence, we must distinguish the simple cupola coating and the helmet dome. In connection with this we must specify that we are talking about domes in general, which can be either simple cupola coatings (with a projection in the middle if there is an under-cross stone), or have helmet, onion (also called bulbous; further we shall call them only onion), pear-shape or any other form.

Let us also define the difference between the helmet and onion domes: the latter also have keel-like top, but the maximum diameter of the dome is larger than the diameter of the drum, i.e. a visual "barreling" is present. The height of onion domes is usually not less than their width. The height of the helmet domes is always less than their width.

Pear-shaped domes are characteristic for Ukrainian Baroque, umbrella-like and conic for Transcaucasian architecture. In ancient Russian architecture and in the relevant iconography they were practically absent (see Chapter 2). The main theme of our research is the genesis and the quantitative ratio of such types of domes as simple cupola coatings, helmet and onion.

We should view primarily not the positions of individual researchers, but stereotypes, settled in XIX century. Let us enumerate them:

"Byzantine" simple cupola coatings occurred in the most of the principalities of pre-Mongol Rus (Kiev, Chernigov, Smolensk, etc.);

helmet domes prevailed in pre-Mongol Vladimir-Suzdal principality. Then this form of the domes took place in Tver and Moscow grand duchies, and then in centralized Russian state. Accordingly, the vast majority of Russian churches of XIV-XVI centuries are generally reconstructed with helmet completions;

onion domes appeared (occasionally) in the second half of XVI century, and in the XVII century they became a mass phenomenon.

According to those stereotypes, the following view on the genesis of the dome forms took place: simple cupola coating was borrowed from Byzantium, then it stretched up more and more (as well as the proportions of the temples themselves) and transformed into a helmet. Then, once in the XVI century hipped architecture appeared, the altitude of helmet domes proved insufficient, and onion-form structures started to be built on the cupolas5.

B.A.Rybakov was the first to disagree with those stereotypes. In the mid of 1940s he, considering after D.V.Aynalov and A.V.Artsikhovsky that many miniatures of Radzivil Chronicle of XV century are the copies of the images of XII-XIII centuries, suggested that onion domes, portrayed on these miniatures (see Section 4 of the statistical illustrative material) appeared in the reality in the end of XIII century6. In 1950s this position of B.A.Rybakov was supported by N.N.Voronin7.

However, strangely enough, those observations by B.A.Rybakov and N.N.Voronin received no resonance in the scientific world. Perhaps the negative role was played by uncertainty of their conclusions, and also because in future their researches on genesis of the onion domes were not developed: apparently they considered their observations as local. For example, onion domes could appear in the end of XIII century, but not everywhere and only in wooden architecture, and in the end of XVI century the construction of such domes on stone temples could begin8. Thus, there were no apparent contradictions with the stereotyped position.

In the end of twentieth century A.M.Lidov turned to the problems of genesis of the onion domes9. Having advanced in his article some considerations about the origin of the onion domes (the analysis of these considerations we will hold in Chapters 2 and 4), the researcher still kept to the stereotyped views on the appearing of this form of the domes in the turn of XVI-XVII centuries, arguing that dating by the fact that onion domes before the turn of XVI and XVII centuries were not preserved to our time10.

I.A.Bondarenko, who also devoted a special article to the origin of the onion domes11 (the point of view of this researcher on the prototype of these domes will be discussed in Chapter 4), noted that there is no need to insist after A.M.Lidov on the late origin of onion forms of the domes only on the ground that we have no surviving monuments of such domes, reliably dated before XVI century. We must agree with I.A.Bondarenko and just clarify: since ancient Russian onion domes are decorative coatings, based on wooden carcasses, then the situation is typical for the history of ancient wooden architecture: the lack of architectural and archaeological information about the onion domes before XVII century can not be the information about the absence of such domes in reality.

I.A.Bondarenko suggested in the same article (unfortunately, without a reference to the similar position of B.A.Rybakov and N.N.Voronin) that "the fact that the onion shape of the domes was used in early Moscow Zions, censers, miniatures and carved icons from the XIII century (what A.M.Lidov also notes), gives evidence that this form was known, had a sacred significance, and therefore could, and even, perhaps, should have been used in architecture12. But the researcher confirmed his position by no concrete evidence and expressed no substantive assumptions about the time of occurrence of such domes.

As a result, the assumption of I.A.Bondarenko about relatively early origin of the ancient onion domes was expressed in an equally controversial and unexamined form, as the similar position of B.A.Rybakov and N.N.Voronin, and, accordingly, received no resonance in the scientific world and in popular literature.

Thus, to date, all textbooks, reference books, scholarly and popular works on history of ancient architecture straightly (literally) or indirectly (in the form of reconstructions of the temples) reproduce the stereotypes of XIX century, and no researcher attempted to refute them directly.

In this regard, we have to re-consider the genesis of the onion domes with the involvement of all possible set of sources.



Analysis of iconographic sources


To examine the genesis of the onion domes, we analyzed architectural iconographic sources ancient Russian icons, miniatures and plans. Full coverage of iconography of temple architecture is impossible, but we sited enough representative sources (totally 147), allowing a statistical analysis. Statistical illustrative material is contained in the Appendix.

In accordance with the collected statistics on ancient Russian icons, frescoes, miniatures and works of decorative art (hereinafter we shall collectively call them images) of XI-early XVII century (see Sections 1-7 of Appendix), the onion domes are shown in the following proportions relative to other dome types:

images of pre-Mongolian time: 18%;

images of the second half of XIII century: 100%;

images of XIV century: 82%;

images of XV century: 84%;

images of XVI century: 94%;

images of the turn of XVI and XVII centuries: 100%.

Analyzing these results, first of all we must be aware that Old Russian images were mostly oriented to Byzantine models13, and iconography usually passed from century to century. Hence, the simple cupola coatings in ancient Russian images could be a tradition of Byzantine icon painting, but the onion domes in the images had to have some "own" models.

Possible models of depicted temples with onion domes may be reduced to two basic ones: either some "model" image or the real onion domes on the real churches.

A.M.Lidov believed14 that the Old Russian artists used as the model an image of Jerusalem Edicule (Chapel inside Holy Sepulchre), where there was a hypothetical "dome" of onion form in XI century15 (Fig. 416).



Fig. 4. "Dome" of Jerusalem Edicule. Modern look.


But we can not accept the assumption that the model for the ancient artists, who reproduced the onion domes in large numbers, could be any image (of Edicule, or of another real or imaginary building such as Rock Mosque, as I.A.Bondarenko thought, whose position we shall consider in Chapter 4). The reasons are following.

First, we have no assurance that Jerusalem Edicule had an onion-shape top since XI century. The earliest surviving image of a medieval completion of Edicule is approximately dated by XIV century, and it is highly conditional and inaccurate image with general trend of "flattening" of the lower parts of the objects17 (Fig. 5). On all subsequent historical images, starting from XV century18 (Fig. 6), the completion of Edicule has the form of helmet (and more Western European helmet than Russian). The existing onion top (see Fig. 4) of Edicule was built in the new time.



Fig. 5. Image of Edicule, stored in Vatican library, conditionally dated by XIV century.



Fig. 6. Jerusalem Edicule. The drawing by K.R.Grunenberg, made during his travels in 1486.


Secondly, the "dome" on Jerusalem Edicule is not a dome in the understanding of a decorative coating above the cupola (see Chapter 1). That is the "cap" over the hole for extraction of candle smoke and fumes from the peoples breathing19.

Thirdly, Edicule is a small part of Holy Sepulchre, and not a church, but a chapel. If the temple itself had an onion dome, it could at least be argued to be taken as a model of images. But the adoption of a small interior chapel (even if it had an onion top) as a model for the huge number of images of the largest ancient Russian cathedrals and churches is very unlikely.

Fourthly, there is no cross on Edicule, and it is unlikely that there could be a cross in ancient times, as the only figure, which depicts a cross (see Fig. 5), as we have shown above, is very conventional. The absence of the cross on Edicule is quite natural: we have shown the "utilitarian" nature of its dome, moreover, it is unlikely that a cross in Jerusalem temple was located above Edicule, but not over Calvary. And on ancient Russian images we see the domes with the crosses.

Fifthly, I.A.Bondarenko believes that not Edicule, but Jerusalem Rock Mosque (which the Crusaders called Holy of Holies) was a possible prototype of the Russian onion domes20. But in Chapter 4 we shall show that the dome of that temple did not have onion shape.

Sixth, the temples of Jerusalem in the era of the Crusades of XI-XIII centuries were well known in Western Europe and Byzantium. But we do not see there mass images of churches with onion domes neither at that time, nor since.

Seventh, the temples of Ancient Russia, though with high artistic convention, but were painted of nature (arched gables, windows, hips, apses, cornices, decor, crosses above the domes are reproduced), but the shape of the domes, according to stereotyped positions, for some reason were provided fictitious. It is also very unlikely.

Eighth, if Ancient Russian temples had been reproduced of the images almost identically (by some single "model"), we could have talked about some "model" image for the domes. However, the churches are drawn extremely diverse and, as we have seen, quite realistic;

Ninth, the onion domes in the beginning of XIV century were represented not only by Moscow, Tver and Novgorod artists. We see such dome at the icon of Kiev school (see Fig. C-8, C-9; the letter "C" in the figure means that it belongs to the statistical illustrative material). So, at this time the images of onion domes were already widespread in Ancient Russia. It is impossible to imagine that because of some "model" image the Byzantine tradition of reflection of the simple cupola coatings on the icons, frescoes and miniatures was revised.

Thus, for the ancient artists, who reproduced the onion domes in architectural iconography in large numbers, no images could be models.

Consequently, the only option remains: the onion domes on the real temples of Ancient Russia served as a model for the artists.

Form of the domes could be interpreted by the artists rather freely, but within the overall onion forms that existed in reality. In this connection it is appropriate to recall the words of I.A.Bondarenko: In the Middle Ages there were no strict bounds between visual, applied arts and architecture, especially when we talk about the problems of semantics and symbols forming21.

Let us look if some wooden temples could be the models for the ancient images of the onion domes.

Perhaps if we had been talking about icons from villages and small towns, small local churches could have served as the models for them. But the vast majority of images, shown in the statistics, are the icons and frescoes of Moscow, Novgorod and Pskov schools, originating from the large stone temples. Accordingly, the artists were to orientate to large cathedrals, not to minor churches.

Let us note that N.N.Voronin attracted Great Zion of Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir (Fig. C-22), the top of which (the work of Moscow artists) is dated by 1486, for his reconstructions of St.George's Cathedral in Juriev-Polsky22 and the first Assumption Cathedral in Moscow23. Researcher believed that the completion of Zion corresponds with the hypothetical original completion of these temples. This position is quite controversial (it is more likely that the completion of Zion reproduces the completion of the contemporary temples of the late XV century in particular, the churches of Trifon in Naprudnoe and Conception of Anna in Kitay-Gorod24), but there is no doubt about the validity of the method of Zion usage for the reconstruction of the unpreserved cathedrals. In this regard, we must note that the onion dome of this Zion reproduced the reality of the end of XV century (and possibly of even earlier time).

The earliest images of the onion domes are found in Galicia-Volhynia miniatures of 1164 (see Fig. C-3). But we can not assume that in pre-Mongolian time this form of domes could be widely distributed: there are no more known images (and, consequently, statistical data), and the hypothesis of D.V.Aynalov, A.V.Artsikhovsky and B.A.Rybakovs hypothesis that the miniatures of Radzivil Chronicle of XV century are replicas of pre-Mongolian images (see Chapter 1 and Fig. C-18), is still only a hypothesis. So the availability of such domes in pre-Mongolian time is not proved.

The statistics shows that the vast majority of temples had the onion domes since the second half of XIII century. And though in the iconography of XIV-XVI centuries sometimes (although rarely) other types of the domes occur, the plans of Moscow of the turn of XVI and XVII centuries (see Section 6 of the statistical illustrative material) clearly indicate that at this time the domes were exclusively of onion form. This is confirmed also by the images of other Russian cities (see Section 7 of the statistical image material).

It is important to pay attention to the images from the manuscript of Hamartolas (see Fig. C-4). In 1294, the generalized Image of Church was shown with the onion dome. So, at this time, as the statistics also confirms, the onion domes were built on the temples not occasionally, but mostly.

As we have noted, the onion domes were represented in the beginning of XIV century not only by the artists of Moscow, Tver and Novgorod. This type of domes we see on the icon of Kiev school. This again confirms that onion domes at the turn of XIII-XIV centuries occurred everywhere.

All domes, built above the hipped roofs in XVI century, were also onion-formed (see Section 5 and 6 of the statistical illustrative material).

In theory, the simple cupola coatings of pre-Mongolian time could exist on some minor temples long enough, but there is no doubt that by the end of XVI century they were everywhere replaced by the onion domes (we see only the onion domes on the plans and panoramas of the turn of XVI and XVII centuries).

It is important to note that we see no helmet domes neither in pre-Mongolian, nor in early post-Mongolian time. The first image, which presents the dome form, close to a helmet, appeared at the turn of XV and XVI centuries (Sections 4 and 5 of the statistical illustrative material). However, these images can not testify that in this time churches had helmet domes in reality: it is clear that this form of dome is shown only on the large central cupola, and if the latter had been drawn with an onion dome (as the small domes), then they would not have fitted into the respective images.

All other "non-onion" forms of cupola coatings (umbrella, conical, etc.) are portrayed so rarely that we can consider them as an artistic styling. This position is based not only on the data of iconography, but also on the techniques of construction: for the erection of any coating, except the simplest, the construction of a wooden or metal frame on the cupola is required. Consequently, it was easier and more logical for the builders to create domes of the mass (onion) form, than of any other.

Conclusions about the absence (at least, negligible distribution) of helmet, umbrella, conical and other "non-onion" dome forms in XIV-XVI centuries can be also confirmed by one more important fact, which we have already mentioned: on the plans and panoramas of the turn of XVI and XVII centuries we see only the onion domes. Consequently, if in XIV-XVI centuries the domes of "non-onion" form could theoretically occur, then only sporadically, and at the first opportunity they were replaced by commonly used onion domes25.

The question, when the helmet domes appeared in Russian architecture, we shall discuss in details in Chapter 5.



Onion domes and fires


It may seem strange that almost universal transition from the simple cupola coatings to the onion domes could occur so quickly within a few decades of XIII century. But in fact, there is nothing strange: the domes of the temples were rebuilt very often, and the fires were the main reason.

Here is a very comprehensive and informative quote from Sergei Soloviev: "Chronicle mention the fires in Moscow for the first time in 1330, in 1335 Moscow was burnt along with some other cities, in 1337 there was another big fire, and 18 churches were burnt... In 1342 the similar fire broke out. In 1357 Moscow was totally burnt with 13 churches, in 1364 Moscow caught fire during severe drought and heat, a storm arose and scattered fire everywhere... In 1388 almost whole Moscow was burnt, in 1389 some thousand yards were burnt down in Moscow; a similar fire took place in 1395, then fires in Moscow in 1413, 1414, 1415, 1422, 1441 were mentioned; the famous fire occurred in 1445 after the battle of Suzdal, in 1453 entire Kremlin was burnt, in 1458 about a third of the city. Thus, in 130 years, there were 17 large fires one for 7 years. In Novgorod in 1231 entire Słavensky End burnt, and the fire was so ferocious, the chronicler says, that the fire walked on the water across the Volkhov, in 1252 everything got burnt again, in 1261 80 yards were burnt, in 1267 Nerevsky End... In 1275 the Market End got burnt with seven wooden and four stone churches, in 1299 in the night the fire started at Varangian street, a storm arose, 12 churches were burnt at Market End, and 10 at Nerevsky End. In 1311 there were three strong fires: nine wooden churches were burnt completely, 46 partially. Then a strong fire is referred to under 1326, then under 1329, 1339 and 1340, when 43, 48 or 50 wooden and 3 stone churches (by different sources) were burnt, and 70 people died. In 1342 during a large fire three churches were burnt down and a lot of evil happened... In 1347 six streets were burnt, in 1348 two fires took place; 4 wooden churches were burnt in 1360 with whole Goncharsky End, and seven wooden churches were burnt in 1368 in an evil fire. In a year there was a new fire: some other parts of the city were burnt. In 1377 seven wooden and 3 stone churches were burnt, in 1379 8 streets and 12 churches; in 1384 there was a fire at Nerevsky End, two churches burnt; in next year Carpentry and Sławno Ends burnt, with 25 stone churches and 6 woodenTill 1442 there was one strong fire for 5 years in Novgorod... In Pskov there were ten great fires, in Tver seven, two in Smolensk, two in Torzhok, and by one in Nizhny Novgorod, Staritsa, Rostov, Kolomna, Murom, Korelsky Town26.

And though the stone temples usually (though not always) stood the fires, the wooden skeletons of their domes and roofs were easily burnt. For example, on the limestone arches of Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir the fire melted metal was found27, in 1493 a fire lit wooden construction under the roof of the cathedral28, in 1536 in Vladimir half of the roof of Assumption Cathedral was burnt29 and also the entire roof of Demetrius Cathedral30, in 1547 the dome of Assumption Cathedral was burnt31, in 1394 the dome of St.Sofia in Novgorod32, in 1628 the dome of Trinity Cathedral in Troitse-Sergiev33. Such examples are numerous.

Let us note that the technical problems with the construction of new onion domes did not arise, because the installation of a wooden frame on the dome is the work not for stone craftsmen, but for carpenters, and there we always enough carpenters in Russia.



Genesis of the onion domes


The questions of genesis of the onion domes were studied very poorly even within the stereotypes relating to their appearance at the turn of XVI and XVII centuries34. Now, when we have shown that those domes occurred everywhere in Russia already in the end of XIII century, their genesis becomes even less clear. But we can still make some observations.

First, we should note a low probability that the onion domes of ancient stone temples were taken from wooden architecture. The form of those domes is complex, sophisticated, aristocratic, and therefore they could hardly have appeared firstly on wooden churches (and even on minor stone temples).

Let us not forget about the rapid (within a few decades) distribution of the onion domes. Wooden churches, as well as the minor stone temples, could hardly be "setters" of the trend, which disseminated so quickly and widely.

Borrowing of onion form of the domes of ancient Russian temples from Muslim world35 seems more than doubtful. In XV century the form of stone domes, close to the onion, widespread in the East (Gur-e Amir in Samarkand, the beginning of XV century, Fig. 7; Kalyan Mosque in Bukhara, XV century; Mausoleum of Kazi-Zade-Rumi in Samarkand, 1430s; etc.), and within the stereotype, relating to the appearance of the onion domes in Russia in the end of XVI century, "oriental influences" could be at least argued. But since, as we have shown in Chapter 2, the onion domes in Russia were built in large numbers already in XIII century (and possibly earlier), there could be no kind of influence of Muslim East: there were domes of onion shape there neither at that time, nor earlier.



Fig. 7. Gur-e Amir in Samarkand. The beginning of XV century.


We know some isolated examples of early Muslim stone domes, which shape is visually close to the onion form (Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, VII century, Fig. 8; Sidi Okba Mosque in Kairouan, Tunisia, X century, Mausoleum of Al-Shafiya in Cairo, 1212; the mausoleums of XI-XII centuries in Aswan, etc.) In particular, I.A.Bondarenko attracted Rock Mosque, which the Crusaders called the Temple or Holy of Holies, as a possible prototype of ancient Russian onion domes36.



Fig. 8. Dome of Rock Mosque in Jerusalem. VII century. General view.


But such domes can be called onion neither formally nor in fact: that are high cupola vaults, which are the continuations of the drums (Fig. 937). The upper parts of these vaults have no keeled bending, which are characteristic for the ancient Russian onion domes. Their visual "onion" effect is created previously by the spreading of the tops of the drums by the cupolas and by the difference in color between the cupola coating and the drums lining (for example, a bright, shiny and uniform color of cupola coating of Rock Mosque visually increases it, comparing with a dull ornamented drum see Fig. 8).



Fig. 9. Rock Mosque in Jerusalem. Axonometry.


For this reason we can not recognize the impact of the dome of Rock Mosque (and of other early temples with similar domes) on the origin of the onion domes of Old Russia, where we see no transition: already in XIII century, since the appearance of these domes, they had their own, absolutely unique shape, characterized by keeled top and significantly bigger diameter of the domes, comparing to the diameter of the drums (see Section 2 of the statistical illustrative material, Fig. C-4, C-5, C-6). These basic features of ancient Russian onion domes are absent in Rock Mosque.

In Western Europe there were also no onion domes in XIII century (the earliest example, which the author of this study knows, is the completion of the towers of Frauenkirche in Munich, the end of XV century, Fig. 10).



Fig. 10. Towers of Frauenkirche in Munich. End of XV century.


Jerusalem Edicule also could not become a model not only for the ancient artists, who depicted large numbers of onion domes on the icons, frescoes and miniatures (as we have shown in Chapter 2), but also for the ancient builders, who started in XIII century to build onion domes on the churches en masse. The reason for this is practically the same as discussed in Chapter 2:

the "dome" on Jerusalem Edicule, even if it had the onion form (what, as we have seen in Section 2, is very doubtful) is not a dome in the understanding of a decorative coating above the cupola (see Chapter 1). That is the "cap" over the hole for extraction of candle smoke and fumes from peoples breathing;

Edicule is a small part of Holy Sepulchre, and not a church, but a chapel. If the temple itself had an onion dome, it could at least be argued to be taken as a model for the builders. But the adoption of a small interior chapel (even if it had an onion top) as a model of the huge number of the onion domes of the largest ancient cathedrals and churches is very unlikely;

temples of Jerusalem in the era of the Crusades of XI-XIII centuries were well known in Western Europe and Byzantium. But we do not see there mass onion domes on the churches neither at that time, nor since.

Thus, we must assume that even if somewhere else in the world before XIII century there had been occasionally erected onion-shape domes or cupola vaults, they firstly appeared in large numbers in Ancient Russia. Moreover, widespread occurrence of onion shape of cupolas in Muslim East in XV century could take place due to influence of Russian architecture.

Let us try to find an explanation for the fact of mass occurrence in Russia of "built-over" domes in the second half of XIII century.

Firstly, we should note that it was not necessary to sharpen the domes so they did not accumulate snow and stagnate water: if such a need had occurred, then something similar was built already in XIII century over arched gable vaults, where the problem of accumulation of snow and water was even more acute.

It was not necessary also to warm the temples by the erection of the decorative structures above the cupolas (so that those domes played the role of heat-insulating "attics"): in Ancient Russia the vast majority of stone churches and cathedrals were "cold" (i.e., unheated), and service was not conducted there in winter.

There are other, far more grounded, considerations on the causes of building of the carcasses above the cupolas of ancient Russian temples.

First, during pre-Mongolian time we see the "pulling up" of church buildings. For example, G.K.Wagner wrote that the churches of "tower-like" type had a dynamic striving upward, and it is possible that if the development of altitude architecture had not been interrupted by Mongol invasion, then Russia would have known something like Gothic38. And when the constructive possibilities of altitude reaching (higher arches and drums) were exhausted, the additional "towering" was achieved through wooden superstructures above the cupolas.

Second, the size of the crosses steadily increased in Russia until XVII century, and they were gradually transformed from the "Byzantine" type (the simplest form) to the "classic" Old Russian type, which we now see on the temples (large, ornamented, of complex shape). Accordingly, the problem of reliability of crosses installation also increased.

The chains, holding the cross, we see for the first time only in 1536 on the icon Vision of Sacristan Taras (see Fig. C-25). Of course, such chains, not reflected in iconography, could have appeared earlier, but hardly in XIII-XIV centuries. And it was impossible to install a large cross into the hole in the under-cross stone without additional pairs it would have been broken by any strong wind.

This problem was solved by quite rational design of the carcasses above the cupolas: the cross had a long lower bar (a "mast"39), which pierced the carcass from top to bottom (thus, was fixed firmly) and was inserted into the hole in the under-cross stone.

Third, during the Mongol yoke the domes were rarely covered by metal: there were no economic possibilities. And it is easier to cover with lemekh (wooden tile) a wooden carcass, which can be sewed by boards, than a stone vault.

All the above mentioned considerations explain the appearance of high wooden carcasses on the cupolas, but do not explain the onion shape of these carcasses. Why was the diameter of the dome larger than the diameter of the drum? Why did the carcass receive the complex onion form, but not the maximum sustainable direct form? Umbrella or cone-shaped domes could give the temples the same altitude, strengthen the crosses and be coated with tile also effectively, be much simpler and more reliable in construction and operation.

Researchers attempted to explain the origin of the onion domes by their symbolic.

Some of those explanations lie outside the view of Orthodox religion. Thus, S.D.Sulimenko saw in the form of the onion domes a "solar window", which was a canonization of the images of solar light in Vedic mythology and architecture of Buddhist temples40. N.L.Pavlov saw in these domes the form of a "world egg" an archaic image of the Universe41.

But the author of this study had to write more than once, that all architectural features of churches were necessarily confirmed by Russian Orthodox Church, which in any case would not have allowed any direct Pagan, Buddhist, Muslim or other influence42.

In the bounds of Orthodoxy, E.N.Trubetskoy tried to solve the problem of symbolism of the onion domes. He wrote: "The Byzantine cupola above the church represents the vault of heaven above the earth. On the other hand, the Gothic spire expresses unbridled vertical thrust, which rises huge masses of stone to the sky. In contrast to these, our native onion dome may be likened to a tongue of fire, crowned by a cross and tapering towards a cross. When we look at the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, we seem to see a gigantic candle burning above Moscow. The Kremlin cathedrals and churches, with their multiple domes, look like huge chandeliers. The onion shape results from the idea of prayer as a soul burning towards heaven, which connects the earthly world with the treasures of the afterlife. Every attempt to explain the onion shape of our church domes by utilitarian considerations (for instance, the need to preclude snow from piling on the roof) fails to account for the most essential point, that of aesthetic significance of onion domes for our religion. Indeed, there are numerous other ways to achieve the same utilitarian result, e.g., spires, steeples, cones. Why, of all these shapes, ancient Russian architecture settled upon the onion dome? Because the aesthetic impression produced by the onion dome matched a certain religious attitude. The meaning of this religious and aesthetic feeling is finely expressed by a folk saying "glowing with fervour" when they speak about church domes"43.

The idea of "fire" concerning the symbolism of the onion domes after E.N.Trubetskoy was conducted by M.P.Kudryavtsev and G.Ya.Mokeev44. I.A.Bondarenko joined this position45.

But it should be noted that any search for symbolism of any element of Orthodox churches in isolation from the study of the genesis of these forms will inevitably lead to a purely subjective views on the level of I see so, easily disproved by statistics, facts, and by extension of other equally subjective opinions that appear no less convincing.

For example, in Ancient Russia a relatively small number of domes was covered with gold (only of the largest churches that had the richest churchwardens), and numerous green, blue, brown and black domes cause no association with fire.

On a subjective level it would be fairer to compare the onion domes not with fire, but with an arrowdome, a drop of water or of a head of a warrior wearing a helmet. The latter interpretation a head of a warrior in Ancient Russia, apparently, was the most frequently used: it is confirmed by the fact that the domes were called heads or "foreheads", the drums necks, and the roofs of churches "shoulders".

Accordingly, since any attempt to interpret symbolic of the domes were and are extremely subjective, we can conclude only that in XIII century in Russia keeled archivolts of arched gables, portals and windows appeared, and in Gothic Western Europe and Arab East a large number of erected arches. This fully explains genesis of the onion domes in terms of theory and history of architecture: craftsmen, who accommodated wooden structures over the cupolas of temples, were only to combine and apply these already known forms in their work.

This does not in any way belittle the significance of this invention of ancient craftsmen, which had an aesthetic self-sufficiency and gave the churches a fundamentally new shape without significant material costs, and this was particularly important in difficult economic circumstances of Mongol yoke.



Genesis of the helmet domes


In Chapter 2 we have seen that existence of helmet domes in XIV-XVI centuries is not proved. If the domes of "non-onion" form were erected, then extremely rarely, and they were as soon as possible replaced by the commonly used form onion. At the turn of XVI and XVII centuries all the domes, without exception, had onion shape.

By idea, later the domes were to keep onion shape, or take the characteristic form of Baroque. Nevertheless, we see the helmet domes on many images of XVIII-early XIX century, which are not plans or panoramas, but still worthy of credibility (see Section 8 of the statistical illustrative material).

Of course, the number of the helmet domes on the images of XVIII-early XIX century is negligible, comparing with the huge number of the onion domes on the plans and panoramas (see Sections 6 and 7 of the statistical illustrative material). Apparently, such a correlation occurred also in reality. But we should present some observations that can help us at least approximately describe genesis of the helmet domes.

First, the helmet dome is featured on the drawing of Golden Gate of Vladimir by Von Berk and Gusev (1779, fig. C-32) and the image of St. Demetrius Cathedral on one of panoramas of Vladimir in 1801 (Fig. C-33), and that gave the appearance of "surviving of the ancient domes to our days" and predetermined the stereotypical view of such domes as "widespread in pre-Mongol North-Eastern Russia".

In Chapter 2 we have shown the inconsistency of this stereotype. Let us add that we see the onion domes on Golden Gate and St. Demetrius Cathedral on the "drawing" of Vladimir of 1715 (Fig. C-27), and on one of the images of Vladimir of 1801 (Fig. C-34). But the last image is quite conditional, and there is no doubt that in reality St. Demetrius Cathedral in 1801 had the helmet dome, shown on a much more detailed and professional view of Vladimir of that year (Fig. C-33, C-35).

So, the helmet dome was arranged on St. Demetrius Cathedral between 1715 and 1801. May be, even not later than 1779, since it is likely that Berk and Gusev were guided by it in developing of their version of the reconstruction of Golden Gate (Fig. C-32). They could not orient at Assumption Cathedral: in all pictures of Vladimir of 1801 it is depicted with the onion domes (Fig. C-33), about which we know that they existed in reality and were replaced by the helmet domes during the restoration of 1888-189145.

Secondly, there was a period (probably brief) in XVIII century, when Assumption Cathedral had helmet domes: that is shown by helmet structures on cupolas with traces of plaster, nails and metal46. It is important to note that those structures were made of brick, so they could not be made in pre-Mongol times only to XVIII century (the "drawing" of 1715 shows the onion domes on the cathedral see Fig. C-27).

Third, Archangel Cathedral of Moscow Kremlin has a double central cupola (Fig. 1147). On the upper one there is a large under-cross stone. If the temple had always had only an onion dome (shown on the plans of Moscow of the turn of XVI-XVII centuries), the construction of the upper cupola would not have made any sense: a carcass of any configuration can be built on a cupola.



Fig. 11. Archangel Cathedral of Moscow Kremlin. Section.


Consequently, at some moment (not before 1707, when the cathedral with the onion domes is depicted on the engraving by P.Pikart see Fig. C-28) the central onion dome was replaced by the helmet, which we see on the image by M.F.Kazakov of 1772 (see Fig. C-36). Then the onion dome, first shown on the image by F.Kamporezi of 1780s (see Fig. C-37), was re-arranged.

Fourth, we can see the helmet dome on the Assumption Bell-tower of Moscow Kremlin in 1800 (see Fig. C-38). The plans of XVII century and the engraving by P.Pikart of 1707 show that its dome had onion shape (see Sections 6 and 7 of the statistical illustrative material).

Fifth, we see the helmet dome on Church of Nativity of the Virgin in Gorodnya on the drawing by A.Meyerberg of 1661 (see Fig. C-29).

Sixth, under the existing onion domes of Trinity Church in the village Chashnikovo (see Fig. 2) the brick helmet dome with traces of nails has preserved. The research of the remainings of tile on this dome48 showed that likely in the second half of XVII century the domes of Trinity Church were brought to helmet shape, and then the onion dome was re-arranged.

Let us note that we must consider the reconstruction of the original form of the dome of Trinity Church in Chashnikovo, shown on Fig. 2, as the vast majority of reconstructions of temples of XIV-XVI centuries, incorrect.

Seventh, a large conical under-cross stone was found on the central cupola of the Church of Transfiguration in Bolshye Vyazemy (the end of XVI century)49. This form of stone shows that it was covered by metal and formed the helmet-close dome (Fig. 3 and 1250). Consequently, in XVII century the dome of the Church of Transfiguration had primary onion shape (let us remember that there are no helmet domes on plans and panoramas at the turn of XVI-XVII centuries), and then was converted to the helmet.


Fig. 12. Church of Transfiguration in Bolshye Vyazemy. Section.


Eighth, we see the helmet dome on the image of Trinity Cathedral of Troitse-Sergiev Lavra of 1745 (Fig. C-31), despite the fact that the onion dome is depicted on the nearby Nikon Church.

Ninth, we see the central helmet dome, combined with small onion domes, on Trinity Cathedral in Pskov in the late XVII century (see Fig. C-30).

We can conclude of all the above observations the following: the helmet domes appeared in XVII-XVIII centuries in fairly large quantities as a stylization of "antique" (i.e., as something between the onion domes and the simplest cupola coatings).

Then, as a rule, these domes were again replaced by the onion ones (probably because of evolution of aesthetic preferences of clergy and churchwardens).

The exception was Demetrius Cathedral in Vladimir, the onion dome of which was converted to the helmet form in the end of XVIII century, was preserved in XIX century and, apparently, determined the stereotype of "antiquity" of this form of domes and their "common use in pre-Mongol North-Eastern Russia". Later this stereotype, the incorrectness of which we have shown in Chapter 2, extended to Ancient Russian architecture of XIV-XVI centuries.




Let us summarize our study of the forms of the domes of Ancient Russian temples.


1. In pre-Mongolian time:

everywhere (including North-Eastern Russia) the simplest cupola coatings were distributed, usually with under-cross stones;

existence of the onion domes is conventionally proved, but their wide dissemination is not proved;

existence of helmet domes is not proved, any allegations of their existence as a "transitional form from a cupola to an onion" are conjectures;

existence of any other form of domes (umbrella, conical, etc.) is not proved.


2. Since the second half of XIII century until the end of XVI century:

the onion domes occurred everywhere, including hipped architecture of XVI century;

existence of the helmet domes is not proved;

the simplest cupola coatings of pre-Mongolian time theoretically could be preserved on some minor temples throughout the whole period under review, but by the end of XVI century they were universally replaced by the onion domes;

existence of any other form of domes (umbrella, conical, etc.) is not proved.


3. Since the end of XVI century until the middle of XVII century:

the onion domes occurred everywhere, including hipped architecture;

existence of any other form of domes is not proved.


4. Since the middle of XVII century until the end of XVIII century many onion domes were replaced by helmet ones as a stylization of "antique". In most cases, in a few decades the onion domes were newly built on the temples.



Statistical illustrative material


Statistics by the old images was calculated by their total number, irrespective of the number of temples or domes on a particular image.

Images of houses, towers, kivories or stylized passages were not included in the analysis.

Randomness (and, hence, objectivity) of the statistical illustrative material is provided as follows: the analysis included all the images of temples on ancient icons, miniatures, works of applied art, plans etc. of all the books on history of art and architecture, located in the personal library of the author (since pre-Mongolian time until the end of XVII century 147 images; since the end of XVI century only plans, panoramas and drawings were included into the analysis). In addition, the statistical illustrative material included 13 images of XVII-XVIII centuries.

Hereby we show only some illustrations, which are the most important for our study.


Section 1. Pre-Mongol time.

In total, this section deals with 9 images, among them:

6 simple cupola coatings;

1 umbrella dome;

2 onion domes.



Fig. C-1. Great Zion of Sophia of Novgorod. XI-XII centuries.



Fig. C-2. Detail of Suzdal Golden Gate. The beginning of XIII century.



Fig. C-3. St.Luke. Miniature from Dobrilovo Gospel (Galician-Volyn school). 1164.



Section 2. The second half of XIII century.

In total, this section deals with 3 images, on all three we see onion domes.



Fig. C-4. The image of Church. Thumbnail of Hamartolas manuscript from Tver. About 1294.



Fig. C-5. The Burial of David. Thumbnail of Tver Hamartolas manuscript.



Fig. C-6. Prince Jaroslav Vsevolodovich with a temple. Fresco from the Church of Our Saviour on Nereditsa. About 1246.



Section 3. XIV century.

In total, this section deals with 17 images, including:

11 certainly with onion domes;

2 with probable onion domes;

1 with a combination of onion domes and a simple cupola coating;

3 with simple cupola coating, umbrella and conical domes.



Fig. C-7. Introduction to the temple. An icon from Krivoy village. Novgorod school. The first half of XIV century.



Fig. C-8. Nicola Zaraisky and his life. Kiev School. Beginning of XIV century.



Fig. C-9. Nicola Zaraisky and his life. Fragment.



Fig. C-10. St. Nicolas and scenes from his life. Kolomna. The middle of XIV century.



Fig. C-11. St. Nicolas and scenes from his life. Fragment.



Fig. C-12. St. Nicolas and scenes from his life. Fragment.



Fig. C-13. Frescoes of the southern wall of the cathedral of Snetogorsky monastery. 1313.



Section 4. XV century.

In total, this section deals with 23 images, including:

17 with certain onion domes;

1 with probable onion dome;

2 with combinations of helmet and onion domes;

1 with a helmet dome;

1 with a simple cupola coating;

1 with a conical dome.


  .      . 1405 .


Fig. C-14. Entry into Jerusalem. Icon from Annunciation Cathedral in Moscow Kremlin. 1405.



Fig. C-15. Metropolitan Oleksiy and his life. Moscow School. End of XV-beginning of XVI century.



Fig. C-16. Metropolitan Oleksiy and his life. Fragment.



Fig. C-17. Happy about you. Pskov school. End of XV century.



Fig. C-18. Igor with Gentiles goes to the idol of Perun, and Christians to the Church of St. Elijah. Thumbnail of Radzivil Chronicle.



Fig. C-19. Battle of people of Novgorod against the people of Suzdal (Miracle of the Icon of the Sign). Novgorod school. The second half of XV century.



Fig. C-20. Canon of Cyril Belozersky monastery. Frontispiece. 1407.



Fig. C-21. Nicola Mozhajskij. Moscow School. The middle of XV century.



Fig. C-22. Great Zion of Vladimir Assumption Cathedral. The top, made by Moscow masters, is dated by 1486.



Section 5. XVI century.

In total, this section deals with 66 images, including:

57 with certain onion domes;

2 with probable onion domes;

1 with the combination of helmet and onion domes;

1 with the combination of simple cupola coverage and onion dome;

2 with combinations of conical and onion domes;

1 with an umbrella and conic domes;

2 with simple cupola coatings;

1 with "gothic" urban landscape.



Fig. C-23. Consecration of the Intercession Cathedral on the Moat. Thumbnail of Litsevoy Chronicle of XVI century.



Fig. C-24. Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir. Thumbnail of Litsevoy Chronicle.



Fig. C-25. Gregory Church, "Great Armenia" and Varlaam in Varlaam-Khutyn Monastery in Novgorod. Drawing from the icon Vision of Sacristan Taras. 1536.



Section 6. Plans of Moscow of the end of XVI-early XVII centuries.

In total, this section deals with 7 images, all 7 with onion domes.



Fig. C-26. Kremlenagrad. Early 1600s. Fragment.



Section 7. Plans and panoramas of Russian cities of XVII-early XVIII century.

In total, this section deals with 24 images, all 24 with onion domes.



Fig. C-27. Vladimir. "Drawing" of 1715.



Fig. C-28. Panorama of Moscow by P.A.Pikart. About 1707. Fragment.



Section 8. Images of XVII-beginning of XIX century.



Fig. C-29. Church of Nativity of the Virgin in Gorodnya. Drawing by A.Meyerberg. 1661.



Fig. C-30. Pskov, Holy Trinity Church of 1365-1367. Image of the end of XVII century.



Fig. C-31. Trinity Cathedral with Nikon Church. Drawing of 1745.



Fig. C-32. Golden Gate in Vladimir. Drawing by Berk and Gusev. 1779.



Fig. C-33. Demetrius cathedral in Vladimir (with the helmet dome). 1801.



Fig. C-34. Demetrius Cathedral in Vladimir (with the onion dome). 1801.



Fig. C-35. Assumption and Demetrius cathedrals. A fragment of the image of Vladimir. 1801.



Fig. C-36. The beginning of construction of Kremlin palace by the draft of V.I.Bazhenov. 1772. Drawing by M.F.Kazakov.



Fig. C-37. Moscow Kremlin. Drawing by F.Kamporezi. 1780s.



Fig. C-38. Ivanovskaya Square of Kremlin. Watercolor of the workshop of F.Y.Alexeev. 1800-1802.




1. A.S.Partina. Architectural terms. Illustrated Dictionary. M., 2001.

2. N.N.Voronin. Architecture of North-Eastern Russia of XII-XV centuries. M., 1961-1962 (hereinafter Voronin, 1961-1962). Vol. 1, p. 154.

3. Architectural Monuments of Moscow region. Vol. 2, p. 257.

4. Theory and practice of restoration work. 3. M., 1972. P. 94.

5. Such position was expressed mostly consistently in the early twentieth century in the work of A.P.Novitsky (A.P.Novitsky. Onion shape of the domes of Russian churches. Proc.: Moscow Archaeological Society. Antiquities. Proceedings of the Commission for conservation of ancient monuments. Vol. III . M., 1909. P. 349-362).

6. D.V.Aynalov. On some episodes of miniatures of Radzivil Chronicle. Proc.: "Proceedings of the Department of Russian Language and Literature of the Academy of Sciences, 13, vol. 2. St.Petersburg, 1908. P. 309; A.V.Artsikhovsky. Miniatures of Koenigsberg (Radzivil) Chronicle. Leningrad, 1932; B.A.Rybakov. The windows in the extinct world (about the book of A.V.Artsikhovsky "Old miniatures as a historical source"). Proc.: Reports of MSU. Vol. IV. M., 1946. P. 50; B.A.Rybakov. "Lay" and its contemporaries. M., 1971. P. 12.

7. N.N.Voronin. An architectural monument as a historical source (note to the question). Proc.: Soviet Archaeology. Vol. XIX. M., 1954. P. 73.

8. In particular, A.P.Novitsky thought so (A.P.Novitsky. Ordinance. Cit., P. 357).

9. A.M.Lidov. Jerusalem Edicule. On the origin of the onion domes. Proc.: Iconography of architecture. M., 1990. P. 57-68.

10. A.M.Lidov. Ordinance. cit., p. 58.

11. I.A.Bondarenko. On the origin of onion shape of the church domes. Proc.: Style of architecture. Petrozavodsk, 1998. P. 105-113.

12. Ibid. 109.

13. V.N.Lazarev. Byzantine and Russian art. M., 1978. P. 246.

14. We shall collectively call artists the painters, fresco, miniatures and other masters of ancient art.

15. A.M.Lidov. Ordinance. cit., p. 59.

16. Website

17. Die Grabeskirche zu Jerusalem. Geschichte Gestalt Bedeutung. Regensburg, 2000. P. 151.

18. Ibid. P. 150.

19. Some people consider that the "dome" of Edicule is an apparatus for the generation of "Holy Fire". In this case, the author refrains from comments.

20. I.A.Bondarenko. Ordinance. cit.

21. Ibid. P. 109.

22. N.N.Voronin. Ordinance. cit., vol. 2, p. 105.

23. Ibid. 156.

24. For details, see: S.V.Zagraevsky. The architectural history of Trifon church in Naprudnoe and origin of cross-like vault. M., 2008.

25. In connection with the foresaid, it should be noted that A.M.Lidov, citing the opinion of some researchers, in particular, the reconstruction by N.N.Sobolev (N.N.Sobolev. The project of reconstruction of the monument of architecture St. Basil Cathedral in Moscow. Proc.: Architecture of the USSR, 2, 1977. P. 48), believed that the onion domes of the cathedral of the Intercession on the Moat appeared in the time of Fedor Ioannovich. We can not agree with this position: the miniature of Litsevoy Chronicle of the middle of XVI century (see Fig. C-23) is absolutely clear image of the consecration of the Cathedral of Intercession with onion domes.

26. S.M.Soloviev. History of Russia since ancient times. Publication is on the website

27. Voronin, 1961-1962. Vol. 1, p. 474.

28. Russian chronicles. Vol. 9: Typographical Chronicle. Ryazan, 2001. P. 270.

29. Voronin, 1961-1962. Vol. 1, p. 356.

30. Ibid. P. 398.

31. Russian chronicles. Vol. 4: Lviv Chronicle. Ryazan, 1999. P. 73.

32. Russian chronicles. Vol. 10: First Novgorod Chronicle. Ryazan, 2001. P. 386.

33. A.F.Bychkov. Summary chronicler of Holy Trinity St. Sergius Lavra. Proc.: A. Gorsky. The historical description of Holy Trinity St. Sergius Lavra. M., 1890. Appendix. P. 177.

34. A.P.Novitsky. Ordinance. cit.

35. In particular, J. Fergusson believed so (J. Fergusson. History of Architecture. Vol. 2. London, 1867. P. 50).

36. I.A.Bondarenko. Ordinance. cit., p. 106.

37. B.V.Veimarn, T.P.Kapterev, A.G.Podolsky. Art of Arabia, Syria, Palestine and Iraq. Proc.: Universal History of Art. V. 2, Bk. 2. M., 1961.

38. G.K.Vagner. Style formation in architecture of Ancient Rus (return to the problem). Proc.: Architectural heritage. Vol. 38. M., 1995. P. 25.

39. O.O.Shchelokov. Construction of carcasses of the domes of churches in Vladimir Province. Publication is at the website

40. S.D.Sulimenko. Architecture and dialogue of cultures (for example, forms of symbolization endings Russian Orthodox church). The article is on the website

41. N.L.Pavlov. Altar. Stupa. Temple. Archaic universe in Indo-European architecture. M., 2001. P. 13.

42. In particular, see: S.V.Zagraevsky. Yuri Dolgoruky and Old Russian white-stone architecture. M., 2002. P. 124.

43. E.N.Trubetskoy. Three Essays on Russian icon. 1917. Novosibirsk, 1991. P. 10.

44. M.P.Kudryavtsev, G.Ya.Mokeev. On a typical Russian church of XVII century. Proc.: Architectural heritage. 29, 1981. P. 72.

45. Voronin, 1961-1962. Vol. 1, p. 360.

46. T.P.Timofeeva. The restoration of Assumption Cathedral in 1888-1891. Proc.: State Vladimir-Suzdal Historical and Architectural Museum-Reserve. Research materials. 11. Scientific-practical conference (November 17, 2004). P. 99.

47. D.A.Petrov. The internal space of two churches of the beginning of XVI century and Archangel Cathedral of Moscow Kremlin. Proc.: Archives of architecture. Vol. 9. M. 1997. P. 101.

48. Architectural heritage. Vol. 18. M., 1969. P. 19-23.

49. Theory and practice of restoration work. 3. M., 1972. C. 94.

50. Ibid.


Sergey Zagraevsky

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