The Painted Caves of Cappadocia

In a previous blog-post, I shared with you some pictures that highlighted the artistic splendour of Byzantine art in the empire’s capital, Constantinople. Today, I would like to take you further into the arid central region of Anatolia, where the fantastical landscape hides caves full of wonders.

Inhabited since ancient times, Cappadocia was part of a nebulous frontier region in the early Byzantine period, when influences between the empire and its Armenian neighbours met in central Anatolia. Although bounded by the Taurus Mountains in the south and the formidable highland terrain of the Caucasus in the east, central Anatolia was often ravaged by passing Persian armies or, later, by Arab raiders.

Mt. Hasan, with layers of Cappadocian geology in the foreground.

While the region’s past was turbulent at times, it also sheltered some of the first ascetic communities of Christians in the fourth century. Seeking to imitate Christ’s retreat to the desert, these individuals lived solitary lives in caves cut from the area’s own strange geology.

Hermit holes near Goreme, the modern tourist base for exploring Cappadocia's landscape and heritage.

Eroded over thousands of years, Cappadocia has become a maze of spires, canyons, peaks, the loneliness of which make them a natural setting for someone seeking the solitude of religious devotion. In fact, the period known as Late Antiquity, (4th-6th centuries -ish) was known for its prominent holy men, whose emaciated appearance and stern religious admonitions often made them into informal community leaders.

Over the next several centuries, communal asceticism, or monasticism, became more popular in Cappadocia, and religious communities began to form their own networks of caves and chapels. The most famous of these is the Goreme Open Air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where Christians lived, worked, and worshipped.

The openings to the many-leveled chambers at the Goreme Open Air museum.

Like all monks, these Christians required chapels for worship, and their first efforts on this site possess simple, but significant, adornments. During the 8th century, a movement called Iconoclasm gained wide recognition in Christian circles and eventually was declared the orthodoxy of the empire. Rejecting the use of icons (images of saints and the divine) and other figural decoration, they Iconoclasts instead used simple depictions of the crucifix to communicate the Christian message.

In Cappadocian chapels, the Iconoclast phase is distinguished by line paintings in red tempera on walls cut into the surrounding stone .

Iconoclast crosses, interior facade of a Goreme chapel.

Iconoclast cross in a rock-cut dome, Goreme.

With arches, domes, and facades, these rock-cut chapels imitated the structural features of free-standing churches, even though they had no need for similar means of support.

By the mid-9th century, Iconoclasm had fallen out of favour, and the frescoes of Goreme entered a new phase of vibrant colours, bold lines, and mesmerising figures.

Celestial blues and rich reds still make these frescoes breathe with life, even after a millennium or more of wear.

One of the joys of visiting these chapels is their tiny size–unlike the magisterial and distant mosaics in a church like Hagia Sophia (in Istanbul) these frescoes confront you at eye-level, and their detail is plainly visible.

The frescoes cover every surface. This image displays the complex planes of a dome.

Here, a crucifixion scene competes for your attention with a bevy of saints, apostles, holy men, and decorative motifs.

Around every pillar, niche, or corner, another encounter with the divine awaits. One of my favourites is the following partially destroyed fresco of Mary with the baby Jesus. Her eyes are mesmerising, particularly in the low light, and she directly testifies to the devotion of the Byzantine monks of the tenth century.

Mary and Jesus, fresco in a niche in the Tokali Church.

Not all of the frescoes are so peaceful. In an era where the Byzantine emperors styled themselves as Christian defenders and believers often faced the dangers of a militarised world, warrior-saints were popular. Heavenly defenders, they also symbolised the soul’s triumph over evil.

Mounted warrior saint confronting a coiled beast, potentially St George, although many other saints are likely candidates.

Although the monastic community at Goreme became a hive of religious and economic activity, some still desired the solitude of the early anchorites. Many took up residence in the Ihlara Valley, a narrow canyon fed by a turquoise stream, whose walls were studded with churches over the course of several centuries.

Ihlara Valley, where natural beauty and religious history meet.

Thus, Cappadocia’s landscape, from the spired hill-tops to the valley, floors became pock-marked with chapels.  Some were painted with elaborate frescoes, while some remained unadorned.

View of a rock-cut chapel facade from among the caves and arches of the so-called 'Cathedral' of Selime, an eroded spire towering above the surrounding landscape.

Their beauty and abundance allows us to encounter the evolving history of Byzantine Christianity, from its humble roots in the spiritual desert to its highly developed theological debates, and everywhere in between.


The official UNESCO site page for more information on the Goreme Open Air Museum.


5 thoughts on “The Painted Caves of Cappadocia

  1. Pingback: No Man is an Island « mediaevalmusings

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