AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL ART XII: The Cave Churches of Cappadocia

THE CAVE CHURCHES OF CAPPADOCIA

Cappadocia is situated on the Anatolian plain in what now eastern Turkey. The region is well-known for its bizarre topographical formations created by water erosion of the soft volcanic stone, called tufa. Like the Roman catacombs, the tufa is very easy to carve, thus giving the region its second claim to fame: troglodytes. Early Christians fleeing Roman persecution exploited the softness of the stone, at first digging out simple warrens of interconnected hideouts and after the establishment of Christianity, corridors, houses, markets and places of worship, and finally whole cities, some descending 8 stories beneath ground level.

The images here show two churches in Goreme, the largest city in Cappadocia. They both are designed according to the standard church plan of the middle Byzantine period: an equilateral cross inscribed in a square surmounted by a circular dome; one entered the church from the narthex, a transverse vaulted area preceding the nave. The vaults and domes were either decorated in mosaic or with wall paintings, the iconography of which was dictated by the liturgical calendar. The Cappadocian churches (and monasteries) follow this formula, with some local deviations.

What is unusual about these structures is not so much their design, but their method of construction: unlike a free-standing building, where pre-cut or pre-formed elements such as bricks, masonry, columns, and capitals are assembled, the Cappadocian churches are created, like sculpture, by a subtractive process of removing the amount of tufa equivalent to the desired volume of the church, or more accurately, the church space. Features like blind arcades, columns and capitals are not cut and fit into place — they are continuous with the vaults and domes, with no breaks in the living stone at any point. The columns are not decorative—the support not only the weight of the vaults and domes, but the entire mountain above, and one imagines that the number of load-bearing supports required was often discovered when too few columns were left in place, causing the cave to collapse in on itself, which meant finding a new location and starting all over again. Given this danger, the churches spaces in the Cappadocian caves range from intimate to small —the largest nave is only 25’ 22’ long.

Twenty-five years ago, Cappadocia was a remote site, visited only by adventurous archaeologists and architectural historians, driving Land Rovers and equipped with flashlights. Now, the region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in the wake of that designation, which was intended to preserve the cave cities, came developers who promptly carved luxury hotels with swimming pools, malls, restaurants, and parking structures into the tufa and on the surface, roadways, which brought cars and exhaust, which now threaten the region’s fragile eco-system. Like the caves at Lascaux and the Roman catacombs, the number of breathing, perspiring tourists in the cave churches caused the humidity to spike, which makes the tufa erode and the wall paintings to flake. Lascaux is now closed permanently to visitors, as are the frescoed areas of the catacombs, so if you want to see Goreme, you may wish to book your seats now.

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