Many visitors to Cappadocia don't fully understand and appreciate the cave churches. The amazing cave churches of Cappadocia can be hard to interpret for the untrained eye. So many people just glance at the shiny pictures, and then move on to the next site—seeing a lot, understanding little. But you can
Here are 10 tips to unlock the meaning and significance of any cave church. The questions allow you to better appreciate the unique meaning of each church.
Understanding the Architecture
1. Physical Setting. Look around the church. The context of a church informs its purpose and use.
What rooms are near the church—kitchens, winepresses, refectory halls?
Are other churches nearby?
How did people enter the church?
Read more about the building process and locations.
2. Floor plan. Look down. Builders had to choose the size and shape of the church.
How large is the church?
What is the floor plan—3-aisle, cross-shaped, single-nave, double-nave?
How do the narthex (entry room) and apse (sanctuary area) relate to the nave (main room)?
Read more about the main floor plans .
3. Graves. Look for burial pits. A key function of many churches was to serve as a burial chamber for the dead.
Where are the graves located in the church?
What graves are for prominent people, for children, for donors?
What graves were later additions, carved after the church was built?
Read more about church graves.
4. Architecture. Look at the forms and design. The physical forms of a church are meant to symbolize heaven.
What shape is the ceiling—flat, barrel-vaulted, domed?
Were decorations like crosses, niches, pillars carved onto the wall?
What furniture is in the apse, such as a bench, an altar?
Read more about interior architecture of churches.
5. Function. Think about the original purpose. Churches could be private family churches, burial chapels, or a community parish.
How many people could fit in the church?
Where would people stand during the liturgy service?
Who could have easily walked to this church?
Understanding the Paintings
6. Painting Style. Observe the artistic features. Every artist had a unique style of painting.
What colors did the artists use most?
How well did the artists paint the faces and clothes?
Are the paintings geometric shapes on the rock, or colored icons on plaster?
Read more about painting styles and methods.
7. Non-Figural Shapes. Note the various shapes. All churches have some non-human designs in the paintings.
What borders or frames were painted to divide the interior space?
What geometric shapes fill the empty space between icons?
What words do you see (either painted with the pictures, or scratched as graffiti)?
8. Jesus Christ. Look for his face. The most important aspect of every church is the person of Jesus.
Where does Jesus appear (dome, apse, upper walls)?
What scenes does Jesus appear in?
How is Jesus’ visual relationship with other people?
Read more about the icon of Christ Pantocrator.
9. The People. Observe all the painted faces. Church paintings are filled with various saints from all of history.
Where does the virgin Mary appear in the church?
Who are the people? Here is a quick guide: martyrs hold a white cross; angels have wings; Church Fathers wear a white scarf; the 12 apostles hold books; military saints hold weapons; patrons are tiny and kneeling.
What group of people appears most important to the artist?
Read more about the various saints and icons.
10. Location. Note the position of pictures. Artists decided not just whom to paint, but also where to paint them.
What people pictures appear in the apse, on the ceiling, and on the walls?
Are pictures placed in sequential order, or randomly located?
What portions of the church were left unpainted?
These 10 tips allow you to grasp the meaning and significance of ancient churches. Every church is a work of art filled with rich theology and spiritual meaning. We should examine each space and ask, “What did the builder/artist intend here?” To really appreciate a church, allow yourself at least 20 minutes to dwell inside a church and observe its artistic richness.