Apple Church

Updated: Nov 19, 2019

Apple Church (Turkish, Elmalı Kilise), is a superb cave church in the Göreme Open Air Museum. The interior painting program is one of Cappadocia’s most advanced, artistically and theologically. The cross-in-square church dates back to around 1050, like the similar Dark Church and Sandal Church nearby.


Physical Setting


The front of Apple Church has eroded away. A church with such rich interior paintings was likely part of a larger monastic complex with a refractory, small rooms, and grave tombs. These elements have collapsed into the ravine below, leaving only the main church standing in isolation on a cliff face. Only a few carved elements of the entry room (narthex) remain visible on the outside. Because the severe erosion made the front entrance inaccessible, a small hole was carved in the left (north) wall as a secondary entrance. Museum officials have added a walkway in front so people can enter through original front (west) door.


Painting Program


The church features a cross-in-square floor plan. The four broad pillars divide the room into nine square bays. This common church layout creates many small panels at various angles. Due to this architectural layout, the wall paintings in Apple Church are not arranged in a narrative sequence. Rather, the pictures are independent scenes, mostly from the life of Christ. Most scenes represented an important Orthodox holiday (feast day), and served as an icon of that special day.

The painting program does reveal some thematic organization. The various angels and curves of the interior walls allow pictures to interact with each other.


Here are examples of visual juxtaposition in the church:

  • The two Old Testament scenes interpret the New Testament stories above them. The rescue of the three Hebrew boys from the fire relate to Lazarus’ resurrection from the grave. Abraham’s hospitality towards the three angles who announce their child is beneath Jesus’ birth. Such parallelism shows continuity in God’s plan of salvation.

  • The Baptism and Transfiguration—two scenes affirming Jesus’ divine identity—appear side by side in the back right corner.

  • The birth and death of Jesus are juxtaposed on the side walls. The incarnation and crucifixion were the climatic moments of divine revelation, the cornerstones of divine salvation.

  • The eight Old Testament prophets under the central arches interact with and comment on other images, as discussed below.

  • While the overall arrangement in Elmalı Churches shows some organization, many pictures do appear randomly placed. For example, scenes from Jesus’ death—Entry into Jerusalem, Last Supper, Crucifixion, and Burial—are located sporadically without any interconnection.

The painter, though talented, had trouble fitting some scenes into the carved space. For example, the Magi scene overflows onto the ceiling. The Last Supper and Transfiguration scenes extend beyond their architectural space, running over the setbacks in the arches. This fact, along with the presence of red geometric shapes on the wall, indicates that the church was carved and painted in two distinct phases. The architect and painter did not work hand in hand.


Painting Style


The painting style of Apple church exhibits great skill. The images are clear and legible. The artists preferred deep red and yellow colors on a sky blue background. Intricate floral and geometrical designs fill the space between scenes, especially the corners at the base of the domes. These abstract fillers, in contrast to the clear and defined icon scenes, represent God’s infinite and unknowing qualities.

The scenes appear like framed wall paintings with crisp, ornate boarders. The frames give each scene a sense of independence and completion, while the sky blue background unifies the interior. Detailed figures densely fill each scene. Figures are shown gracefully stepping into action, creating a sense of drama and purpose in each event.


The artist illustrates with great skill: proportions are to scale, muscles look realistic, garments hang correctly, faces are dimensional, and groups of people move in harmony with one another. Even on rounded surfaces like the domes and arches, the painter adjusted the shape of bodies so they appear correct. As a side note, the impressive clothing reflects the styles of the painters’ medieval Byzantine attire, not the clothing of biblical times.


Front Wall and Apses


The front (east) wall of Apple Church has three sanctuary sections (apses). Diesis fills the upper wall (conch) of the central apse. Jesus sits on a padded royal throne, while Mary and John the Baptist present prayers on behalf of saints. Jesus holds the Gospel opened to John 15:17, “I command these things to you so that you may love one another.” This passage is rarely used in pictures.


Underneath Jesus are five Church Fathers—Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, John Chrysostom, Nicholas, and Blaise. The rock alter remains in the main sanctuary, but the high templon wall has crumbled away.


The left apse features Mary holding the Christ Child at her side. This icon is called Hodegetria, which means, “She who shows the Way.” Mary leans into Jesus and points to him as the source of salvation. The scene above the apse is the burial of Jesus. The damaged picture only shows Nicodemus holding the feet of Jesus.

The right apse is the archangel Michael. Above him is the Last Supper, which has been chipped away. You can only see Peter (far right) and part of Jesus (holding a scroll). The fish on the plate is a theological symbol. Ancient Christians used the Greek word ichthus (fish) as an acronym for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” During the Last Supper, Jesus’ disciples partook in the “body of Christ,” represented here by the symbolic fish.


Left (North) Wall


This north wall is quite damaged, revealing large red Maltese crosses from the first layer of painting. Water from the roof has eroded the large painting of Abraham and Sarah hosting the three angels (in the lower section). After the front entrance crumbled into the valley, a secondary entrance was carved into the lower wall. From left to right, the top fresco scenes are Entry into Jerusalem, the Nativity, and Jesus’ Entombment.


Right (South) Wall


Scenes of triumph and victory decorate the south wall. From left to right, they include Resurrection, Crucifixion, and Transfiguration.


The Crucifixion is the theological high point of Apple Church. Jesus hangs serenely from the cross. His mother Mary and John the disciple weep at his side. A darkened skull lies at Jesus’ feet. This illustrates the divine wisdom of the cross—Jesus’ death killed Death itself, and thus life became possible. The sun and the moon sit above the cross in transformed colors, for Jesus’ death has brought eschatological changes. The transparent skirt wrapping Jesus was a later addition.

The scene presents Jesus as the original martyr. The Roman centurion (lower right) issues the command to crucify God’s Messiah. The smaller scenes on each side wall reinforce the humiliation and tragedy of Jesus’ death. To the left, Jesus is betrayed by his own disciple and taken into custody by Roman soldiers. Then on the right, Jesus is pulled like an animal to his crucifixion. The text above Jesus reads, “They took the robe off from him, and led him away to crucify him,” even though Jesus still wears a robe in the picture. Together, these images present Jesus’ death as a martyrdom at the hands of Roman officials, and thus a prototype of subsequent Christian martyrs who likewise endured death before the Romans.


Crucifixion on South Wall of Apple Church (Göreme)

This scene interfaces with nearby pictures to reveal rich theological insights. The artist connects the crucifixion scene with the angelic hosts in the dome. A continuous red frame unites the entire scene into one panel. In two lines of Greek at the base of the dome, the angels proclaim, “The earth is shaken and the whole of creation trembles; the mother [Mary] mourns and the disciple [John] weeps on seeing the God of Glory upon the cross.” This is the heavenly interpretation of the earthly scene below—the entire cosmos shakes as humans crucify the “God of Glory.” Also, the head of the cross extends up into heaven, as a sign of its cosmic, heavenly importance. Jesus’ death unites heaven and earth, rejoins God with humanity.


Back (West) Wall


The Ascension scene surmounts the entrance. Forty days after Jesus rose from the dead, he gave final instructions to his twelve disciples, and then ascended into heaven from Jerusalem (Acts 1:1–8). Like the crucifixion scene, this scene is multi-dimensional. The dome, upper wall, and side spaces above the arches (lunette) present a unified narrative. In the dome, Jesus ascends into heaven. Four angels hold the golden ring (aureole or mandorla) surrounding Jesus. On the wall below, the disciples gather around Mary and watch Jesus depart. This scene is from Acts 1:10—"While Jesus was going and [the disciples] were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.” These two angels are pictured on the side walls above the arches (lunettes). The left angel asks, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” The right angel states, “This is Jesus who has been taken to heaven,” citations from Acts 1:11. The four pictures—Jesus going to heaven, the disciples watching, and two angels speaking—comprise one unified scene.


The picture of Daniel (under a nearby arch) adds another theological layer to the scene. The prophet points towards the Ascension and declares with his open scroll, “The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed.” (Dan 2:44a, NIV). This passage echoes the final conversation Jesus had with his disciples immediately before his ascension. The disciples ask, “Now will you restore the [political] kingdom to Israel?” In response, Jesus says they shall receive the Holy Spirit and become witnesses/martyrs (Acts 1:6–8). Jesus says that God’s kingdom will come through their witness (Greek, marturēs), not a new political order as the disciples hoped.


The martyrdom of saints, as remembered on the front sections this church, declares and establishes God’s rule on earth. This kingdom, which monks continue to advance through lives of witness, will never be destroyed, just as Daniel foretold.


Ceiling


The impressive ceiling pictures are well preserved. In Byzantine churches the domes represent the realm of heaven. In terms of shape, the domes are low and flat. Though architecturally impossible for rock built churches, this allows the images to be less curved and more proportionate.


The central dome features the icon Christ Pantocrator. The all-powerful Jesus sits enthroned in heaven. The dome near the entrance has the Ascension of Christ into heaven (explained above). The other seven domes are angels, heavenly beings who worship God.


Front Left Corner of Apple Church

The undersides of the arches (soffits) each have two Old Testament prophets standing with an open scroll. Each prophet’s location and quotation has a theological purpose in the church. Below is a list of the prophets, a quote of their scroll, and the theological importance.


  1. Solomon—"A wise child makes a glad father, but a foolish child saddens his mother.” Proverbs 10:1 make sense here, as Solomon faces his own father.

  2. David— “Hear, O daughter, consider and incline your ear; forget your people and your father’s house.” Psalm 45:2 serves as a biblical admonition and affirmation for the monks who left their own family to serve God.

  3. Jonah—"I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” Jonah 4:2 is a common affirmation of God’s gracious character in the Old Testament.

  4. Habakkuk is written above the head, but the text is Jeremiah 23:23—“Am I only a God nearby, declares the Lord, and not a God far away?” The artist likely wrote the wrong name. The verse, originally about God finding false prophets in their hiding places, affirms the presence of God in this sacred space.

  5. Daniel—"The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed.” Daniel 2:44a, as discussed above, interprets the Ascension scene. Daniel lived his life in Babylonian exile, so Byzantine painters depicted him in Persian attire.

  6. Isaiah—“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Isaiah 7:14 predicts Jesus’ miraculous birth from a virgin. The prophet gestures twoards birth scene on the left wall. Byzantine theologians often read Isaiah because of his explicit prophecies of Jesus’ birth.

  7. Moses—“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1 is the opening verse in the Bible. In the painting, Moses looks across the space to John the Evangelist, who opened his gospel with an echo of Genesis 1:1—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1).

  8. Elijah—“May the Lord God Almighty, the God of Israel, live!” This quote is not a biblical verse, but adapted from the liturgy. The phrase “Lord God Almighty” (Greek, pantocrator) refers to the the main dome.

In the front dome (before the main apse) is Michael the archangel. On the walls (lunettes) below the dome are icons of “The Five Holy Martyrs of Sebastia” (modern day Sivas)—Eustratios, Auxentios, Mardarios, Eugenios, and Orestes, all popular figures in Byzantine church paintings. In 296 AD, the Roman Emperor Diocletian heard the people of Cappadocia were not venerating him. So, he appointed two new rulers to kill all the Christians in the region. One such Christian was Eustratios, who had served in the Roman army for 27 years. Eustatios refused to worship the emperor, so the ruler imprisoned, humiliated, and killed him. His bold resolve in the face of death inspired other Christians to persevere against Roman persecution. The day of their martyrdom (December 13) was a popular feast day. (Read their full story here.)


Conclusion


Elmalı Church, though compact in size, features advanced artistry and innovative theology. To enjoy the full beauty of this cave church, spend time observing the details and interrelationships of the many pictures.

© 2019 Jason Borges

photo credits

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