Church of the Cross (Turkish, Haçlı Kilise) in Red Valley is a cave church featuring a splendid stone cross on the ceiling and a fully painted apse. With an amazing apse scene, a monumental ceiling relief, and a stunning view of Red Valley, Church of the Cross is one of Cappadocia’s best churches to visit.
Cross Church is located in Red Valley. Google Maps has the correct location here. Several routes ascend to this cave church. Arrows sprayed in red paint point visitors in the right direction. The bamboo café at the church’s base is easy to find and a great place from which to enjoy the Cappadocian landscape. Walk through the café and up the steep steps to the church entrance. The church is free to enter and is open every day.
The narthex (entry space) is half preserved, as the front half has fallen away. A small chamber on the left contains three floor graves. A frame arched doorway leads into the side of the church.
The large nave measures 5.5 by 5 meters. A broad bench lines all sides. The carving is crisp and proportionate.
The architecture of Cross Church is rich in theological meaning. The carved apse furniture and ceiling cross mimic the apse scene of Christ in Glory (discussed below). The builders knew the painting program as they were carving the church. In most Cappadocian cave churches, the carvers and painters worked separately, often decades apart. However, the architecture and painting of Cross Church convey a consistent theological message.
The church’s defining feature, and namesake, is the large cross relief on the flat ceiling. The Roman cross is surmounted by an arch. Two framed diamonds with inset Greek crosses float under each arm. A shallow border frames the entire ceiling.
The carved relief shows great precision and skill. Every detail is perfect in form—the curvature of the arch, the spacing between the circles, the recessed trim, the central double diamond, the slight bends at the end of each arm.
In addition to the detailed craftsmanship, the ceiling cross mirrors the painting scene in the apse. The arch has a total of thirteen circles—one, plus six on each side. This layout mirrors the apse scene with Jesus and twelve disciples. The horizontal bar of the cross (central diamond flanked by three circles) mirrors the soffit (central cross flanked by three prophets in roundels). The two crosses below reflect the two martyrs (Saints Prokopios and Theodore) standing on the front wall of the apse. These parallels are hardly accidental. The architectural design reinforces the painted elements.
The cross’s location overhead indicates the sovereign power of God protecting his people from above. The apse painting (Christ in Glory) carries the same theological message—Jesus on his throne rules the world and blesses his people.
Stone crosses were a local Cappadocian development, possible only because of the peculiar architectural process of cave churches. (In masonry churches, builders cannot design a rock relief in the ceiling.) These ceiling crosses are best attributed to artistic creativity, not the political forces of Iconoclasm—the period when Byzantine emperors banned and destroyed icons (730–842). Iconoclasm did not influence the construction of the church, as the carvers obviously had the apse painting (which includes images of many people) in mind when they carved the apse and ceiling. Moreover, monasteries opposed and defied the destruction of icons. Monks bitterly contested the ban of images. Some even endured exile and martyrdom for not consenting to the Iconoclastic decrees from Constantinople. Because monks led the opposition to Iconoclasm, Cappadocian monks would not have adopted the Iconoclastic practice of replacing images with crosses. Rather, Cappadocia’s volcanic landscape offered local builders a unique artistic medium (carved reliefs) with which to convey their theology (Christ’s sovereignty).
The large horseshoe apse measures about 3 by 4 meters. This provides a spacious painting surface. The low templon barrier is destroyed, perhaps because it was so thin. Divots above the cornice encased a wooden cross beam with the iconostasis. The center altar was removed to create the winepress.
A sturdy synthronon bench lines the back wall. The elevated seat in the middle has a footstool and niched backrest. The arch has formal trimming, and the inside of the niche had a white cross with the dedicatory inscription below.
This physical throne parallels Jesus’ painted throne. The priest sitting in this carved seat imitated Jesus sitting directly above. The horizontal red band from Jesus’ mandorla to the priest’s chair creates a visual link. The band was not ornamental, as it paints over the carved Maltese Cross—a rare instance in which the architecture and painting conflict with each other.
Christ in Glory Icon
Cross Church has very well-preserved apse scenes. Christ in Glory fills the large conch. Jesus sits upon his heavenly throne as ruler of the world, surrounded by angels and saints who praise him.
Horizontal bands and distinct backgrounds divide the space into three equal sections. The scene represents the three-fold division of Byzantine cosmology—heaven (Jesus and angels), Jerusalem (the twelve disciples standing), and earth (the bench for the Orthodox priest and his helpers).
Jesus’ royal throne has red cushions, a golden frame with elaborate jewels, and a matching footrest. Jesus wears a red undergarment and a blue cloak with perfect folds in dark navy. He gestures a blessing with one hand and holds a closed codex (book) of the Gospel upon his leg. Jesus has long red-orange hair, which appears pulled over his left shoulder.
The four living creatures emerge from behind the throne. The four powerful animals—human, lion, eagle, and ox—represent all of creation. In Ezekiel 1, Daniel 7, and Revelation 4, these animals appear in God’s heavenly courtroom. In Church history, these four animals represented the four Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). For this reason, each figure holds a bejeweled book, just as Jesus does.
The writing above each head describes how each figure worships Jesus—“speaking,” “chanting,” “shouting,” and “crying.” These same words appear in the liturgy. As worshipers in the nave gazed upon this scene, the priest read aloud, “The four living creatures are singing the victory hymn, proclaiming, crying out, and saying: Holy, holy, holy, Lord Almighty, heaven and earth are filled with Your glory.”
Jesus, the throne, and the four living creatures are encircled by a jagged mandorla that signifies Jesus’ unmatched holiness and glory in heaven.
The red clouds of fire with two white circles are the wheels in Ezekiel’s throne room vision (Ezek 1:15-21; cf. 10:9-13). To the left is a six-winged angel (Hebrew, seraphim, but here in Greek as exapterugon). On the right is a tetramorph angel (Greek, poloiomaton), which has four angelic wings and the heads of the four living creatures.
The Archangels Michael and Gabriel stand on the outside. In imperial attire, they appear as soldiers on duty. Their outside hands hold a staff with the words “HOLY, HOLY, HOLY,” the constant song of the angels in heaven (cf. Isaiah 6:3, Revelation 4:8). The other hand holds an orb (a globe symbolizing sovereign rule). At the top of the conch, the hand of God reaches down from the clouds (white lines).
In Christian theology, angels symbolize divine presence. They stand in the heavenly courts to praise God, preserve his glorious honor, and deliver his royal messages. A red line below the angels and a change in background colors separate Jesus and his angelic court in heaven from the human figures below.
Fourteen figures appear on the lowest band. The two figures near the central seat are John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary. Their dress and appearance resemble those of the Deesis image, in which they stand next to Jesus and present prayer requests on behalf of the saints. John the Baptist holds a scroll with John 1:29, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Mary, with a dark blue robe, holds her hands up to the exalted Christ.
The other twelve figures are Jesus’ disciples. They are all standing with their right feet slightly forward, which creates folds in their outer garments. This is the posture of the great Greco-Roman philosophers of antiquity. The disciples are the true teachers, orators of divine truth. They wear a blue underlayer and outer garment of various earth tones. All faces have been scratched out.
The twelve people standing in the middle band (from left to right) are Nikitas, Phillip, Bartholomew, Jacob, Matthew, John, Paul, (John the Baptist and Mary in the middle), Peter, Andrew, Mark, Luke, Simon, Thomas, and Kurikos. Of the twelve, only the four gospel-writers and Paul hold books, as they authored books in the New Testament. This lineup includes four people who were not among Jesus’ original twelve apostles—two gospel-writers (Mark and Luke) and two martyrs (Kurikos and Nikitas). Though not the original apostles, the number twelve still represents the church.
The lowest section of the apse has a broad bench for the Orthodox priest and his helpers. Their positioning mimics the above scene of Christ and his apostles. Church leaders on earth continue and embody Christ’s kingdom rule over the world. The background painting consists of large braided circles, a common artistic feature in Red Valley churches.
The painting program continues on the front wall. The painting program consists of vibrant earth tones on thin plaster.
The soffit (underside of apse arch) has a central cross flanked by Old Testament prophets. David, Jeremiah, and Malachi are on the right; Solomon and two prophets are on the left. The front of the arch is trimmed with jagged diamonds, creating a semi-mandorla around the apse entrance. A wavy band with encircled stars runs across the top of the front wall.
The broad spaces on each side of the front wall have standing saints. On the left is St. Prokopios (d. 303), a famous monk, theologian, and martyr from Jerusalem. Eusebius, the noted church historian and contemporary, said about Prokopios, “He was a man so filled with divine grace that he had devoted himself to chastity and the practice of all virtues. He had reduced his body until he had given it, so speak, the appearance of a corpse, but his soul drew from the word of God so great a vigor that the body itself was refreshed by it." A smooth prothesis niche for communion elements is below Prokopios.
Panel icons were added on the side walls. On the right, St. Theodore sits on a white horse and slays a dragon with his spear.
The church has several post-Byzantine adaptations. The apse became a basic winepress with a deep collection vat. The left bench was removed to expand the threshing floor. Small pigeon roosts were carved atop the benches. Another large elevated room was carved on the right (southern) wall. Greek graffiti in fine print from 19th-century visitors fills the green background around the saints’ feet. Despite the later adaptations, the carving and painting of Cross Church remain well preserved, even after 1,200 years.