The cave churches of Cappadocia follow the standard floor plans of Byzantine Orthodox Churches. The architectural forms communicate the sacred purpose of a church. The common shapes of Byzantine Orthodox churches are: basilica, cruciform, cross-in-square, and nave. This article describes the history and significance of each floor plan.
A basilica church has a long central hall with side aisles separated by pillars. The ceiling of the roof is higher than the side aisles allowing for windows on the upper parts of the main hall.
Before Constantine's conversion to Christianity in 314 AD, the church met in homes to avoid persecution. But after Christianity became the official religion, there were many new converts to accommodate. In ancient Rome, every town center had a large building called a basilica--the king’s chamber--where officials held public court. The ruler/judge would sit opposite the entrance, in a round section (apse) while crowds stood in the hall. In the fourth century, Christian emperors repurposed these large basilica buildings into church spaces.
Large basilica churches were expensive to construct, so once the Byzantine Empire started to decline after Justinian’s rule (527–565), churches took more compact, economical shapes. In Western Christianity (Europe and America) the basilica remained a common architectural style.
Among the Cappadocian cave churches, the best example of a basilica church is Durmuş Kadır in Göreme. This elaborate church even includes windows above the northern aisle. St. John’s Church (Cavuşin) also has a basilica floor plan. Because of their basilica shape, both of these churches date to the 500’s.
Cruciform shaped churches have the floor plan of a Greek cross, like a “+” sign with four equidistant arms. People enter through the west arm and face the rounded apse in the east arm. The two side arms (north and south transepts) contain fresco scenes, often the birth and death of Jesus. The side arms have arched, barrel vaulted ceilings and end in a flat wall. The roof features a round dome above four arches—a hallmark of Byzantine architecture.
Cross-shaped churches were built from the late 400's to around 1000 AD. Such churches were simple to construct, so they became common in the Byzantine world when finances decreased. El Nazar Church (Göreme) is an example of a cross-shaped floor plan.
A variation of the cross shape is the cross-in-square church. This floor plan has the central cross, but also four corner sections to make a square shape. Small domes cover the corner bays. Four central pillars divide the interior into nine small squares, like a tic-tac-toe grid. This small square church with three apses became the standard plan for Byzantine churches.
The painting program in cruciform churches consists of isolated fresco scenes in tight spaces. The multiple angles and tight spacing of cruciform spaces allow pictures to interface with each other. Artists leveraged this interaction to make a theological point. For example, the side arms often juxtapose Jesus' incarnation and crucifixion—the climatic and salvific moments of his life. Or in Dark Church, Old Testament prophets face towards gospel scenes that they prophesied about in advance.
The cross-in-square church became popular in the 900’s, when many of Cappadocia’s cave churches were carved. In Cappadocia, the best examples of cross-in-square churches are the “column churches” of Göreme Open Air Museum—Dark (Karanlık), Sandal (Çarıklı), and Apple (Elmalı). These famous churches share a common architecture and painting program. Other cross-in-square churches include Hallaç Monastery (Ortahısar), Eski Gümüs Monastery (Niğde), and Column Church (Direkli Kilise in Ihlara). These three cruciform churches are within monastery complexes and feature large, prominent pillars.
A nave church has a single room that ends with an apse. The ceiling can be rounded (barrel-vaulted) or flat. Single nave churches have simple floor plans but impressive artwork. The large roof in the single nave creates a broad, open space to develop a continuous narrative of fresco scenes. For example, Old Buckle Church (Tokalı Kilise in Göreme) and Pancarlık Church (Ortahısar) have rows of pictures with over twenty scenes from the life of Christ. The pictures usually begin at the front right of the nave.
A nave church can have many variations. For example, a “double nave” church has two naves side by side, such as Tatların Church or Archangel Michael Church (Keşlik Monastery).
Another variation of the nave floor plan is the “transverse vault” church design. In this layout, the rounded roof (barrel vault) runs left to right (horizontally) instead of from back to front (longitudinally). This arrangement creates a wide interior with space for three large apses. There are several examples of transverse barrel vault churches in Cappadocia. The New Buckle Church (Tokalı Kilise in Göreme) is the most impressive. The transverse roof of Sarıca 2 Church had to be half flat and half arched to not damage a previously existing church. Also, Hidden Church (Saklı Kilise in Göreme) features two transverse naves.
Basilica, cruciform, cross-in-square and nave are the standard floor plans of Cappadocian churches. But why are churches the shape they are? The size and shape were influenced by its purpose. For example, single nave churches tend to be small funerary chapels. The landscape was another factor, as the locale determines (or limits) which floor plans are even possible. The patron's preferences and budget would also influence the plan of a church.