Kokar Church

Kokar Church is a bright cave church in Ihlara Valley with an ornate cross painted on the ceiling. Church dates to around the 900s. The church is opposite Eğri Taş Church, about one kilometer upriver from Ağaçaltı Church.

Kokar Church (Ihlara), ceiling cross

Floorplan


The single-nave church has a barrel-vaulted ceiling. Visitors now enter from the east through the ruined apse. The original entrance was the steep, curved tunnel in the back right corner. The tunnel connected to other rooms north of the church, seen from the staircase. The narrow tunnel ascending into the dark cave church created a unique procession into worship. This unusual layout was the only way to build an east-facing apse into the rock face on this side of the river.


Painting Style


Kokar is a fully painted church with notable artistic features. Large repeating geometric patterns fill the interior space. These non-figural shapes reflect God's unknowable, transcendent qualities. In contrast, the figural paintings of people portray the knowable qualities of God, as revealed in the person of Jesus. These two artistic styles convey the long debate about God—how knowable is the infinite God? Byzantine painters juxtaposed figural and non-figural paintings to visualize this tension.

Figural paintings at Kokar Church depict only Jesus’ birth and death. There are no scenes from Jesus’ life. On the back wall, the painting program jumps from Flight into Egypt to Last Supper, as though nothing happened in between.


The colors of the church are dark and heavy. For example, the ceiling cross and lower apostles are painted in rich gold, forest green, and maroon. Unsightly brown lines shape all the faces.


The only image besides Jesus is the donor panel with three short figures, located above the tunnel doorway with the yellow inscription. The artist did not include a single martyr, Church Father, or military saint.


The Ceiling


A large jeweled cross decorates the barrel vault. The thick cross arms have a rug-like pattern. The central square frames the “hand of God.” In other Cappadocian churches, God’s hand appears atop scenes such as Baptism, Transfiguration, and Christ Pantocrator, as a sign of divine approval and vindication. However, here the hand indicates that God was present at the cross, both with Jesus and for the salvation of the world.

Kokar Church (Ihlara), ceiling paintings

Each quadrant of the cross has a unique non-figural decoration. On the lower portions of the ceiling, the 12 apostles sit enthroned and hold books. Their names are written down the binding of each book.


In the Ascension, four angels with flowing robes lift Christ into heaven. The mandorla encircling Jesus uses concentric patterns to convey his sacredness and holiness. As with the cross ceiling painting, each side contains six apostles. They are robed in alternating colors and hold closed gospel books. Green trees with red berries fill the background space.


Left (South) Wall


The left wall narrates the birth of Christ in five scenes: Annunciation, Visitation, Proof of Virginity, Magi, and Nativity. An angel leads the three Magi, whose names are inscribed in white. On the far right, the shepherds stand above their goats.


Rear Wall


The back (west) wall contains several scenes. Above the window is Flight to Egypt; James pulls the donkey with Mary and infant Jesus as Joseph follows. On the right side above the door is Last Supper; Jesus sits on the left edge of the table, with 12 disciples behind the table. Below is Hospitality of Abraham. He and Sarah generously host three angels seated at the golden table. This scene from Genesis 18 is called Philoxenia—Greek for “hospitality” or Love of Foreigners.

Deesis fills the upper wall. Jesus sits upon an elaborate throne (which provides a window into Byzantine imperial styles). Mary and John the Baptist, both well-adorned, petition Jesus with open hands. The background uses blue skies, green grass, and purple hyacinth flowers to create a realistic impression.


Kokar Church (Ihlara), rear and south wall

Right (North) Wall


The right wall narrates the death of Christ in five scenes. The yellow panel on the left comprises three scenes (Judas’ betrayal, Jesus led away by robe, and Jesus’ trial before Caiaphas), which convey how forces conspired to cause Jesus’ death. The Jewish high priest sits on the edge of his stool, directly above the large niche with a water basin.


The main icon, both visually and theologically, is Jesus’ Crucifixion. The wide scene includes the two other crucified victims. On the large red cross, Jesus appears lifeless and limp. The final scene (above the painted niche) is Jesus’ entombment into his grave.


Burial Chapel


A double-nave funerary chapel stands at the far (west) end of the church. For entrance and lighting, the doorway and window were carved later, breaking through existing paintings. The top of the door has a large split cut through the head of a disciple at the table. This allowed people to carry a ceremonial cross into the back apse. The two rooms are nicely carved with benches, decorated pillars, and formal apse spaces.



© 2019 Jason Borges

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