People visit cave churches for a simple reason—the painted pictures. Cappadocia has 100s of cave churches, but people only visit the few churches with stunning, well-preserved paintings. Even academic researchers have focused on the wall paintings. This article discusses the method and meaning of wall paintings in Cappadocia's cave churches.
Simple Geometric Shapes
Red, geometric shapes painted directly onto the rock walls are the most basic art work in cave churches. The simple pattern consists of circles and lines, painted in a seemingly hasty fashion. This is the art style of many cave churches. The most elaborate churches with this geometric art style are St. Barbara Church (Göreme Open Air Museum) and Ayvalı Monastery (near Göreme).
Because this style lacks human figures, some scholars date such churches to the Iconoclastic period (726–842 AD) when icons where banned. This conjecture is possible, but hard to prove since these churches lack inscriptions with specific dates. Also, monks were iconodules (Greek, "lovers/servants of icons") who opposed iconoclasm, so we should not expect a strong Iconoclastic influence in Cappadocian monasteries.
Besides the pretense of iconoclasm, there is another explanation for this simple geometric style—the church was merely unfinished. The lines and patterns closely follow the architectural carving, especially along arches and corners. This fact suggests the architect himself painted these lines immediately after carving to demark the space as sacred. They symbolized to human visitors this was not a typical cave and warded off evil spirits. The design was temporary until the professional artists came to plaster and paint the walls.
The red paint consists of local iron-ore with a simple, gum-based binding, so easily washes off with water. Humans have used this red ochre paint in cave paintings for over 200,00 years. The natural materials is heated to ~800° C to create the bright pigment.
This "folkloric" style was intended to be temporary. The simple designs were eventually plastered over in many churches. This is evident in places the plastered painting has chipped away and the original wall art is visible.
The colorful pictures of Jesus and saints garner the most attention in cave churches. They are made with natural pigments painted on lime plaster. Since plaster adheres to the tuff rock, artists finished the interior of cave churches like regular rock churches. These pictures features icons of saints and colorful decorative patterns.
People often call this type of painting a fresco, but it is technically a secco. In the fresco method, water based pigments are painted directly onto wet plaster. The plaster absorbs the color, and then dries. Frescos last a long time, but are very complicated to produce. Frescos were popular during Roman times and revitalized during the European Renaissance, but were not used in Byzantine times when the cave churches were built.
Instead of frescos, cave churches used the more simple secco method. This means the pictures were painted on dry plaster. These pictures are less durable because the color is only a thin external layer, not part of the wall.
Artists stood on wooden scaffolding to paint the walls. They worked from the top down, in a series of horizontal sections. First, two thin layers of plaster (lime, dust, and water) was applied to a section of wall. The lime plaster had short pieces of straw, which held the plaster together and prevent shrinking and cracking as the plaster dried. The artist would smoothen the second layer of the plaster, make a quick sketch, then start painting the scene. To avoid spoiling from paint drops, sections with light colors (especially white) and saints' faces were painted last. Once that section was done, the artist would plaster and paint another section.
To make the paint, natural materials were ground into powder, then combined mixed with lime and water. Sometimes, natural proteins like egg whites or milk were sometimes (instead of lime) to bind the natural pigments to the plaster wall. For the various colors, artists used natural materials, such as lime for white, iron ore for red, charcoal or animal tusks for black, and azurite or lapis lazuli for blue. In rare instances, artists decorated halos with real gold.
The artists who painted the pictures had different skill levels. Some pictures are stunning and brilliant; other pictures are flat and misconfigured. Most churches were probably painted by local monks. This option was affordable and manual labor was an important monastic activity.
In other cases, professional artists from Constantinople completed the interior of a church. They worked in groups led by a master artist. These groups would sometimes paint several churches. This is obvious where churches have similar drawing styles, colors, floral patterns, and/or scene selection.
One popular family of churches is the "Column Churches" in the Göreme Open Air Museum—Dark (Karanlık), Sandal (Çarıklı), and Apple (Elmalı). Their uniform style suggests the same people made and painted all three. Most likely, the master and his team painted Dark Church first; then some members of the team painted Sandal Church and Apple Church. The latter churches are similar in shape, colors, and scenes to the Dark Church, but their paintings are not as accurate or impressive.
Church patrons would have paid a significant amount for elite artists to travel from Constantinople and work in Cappadocia. Moreover, the lime plaster and special pigments were not available locally, so they would have been expensive to import. These costs are one reason only a few cave churches were completely plastered and painted.
The Restoration Process
The Turkish government began restoring cave church paintings in the 1980's. The projects are lead by the Nevşehir Archeology Museum. Their goal has been to preserve history and open new tourist sites. Foreign scholars, often Europeans, visit in the summer to assist in the restoration projects.
Restorers never attempt to recreate or change a picture, as that would devalue the history. This means every picture you see in the cave churches is original. The goal of restoration is to enhance the viewing experience. The first step is to clean the wall. Pictures are often covered by black soot from incense candles or shepherds' campfires. In churches used as pigeon houses, bird excrement covered the walls. Restorers gently scrub the walls with water and baking soda to uncover the original painting.
The second step to restoration is coloring in the white specks and scratches. The white blemishes distract your eye and break your sight. Restorers cover the exposed plaster so viewers can focus on the image. Restorers use plain colors and water-based paints to minimize their impact. This phase is technical and laborious. Every speck is manually colored with a fine brush. A single church can take several summers for a team to restore. If you look closely at a restored picture, you notice where restorers have filled in spaces.