Saint Basil’s Chapel

Updated: Nov 19, 2019

St. Basil’s Chapel is a haphazard, yet intriguing, church inside the Open Air Museum. This small church, located just after the so-called nunnery, is the first church you visit in the Open Air Museum.

St. Basil Nave and Apse (M. Gulyaz)

St. Basil’s Chapel is a compact, single-nave church with limited paintings. These features place it within the “Yılanlı Group” of churches (St. Barbara, St. Catherina, Yılanlı, etc.), which date to the mid 11th century.


Architecture


The interior carving of St. Basil’s Chapel represents the poorest craftsmanship in Göreme. Walls are crooked, pillars are disproportioned, and the surface remains very rough. The coarse work counteracts the intended sacredness of the space.

The general layout is (1) a large narthex with four arched entryways leading into (2) a transverse barrel-vaulted nave with three apses. This unique layout (poorly) mimics the New Tokalı Church. The nearby Yılanlı Church, though unfinished, appears to imitate St. Basil’s floorplan.


Narthex


The entry room (narthex) is a long rectangular room with a flat roof. Twelve graves are carved into the floor. An original acrosolium (arched recess with grave) lies at the far end. All the other grave pits were carved later. The short graves carved into the bench were for infants and children, perhaps those left to the monastery. A second floor room was creatively added to create more graves.


Narthex of St. Basil's Chapel

Stocky pillars create an arcade with three horseshoe-arched entrances into the nave. The far pillar has a tall icon of St. Catherine, a martyr of Alexandria, dressed in imperial clothes. Red geometric patterns trim the ceiling and arches.


Apses (Front Wall)


The wide room allows for three full apses. Each has a low templon barrier and coarse alter. The central apse has an icon of Christ Pantocrator. The off-centered position suggests the apsidal cracks were present during the original construction.


High up the right pillar is the Virgin Mary holding the Infant Jesus. She points to Jesus, the source of truth and way of salvation. As the only painting with an underlayer of plaster and internal details, this is the finest painting in St. Basil’s chapel. The image is largely faded. However, a 1920’s picture shows a more complete picture with stoic facial features and draping clothing. Most importantly, the historical photo includes a miniaturized male figure prostrating at Mary’s feet. The inscription nearby once said, “Lord, help your servant Ignatios, a monk.” Funerary inscriptions rarely include a title after the first name, so this dedicatory inscription of a monk is a notable exception (see also, monk John at Pancarlık Kilise). Ignatios was likely the founding monk or abbot of the monastic community, and so was buried in one of the acrosolium.


The small icon on the far right corner is the military warrior St. Demetrius. While a Roman proconsul in Thessaloniki, he was speared to death in 306 AD for not sacrificing to the Roman gods. When Thessaloniki became an important Byzantine city in the mid-400’s, Demetrius became patron saint of the city and his fame spread throughout the Byzantine world.


North (Left) Wall


The left wall has two panel icons. The tall image on the left is St. Basil the Great, the famed bishop of Caesarea (d. 379 AD) who defended Nicene Orthodoxy and pioneered Byzantine monasticism.


Icons of Basil and Theodore (St. Basil's Chapel North Wall)

The larger square image is St. Theodore on a red horse, spearing a snake. His clothing mimics Roman military attire, but has subtle Persian designs. Theodore Stratelates (“The General”) was martyred in 319 AD in Pontus (northern Turkey).


South (Right) Wall


A double acrosolium decorates the left side of the wall. Each wall has a Maltese cross set inside a decorative circle. The symbolic meaning of these drawings is debated, but ultimately unclear.


The large, square icon is St. George riding a white horse. He was a Roman officer from Cappadocia who died in the early 300’s, in Nicomedia (the first capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, modern Izmit).


Painting


The painting of St. Basil, though interesting, is shoddy and unprofessional. Crooked lines and flat features indicate a lack of skill and/or time. All the images (except Virgin Mary with Infant) are painted directly onto the rock with minimal smoothing of the surface.


The images of St. George and St. Theodore face each other on north-south walls, so they function as a pair. The other six paintings are independent panel icons. They were painted separately as votive icons. In Byzantine Christianity this was a common way to fulfill a vow. For example, “God, if you heal my eyes, then I will paint (or finance) an icon of St. George.”


Military Saints


Three of the eight icons are military saints, a common element in Cappadocian iconography. Scholars surmise that Cappadocian Christians honored military saints because of the region’s position as a frontier region. Located far from imperial forces in Constantinople, Cappadocia was always vulnerable to invasions and raids from Persia and/or Arabia.


But more than magical charms for physical protection, the icons of military saints are also theological declarations. They are the true warriors who fought God’s battle against evil. They were soldiers not of Rome, but the army of martyrs who continue the victory of Christ. Through their death, these “spiritual soldiers” bore witness to Christ’s victory over death. Thus, later Byzantine monks tried to imitate them by bearing witness to Christ through renunciation and radical disciples.


Other Rooms


Several carved chambers lie outside the church. As you look at the church entrance, acrosolium appears on the left. Several meters to the right, another entrance leads to a refectory.

External Grave and Entrance of St. Basil's Chapel

In 2013 museum officials placed a protective layer of flat bricks over the fairy chimney. By channeling water away from the church, they hoped to prevent external and internal damage.

© 2019 Jason Borges

photo credits

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