The main subject in all churches’ frescos is people. Some churches have well over two hundred faces. This article explains the identity and meaning of the various people painted in cave churches.
The Purpose of Icons
The pictures of saints that fill Orthodox churches are called “icons,” from the Greek word for image. In Orthodox Christianity icons convey theological truths, not merely factual history. They bring heavenly realities to earth, and provide worshipers a window into heaven. Fellow Christians who modeled the faith in previous generations surrounded worshippers inside a church. The visible presence of saints inspired people to keep the faith. On a practical level, icons also decorate the interior space and teach biblical stories. Most pictures feature the bust of a saint inside a halo.
The icons are not static art, but visual narratives of embodied faith. Byzantine Christians easily recognized these saints because they looked the same in all Orthodox Churches. Moreover, the saints were fellow Greeks who were national heroes to later Byzantine Christians. The genre of hagiography—biographies of saints—were widely copied and read so people would easily recall the lives of the saints from the icon of their bust. In our secular age, people can dismiss icons as superstitious charms, but for ancient Byzantine Christians, the icons were spiritual biographies—inspiring examples of piety.
The Style of Icons
Orthodox art is purposefully uncreative. Artists were expected to replicate heavenly forms in the pictures. Icons depict eternal truths, the divine plan of heaven.
Several artistic elements are common in all icon paintings. Saints are depicted frontally and stable. Movement and side profiles depict barbaric or satanic beings. Jesus, the saints, and the angels have halos–rays of light around the head to indicate they are holy people. Names are written vertically near the saints’ head, along with the Greek word for saint, "ΑΓΙΟΣ" or simply "Ⓐ". The most basic purpose of an icon was to depict the subject's face. Saints have consistent facial features. So for example, Basil the Great always has a thin face and long beard.
Frescos in Middle Byzantine (800–1204 AD) churches follow a specific spacing. The church interior reflects the cosmic order. The high portions on the ceiling represent heaven, with angels and the exalted Christ. The upper wall, with scenes from Jesus' life, signifies Jerusalem. The lower wall is earth, with pictures saints and martyrs. This three-fold division reflects the cosmic order.
The remainder of this article identifies the nine most common people painted in Cappadocian cave churches.
The most common subject in Orthodox Churches is, of course, Jesus. The physical representation of Jesus has hardly changed in 1600 years, so he is easy to recognize. With long hair and a serious face, Jesus is the focal point of fresco scenes. Besides his distinctive facial appearance, there are two other ways to identify an icon of Jesus. One, Jesus has a cruciform halo with three arms that signify his eternality. Two, above Jesus’ halo appears the letters “ĪC̄ X̄C̄,” an abbreviation for the Greek name Jesus Christ. Frescos on the upper ceiling show the heavenly Jesus sitting in post-resurrection glory; midlevel frescos depict the earthly Jesus in a scene from the Gospels. (Also read, Pantrocrator: The Most Important Icon)
Mary, mother of Jesus, is another common subject in fresco scenes. She is most prominent in the birth scenes of Jesus. In deisis apse scenes, she stands to the left of the crucified or exalted Jesus. Other times she sits on a throne holding the Christ Child.
Mary often has a serene and royal look. She faces frontward, stands straight, and wears a head covering. Frescos label Mary as “Ō THEOTOKOS” (God-Bearer) or “M̄P̄ θ̄Ū” (Mother of God). These titles expressed veneration of Mary, but also affirmed the divinity of her son Jesus.
The veneration of Mary was an early church practice, beginning in the 2nd century book The (Proto)Gospel of James. This apocryphal book emphasizes the (eternal) virginity and sacredness of Mary for two reasons. One, her purity was a model for later Byzantine nuns who renounced marriage for the monastic life. Two, her sacred body replicated the Jerusalem temple, the dwelling place of God. Early Christians used temple language to describe Mary to make a Christological point—Jesus is the true presence and essence of God.
Orthodox art includes many angels. In the Bible, angels have two primary functions. First, they denote divine presence. Angels are like "boarder agents" that indicate you will now encounter God's majestic holiness. These worshiping angels are usually seraphim ("six-winged") and tetramorphs ("four-headed forms"). They may hover around God and/or Jesus in worship.
Angels also serve as divine ambassadors fulfilling God's tasks. The Greek word angelos means "messenger." These angels have a human like appearance in paintings, except for their distinguishing feature of two large wings. The archangels Michael and Gabriel are the most common. In lower sections, angels appear standing like guardians.
Jesus’ twelve apostles are common subjects. They typically hold a scroll or book, indicating their role as mediators of God’s revelation. Scenes of The Last Supper and Ascension typically include all twelve apostles. The New Testament authors Mark, Luke, and Paul often appear alongside the twelve original disciples. The apostles may appear standing side by side on a wall, or as a row of busts under an arch.
Old Testament Prophets
Some Old Testament saints appear in frescos. For example, in the Resurrection scene, kings David and Solomon stand behind Adam and Eve as Jesus pulls them from hell. Two Old Testament stories are common—Abraham and Sarah hosting the angels (Genesis 18) and the three Hebrews in the blazing furnace (Daniel 4). A few churches feature Old Testament prophets on the underside of an arch (soffit). Dark Church (Karanlık Kilise, Göreme) includes all of these subjects.
A martyr is someone who gave his or her life for the sake of Christ. They gave witness to their faith by following Jesus unto death. After the Empire stops persecuting Christians around 305 AD, the practice of monasticism replaced martyrdom as the way pious Christians bore witness to their faith. Latter generations of monks and ascetics in Cappadocia highly revered martyrs for the sacrificial denunciation of this world. This is why martyrs are so prominent in cave churches. They were examples of faith and piety. In frescos, martyrs appear on the lower sections of walls. As a symbol of their martyrdom, they hold a white cross in front of their chest.
Military saints are especially prominent in cave churches. These were Christian solders in the Roman army who endured torture and martyrdom because they refused to worship the imperial cult. Most of these military saints lived in Turkey and died around 300 AD under Emperor Diocletian.
Military saints appear as large figures standing on the lower sections. They hold weapons and wear military attire. The most popular military saint is St. George. Born in Cappadocia, he was a Roman solider martyred in 303 AD. St. George appears on a white horse stabbing a snake or dragon. On the wall opposite, St. Theodore rides a black horse. Military saints are prominent at Direkli Church in Ihlara Valley. Oversized military saints cover the four large columns.
Many scholars assign a pragmatic, animistic function to the warrior saints. From 600–900 AD, Cappadocia was an unprotected frontier region where Byzantine power was limited. Arabs and Persians often raided the region from the east. Such dangers made Cappadocians seek protection and security from military saints. However, this animistic interpretation misses the obvious symbolism.
The imagery of a warrior on a horse slaying a dragon comes directly from Revelation chapter 19. This book uses apocalyptic imagery to interpret the spiritual victory of Jesus' salvific crucifixion, and the actions of his "messianic army" of martyrs who advance the victory through their witness. The military imagery is a spiritual interpretation of their martyrdom. They were soldiers of Christ, not Rome, whose death was a means of victory through the blood of the Lamb (Jesus). As such, the warrior saints stand in churches as role models who the "voluntary martyrs" (monks) who likewise seek victory in the battle against evil and Satan.
The Church Fathers were influential Christian theologians and leaders in the early Church. They established the theological and structural foundations of Christianity. Two prominent Church Fathers--Gregory of Nazianzus (modern Güzelyürt) and Basil of Caesarea (modern Kayseri)--were Cappadocians. They appear often in cave churches.
In frescos, Church Fathers wear a large white scarf decorated with black crosses. This wool garment over their shoulders and chest signifies their pastor role. They imitate the Good Shepherd who carried the lost sheep (John 10:1–21). Most often, Church Fathers are standing on the lower section of an apse.
New Buckle Church (Tokalı Kilise, Göreme) gives the great prominence to Church Fathers. Several dozen busts fill the narrow corridor, and scenes of Basil the Great line the north wall.
The final subjects of church frescos are patrons. They paid for the building and painting of the church. Donors are small figures prostrate at the feet of Jesus, saying, "A petition of your servant, (name)." They do not have halos because they are not official saints. A few churches have a written inscription of the donor’s name. These donor inscriptions provide invaluable information for reconstructing the history of a particular church.