Sandal Church (Turkish, Çarıklı Kilise) is an elaborate, well-preserved cave church inside the Göreme Open Air Museum. Similar to Dark Church and Apple Church, this 11th-century church with elaborate paintings is one of Cappadocia’s finest cave churches.
The name “Sandal Church” comes from the footprints on the floor under the Ascension scene. According to a recent legend, Jesus left these sacred imprints when ascending to heaven. Scholars call this church “Holy Cross”, for historical reasons explained below.
Sandal Church is part of a monastic complex built into a shallow courtyard, similar to nearby Dark Church. Blind niches and red Maltese crosses decorate the two-story façade.
The church is on the upper level. A rock staircase on the left provided the original access to the (now-collapsed) upper portico, which had a transverse barrel vault and columns. The upper portico has one floor grave on the right and a (very short!) guard’s bed on the left. The church had no narthex.
Cappadocia’s best-preserved refectory sits directly under the church. The seven-meter table has complete rock benches. Communal meals in this room were sacred events—a continuation of the liturgy performed in the church above (where the monks also ate bread and wine). The apse at the head of the table (the abbot’s seat) has a red-orange painting of Last Supper. This picture of Jesus eating with the 12 disciples gave spiritual and historic meaning to the monks' communal meals. Sandal Church above does not include a painting of Last Supper, for the artist placed the image here in the refectory. The apse at the foot of the table has a red Maltese cross.
The lower level has three other carved rooms—small spaces on each side and a nondescript room now used as a café. Higher up the cliff face are unreachable cave rooms, perhaps monks’ living cells. Monks and visitors gathered in the outdoor courtyard area, which was enclosed by a rock wall.
Sandal Church is the smallest and most unprofessional of the three “column churches.” The interior walls are disproportionate and crooked. Although the style broadly imitates Dark and Apple Churches, the differences suggest that a different artist built Sandal Church.
The floor plan combines cross-in-square and cruciform layouts. The front half of the church has corner bays and two (recently restored) pillars. However, the back half has neither corner bays nor pillars. The asymmetrical design may have been intentional, as in Barbara Church. More likely, though, the builders mismanaged resources (i.e., time, money, or space) and could not complete the project as planned, so they simplified the design for the back half of the church.
The church has four domes (three in front, one in the center) and three apses. The two domes rise from a flat roof with unconnected pendentives (triangular supports). The church has only two short burial graves (back wall and near the door).
Church Painting: Jesus’ Life
The life of Christ is depicted on the upper wall in 12 scenes. The images are not organized in chronological sequence but appear in random places. The absence of rear corner bays limited the amount of wall space available for painting scenes. All pictures appear on a blue-gray background.
The birth scenes of Nativity and Magi fill the rear (west) transept, coupled with Transfiguration. Crucifixion appears above the entrance, paired with Judas’ Betrayal and Jerusalem Entry on the vault above. The opposite (south) wall has Resurrection and Ascension. The front bays have additional scenes of Baptism (cut out for the pigeon hole), Abraham’s Hospitality, Raising Lazarus, and Women at the Empty Tomb.
The scene of Simeon Carrying the Cross (under the front dome) is a rare fresco in Cappadocian churches and is not included in Apple or Dark Church. The person carrying the cross looks like Jesus, but does not have a cruciform halo. The wall writing identifies the person as Simeon of Cyrene, the person who carried Jesus’ cross. (See Mark 15:21.) The red cross is oversized and warped in size. With limited surface space, the artist struggled to draw the large cross on the three adjacent surfaces using proper perspective. The legs of some figures stretch down to fill the arched-shaped space (as in Judas’ Betrayal near the entrance). This scene explains the origins of the Holy Cross, which appears again twice on the lower walls (explained below). In light of this visual devotion to the cross, Sandal Church may have housed a relic of the True Cross.
The dramatic Ascension scene creates an immediate impression when one enters. At the apex of the vault, Jesus sits in full glory holding a scroll (see Rev 5), while four angels lift his round mandorla to heaven. Immediately under Jesus, Mary stands prominently with two archangels, then Paul (left) and Peter (right). The scene seamlessly continues on the lower vault walls with the confused apostles and the angels’ words from Acts 1:11: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” The three-dimensional image envelops and invites the viewer to look upward.
Abraham’s Hospitality appears prominently above the left apse (though this image typically appears on lower walls). The three angels use Byzantine-style tableware. Sarah refills the cup of the right angel. Below the table are a miniature cow and calf—perhaps the animals sacrificed/butchered to feed the angelic guests.
Other saints appear around the lower wall, mostly in pairs inside red-framed panels.
In the central dome, Christ Pantocrator looks down from heaven. The particular style (red hair, soft features, broad shoulders) imitates Dark Church, though this composition contains no biblical text.
The icons around the drum are five archangels with Christ Immanuel (facing the apse). This image of Jesus as a young beardless boy was popular during medieval times. The iconography of Christ Emmanuel is based on Isaiah 7:14, “The Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel”—a prophecy fulfilled in Matthew 1:23. The lower portions of the busts are eroded from pigeons sitting on the lip.
The pendentives (triangle-shaped corner sections supporting the dome) portray the four gospel writers. Similar to Dark Church, the evangelists appear as scribes, seated and writing the opening words of their gospels. In the background, each figure has a desk with a blank scroll and a pair of scissors: the tools of medieval scribes.
Deesis fills the conch (upper section) of the central apse. Jesus’ face is identical to that of Pantocrator in the central dome. However, the broad space allowed the artist to include Jesus’ full body and a royal chair, along with Mary and John the Baptist making petition. The writing in Jesus’ open Gospel is John 8:12: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness.” In the lower section, six Church Fathers stand under arches, painted in detail to resemble real architecture. John Chrysostom stands above the attached alter. The other Church Fathers are Basil, Gregory, Nicholas, and Blaise.
The two side apses feature gigantic busts, perhaps the biggest in any Cappadocian church. The left apse has Theotokos with Child. They appear again on the lower south wall (beneath Ascension), where Mary stands holding Jesus, with two standing archangels. The right apse contains an oversized bust of Archangel Michael with long red wings, imperial garments, and a red spear.
The Holy Cross
The donor panel appears on the back wall. The central figure with a yellow halo holds a thin red cross, which is labeled “Holy Cross” (Greek, timios stavros, lit. “honored/precious cross”). This unidentified person may be Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross to Golgotha, although he does not resemble the Simon in the Carrying Cross scene (above the front dome). The person is not Jesus, as the halo does not have cruciform markings. This same person in yellow clothes appears again on the lower south wall (under Resurrection) riding a white horse. Curiously, in both images, the written inscription identifies the object and not the person. Because of these two labeled pictures of the holy cross and the inclusion of Simon Carrying the Cross (front dome), this church was devoted to the cross (not a particular saint) and perhaps housed part of the True Cross.
On the light blue background of both images, post-Byzantine Greek pilgrims etched many prayers addressed to the cross (not a saint). According to the wall paintings and graffiti, the original 11th-century artists and 19th-century pilgrims venerated the cross in this church.
The three church donors stand on the back wall, turned towards the central haloed figure in yellow. On the left, an elder man named Theognostos wears a white turban and red robe. The two younger men (his sons?) on the right are Leo and Michael. The standardized quote written in front of each person says, “The prayer of God’s servant, (name).” Their hands are extended in a gesture of supplication (similar to that of Mary and John the Baptist with Jesus in the main apse).
French scholar Joliet-Levy suggests that these donors were part of the Melissenos family, prominent military officials who supported the Phocas family, Cappadocians who became the Byzantine royal family in the mid-900s. Historic documents from the era mention two people from the Melissinos family, whose names were also Theognostos and Michael (as written in this church). In light of this historical correspondence, this local family of local elites financed Sandal Church and the attached monastery.