Snake Church (Ihlara)

Snake Church (Turkish, Yılanlı Kilise) is a large cave church with abundant paintings in Ihlara Valley. The church dates to the late 800s. With scenes of Ascension, Pantocrator, and Judgement, as well as rows of saints, this spacious church has the fullest painting program in Ihlara Valley.

Snake Church (Ihlara), back ceiling

Snake Church is located near the middle/main entrance of Ihlara, across from Hyacinth (Sümbüllü) Church. There are also Snake Churches in Göreme Open Air Museum and Soğanlı Valley; they share the same name, but are not related.


Architecture


The nave of Snake Church has two square sections. The front nave is cruciform with short arms and a flat roof. The back nave is a large barrel-vaulted narthex room. A small barrel-vaulted narthex leads into the side of the nave, which contains a deep burial chamber in the opposite back corner.


Painting


The painting program has interesting elements. The painter included many rare images: Rabbi Gamaliel, the 24 elders, Last Judgement with snakes, Ascension in the Apse, and oversized Church Fathers.


The painting style features dark blues, soft reds, and thick lines for clothing. The sizing and colors are imposing, making a bold artistic declaration.

The artist made wise use of the different nave rooms by placing individual standing figures in the front arches (front half) and large groups on the open ceiling (back half).


Jesus and the cross are prominently placed at the highest point of every arch and wall. The central axis of the church—the straight line from the altar across the ceiling apex to the back wall—contains eight depictions of Christ or the cross.


Apse


The sanctuary has an attached rock-cut altar with a niche. Painted curtains trim the base. Ascension fills the apse with vivid gold, red, and charcoal colors. Jesus sits upon a rainbow and holds the Gospel book. Four angels in light red ochre robes lift Jesus’ mandorla up to heaven. A jeweled band separates the lower band with enthroned Theotokos, flanked by six (stoic-looking) apostles on each side.

Snake Church (Ihlara), apse with ascension

Front Nave


Instead of a central dome, the flat ceiling has a diamond-framed Maltese cross. The recessed crosses were once painted with the four evangelist sitting in each corner.


The front (east) wall has an arched recess before the apse. The front templon barrier contains painted zigzag designs. Originally, the entire front section (iconostasis) was covered with liturgical objects like painted icons, fabrics, and metal vessels.


On the wall above are two disciples from the book of Acts—the rabbi Gamaliel (right), who supported the early church, and the first martyr, Stephen (left).

The vaulted ceiling before the apse illustrates the Annunciation and Visitation scenes related to Jesus’ miraculous inception. Below them stand John the Baptist (holding a scroll) and John Chrysostom.


The right (south) wall contains bands of decorative painting. Geometric patterns fill the lower section around the small niche with a water basin. The bubbly Maltese cross on a white background matches the cross above the window.

The middle section contains Dormition of Mary. The distressed apostles watch as Jesus receives Mary’s soul. An angel stands behind Jesus on the right. Above the arch, Saints Helena and Constantine, in imperial attire, hold the bejeweled True Cross, set on a white background so that it stands out.


On the arch underside, Archangels Michael and Gabriel overlook the scene. Below them, on the side walls, are two standing Church Fathers—St. Nicholas (Bishop of Myra, whose legend evolved into Santa Claus) and St. Athenogenes (Bishop of Sebaste, martyred ~305 AD).


On the left (south) wall, Last Supper is illuminated by the opposite window. The destroyed scene above was Crucifixion. Christ in Glory with two apostles is above. Like the opposite arch, two Church Fathers stand in full-length—St. Basil (Bishop of Caesarea/Kayseri and father of monasticism) and an unidentified figure.


A prominent archway divides the narthex and naos. Christ in Majesty, typically found in apses, here decorates the arch underside. Jesus sits on his throne, flanked by Archangels Michael and Gabriel. The central location, bold sizing, and bright colors dominate the interior. The lower section of the archway has Zacharias and Elizabeth (John the Baptist’s parents) and Joachim and Anne (Mary’s parents).

Snake Church (Ihlara), central arch and carved cross

Back Nave


Compared to the cruciform front half, the barrel-vaulted back half of the church has a more continuous painting program. The scenes are long and developed, not isolated standing figures.


The upper band contains the 24 Elders of Revelation, who stand around God’s throne. Each of them holds a gospel book containing the letters of the Greek alphabet. The lower band contains the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. The people are individually named and evenly spaced.


On the back wall, the top portion contains Christ in a bright mandorla, enthroned as the heavenly judge. Below are more of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. Last Judgement unfolds on the bottom in a dull-yellow register. On the left, Archangel Michael weights a soul in the devil’s presence. Behind Satan, a three-headed snake eats three heads. Then stand four people entangled and bitten by snakes. As part of the Last Judgement, this scene depicts people ensnared by evil. In other Cappadocian churches, the snake (a visual symbol of Satan) is slain by saints. However, this unique scene reminds viewers that Satan and evil have the power to overcome people.


Burial Room

A small burial room extends off the narthex. The dark space has no natural lighting, perhaps symbolic of its funerary function. Of the five parallel spaces on the floor, several have short funerary inscriptions. These indicate the name and day of death (but not year) of the deceased person. In Byzantine burials, heads were placed on the west end (under the funeral inscriptions). They would be facing Jesus in the east when they sat up upon the bodily resurrection.


The focal point is the large recessed niched arcosolium at the far end. A panel scene is Deesis; Jesus stands on a stool while Mary and John the Baptist petition Jesus with prayers on behalf of the “elder Kosmas” buried below. The style is light and detailed, similar to paintings at Hyacinth Church across the river.

The room also has a small apse-like niche on the right (east wall). This did not make the space a functioning church but did bestow sacredness or ritual formality upon the space. Another burial chamber with 19 graves was carved just west of the church.

© 2019 Jason Borges

photo credits

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