Snake (Canavar) Church

Updated: Jan 29

Snake Church (Turkish, Canavar or Yılanlı Kilise) is a cavernous monastic complex in Soğanli Valley. The isolated courtyard features many rooms, including two refectories (monks’ dining hall) and a double-nave church.

To reach the church, proceed right after the entrance gate along the north branch. The road dead ends after a kilometer, and Yılanlı Church is on the right. The church is convenient to visit, as you park in front of the complex when you eat at the local café or walk to the churches of Kubbeli (Domed) and Saklı (Hidden).


Courtyard Rooms


The courtyard area shows obvious signs of deterioration. The monastic courtyard was once very impressive, carved deeply into the singular rock outcropping.

The area was haphazardly constructed with many rooms. The rooms on the immediate right are the church. The space in the right corner has several spaces and tunnels. The back wall has two decorated entrances leading into elongated halls. Both halls have rock tables in the far back, so the spaces were used as refectories for the communal meals. The refectory tables are strangely carved in pieces. Cappadocia rock tables are always long and singular as a symbol of unity among the monks, so these tables were probably subdivided later.

An impressive kitchen appears in the courtyard’s back left corner. The space has a large conical dome for ventilation. Underneath is the tandir cooking pit. The three mushroom-shaped recesses are bread ovens. A fire in the center area baked dough which was placed on the shelf. A long shelf/counter lines the back wall. This room is oversized compared to other Cappadocian kitchens, so it served multiple functions.


Church Layout


Yılanlı Church had two naves and two apses. At some point, a large masonry room was added to the front of the fairy chimney. Only the lower portions of the wall remain visible. The room may have been the narthex, but no other Cappadocian church has a masonry entrance room for a carved nave. Both naves had entrances.

The apse on the left apse has collapsed, so it was crudely rebuilt with a stone wall to protect the church.


Paintings


In the right nave, the back part the arched ceiling has the three bearded men with wavy hair are the patriarchs. Their names (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) are labeled in white letters. The twelve heads in their bosom represent their descendants, the twelve tribes of Israel.


At the apex of the roof is a unique icon of Jesus. He appears as an old man with white hair, sunken cheeks, and elderly beard. Jesus died at age 33, and icons usually portray him around this age. This style overlooks history to make a theological point. Jesus’ face and hair are identical to the three patriarchs of Israel. This communicates that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—to make their descendants a great nation through whom all nations would be blessed (Gen 12:1-3). The icon is title "Jesus Christ, Ancient of Days" (Greek, ΙΣ ΧΣ Ω ΠΑΛΕΟΣ ΤΟΝ ΗΜΕΡΟΝ). This term derives from the apocalyptic narrative in Daniel 7. In the prophet's vision of the heavenly throne, the "Ancient of Days"—a Hebrew phrase for Eternal God—sits rules upon the throne. Early Christians, based on the textual echos of Daniel 7 in Revelation 1, identified Jesus as the "Ancient of Days" figure. In Orthodox iconography, the figure of Jesus as an old man symbolizes his eternality.


Snake Church (Soganli), Jesus "Ancient of Days" icon

These four white-bearded icons were later additions, perhaps as late as the 15th century during the Ottoman Empire. These pictures may represent some of the latest paintings in Cappadocian cave churches. The image also appears in the niche of southern apse at nearby Keşlik Monastery, opposite the boy-ish icon of Christ Immanuel.


The front half of the vaulted ceiling conflates two sets of people. The first row of six people on each side are Jesus’ twelve apostles. They sit enthroned holding a book with their own name. The apostles closest to the apse are Peter (left) and Paul (right), even though Paul was not one of the original twelve.


Behind the twelve apostles on both sides is a large group of about one hundred saints. Their halos alternate between the three primary colors. The artist only painted the faces of saints in the first row. Saints in the back hold spears, which may indicate either they were Roman soldiers, or (more likely) depict them as spiritual warriors in God’s battle against sin and Satan. Despite some claims, these saints are not the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste. There are far more than forty saints in the picture, and they are not holding white crosses, the standard identifying mark of martyrs.


The apse has become a storage area for rocks from the fallen external wall. The only apse furniture is an attached alter. The conch (upper rounded part) is the icon scene of Deesis. A red band encircles the bust of Jesus and the heads of Mary (left) and John (right).


Communion of the Apostles appears in the middle of the apse (similar to nearby Karabaş Monastery and the Archangel Michael Church, Keşlik Monastery). Jesus is the priest behind the alter handing the bread and wine to his disciples, six on each side. This is the only non-gospel scene from Jesus’ life to appear in paintings. The event is not historical, as Jesus never administered communion to his apostles, nor appeared as two people! The image theologically interprets the liturgical activities at the altar. The worshipper continues this tradition of Jesus when receiving communion from the priest. The apse scene provides historic continuity and theological meaning for the eucharistic liturgy.


The two burial niches (acrosolia) on the right wall are also painted. The deep chambers each have room for two people. The recesses are painted with famous saints standing over the deceased body, like guardians in active watch. In the left acrosolium, the patron Eudokia wears an elegant head piece and stands full sized next to St. Catherine.


In the left nave, the paintings are barely visible through the soot. The vault has the birth of Christ. The right (south) side is Annunciation and Nativity. Opposite is Temple Presentation. The painting style--large figures with expressive faces--reflects Karabaş Kilise, and not the fault in the other nave. On the back wall (left of the door) appears St. George on a horse spearing a snake, the church’s modern namesake.


Conclusion


Yılanlı Church and its surrounding complex first appears as a damaged, uninteresting site, but under the dark soot is a robust painting program with rich theological insights.



© 2019 Jason Borges

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