Snake Church (Turkish, Yılanlı Kilise) is an unfinished cave church in the Göreme Open Air Museum. The small church has unique mural paintings, including a semi-naked monk (St. Onuphrius). The architectural form is basic and irregular, but the paintings of favorite saints and stone masonry present a certain grandeur.
The chapel appears like a typical single-nave church, with narthex, nave, and apse in a line. However, the current space is not a completed church but, rather, only a modified narthex. The barrel-vaulted room was originally planned as a narthex (entry room) but the nave was never carved. The outlines of arches on the east (left) wall mark the intended passageways into the nave. The completed church would have mirrored St. Basil’s Chapel—a long narthex entered from the side, with an arched wall leading into the nave. However, Snake Church was never finished, presumably because of Seljuk incursions in the 1070s.
Around 1100AD, when the Christian community was in decline, the narthex space was converted into the nave of a church. Carvers added a small narthex with an acrosolium, a miniature apse on the left (east) wall, and a prothesis niche near the door. These features transformed the narthex space into a church nave.
The flat-ceiling chamber at the far end appears like an apse, especially with Jesus standing on the lunette above. However, this chamber was actually the privileged burial spot for the donor (similar to the rectangular chamber above St. Basil’s narthex nearby). The strange space occupies half of the interior space. The existence of three different levels of rooms indicates an extended process with multiple builders.
The perfunctory apse was carved into the middle archway. An attached altar and a small seat are inside, but there is no templon barrier in front. The three figures painted in the conch are Mary, Jesus, and John the Baptist in the Deesis scene. The picture is severely faded and scratched, revealing the large Maltese cross underneath.
The south wall has a second entrance (now blocked). The doorway has an infant grave in the step. This door provided church access from the small monastic courtyard, whose central door (now locked) leads to a refectory room.
Snake Church has one of Cappadocia’s most unique painting programs, in terms of both content and style. The church features three separate panels with multiple panels. Each painting appears on a thin layer of light blue-gray paint (made from lime water, not thick plaster) inside a red frame.
The mural painting on the left has five figures—St. Onesimus standing in a red robe, Saints George and Theodore on horseback, and Saints Constantine and Helen holding the True Cross.
The figure nearest the door is St. Onesimus, mentioned in the New Testament letter Philemon. He was a first-century slave who escaped from his master in Colossae (near modern Pamukale/Denizli). As Onesimus was hiding in Rome, he encountered the apostle Paul and became a Christian. To restore their relationship, Paul sent Onesimus back to his master Philemon (who happened to be Paul’s friend), requesting forgiveness. According to church tradition, Onesimus was later martyred, as symbolized by the white cross that he holds.
The next two figures are St. George (on white horse) and St. Theodore (on red horse). They wear military attire and sit upon horses with saddles and headgear. These images have a sense of artistic perspective rare in Byzantine icons. George stabs his long spear into a gigantic snake (the church’s namesake) on the ground. The red horse participates in the triumph by stomping on the snake. The image symbolizes more than just the spiritual protection of a patron saint; it also interprets their martyrdom as victory over evil forces.
The final two people are St. Constantine and St. Helen, holding the True Cross. Constantine (r. 314–37) was the Roman emperor who legalized Christianity and made Constantinople the new Roman capital. His mother, a lifelong Christian, toured the Holy Land and allegedly discovered many of the sacred sites. At the location of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial (Holy Sepulcher Church in Jerusalem), she unearthed the True Cross of Jesus’ crucifixion. This object became a prized relic in Byzantine life.
The panel image on the flat south wall is Jesus with the church’s financial donor, named Theodore. Christ’s oversized right hand (larger than his head!) gestures a blessing, while he holds a Gospel book in his left hand. As a sign of humility, donors are depicted in small form, as seen here. Theodore the donor appears standing in a manner similar to Jesus, not bowing before his feet.
The panel on the right (west) vault features three standing men—St. Onuphrius, St. Thomas, and St. Basil. They represent three classes of saints side by side—a hermit, an apostle, and a Church Father.
The naked figure is St. Onuphrius, a solitary hermit who lived in the deserts of Egypt around 400 AD. According to the short hagiography Life of Onuphrius by Abba Paphnutius, Onuphrius grew up in a communal monastery. Then God led him to a desert cave to live in solitude. He braved the extreme temperatures, relied upon angels to bring him miraculous bread, and surrendered to God in all things. The painted image depicts the original description of Onuphrius:
“He was covered all over in hair like a wild beast. His hair was so thick that it completely concealed the whole of his body. His only clothing was a loincloth of leaves and grasses.”
The circles on his chest emphasize his wild and ascetic characteristics (contra recent sexualized interpretations).
The central person is St. Thomas, the apostle who doubted Jesus’ resurrection and wanted to touch his scars. Thomas wears a white undergarment and a yellow robe.
The final figure is St. Basil, the famous theologian-bishop of Caesarea (modern Kayseri) who started communal monasticism. Basil always has a long, skinny face with a goatee beard. The face has bright red cheeks and detailed shadowing. Basil wears multiple garments to indicate his status—a yellow underlayer, a black and white scarf, a red outer cloak, and the bishop’s vestment (omophor).
The yellow book in Basil’s hand is a gospel book. The production of biblical manuscripts was an important activity in medieval monasteries. Monks used elaborate calligraphy to copy biblical manuscripts onto vellum (calf-skin) pages. Then artists illuminated the margins with ornate images. Such books were honored as monastic treasures, so they had leather covers decorated with jewels and gold, as seen in this picture.
Snake Church in the Göreme Open Church is a curious, re-purposed church with unique mural paintings of 10 figures.