St. Barbara Church has the best fresco paintings in Soğanlı Valley. This single-nave church sits within an unfinished courtyard perched over a gentle stream.
To reach St. Barbara Church, turn left after the entrance gate. Go 500 meters until the dead end; then cross the wooden bridge into the courtyard complex. This church was called Throne Church (Turkish, Tahtalı Kilise). This church is not the St. Barbara church inside the Göreme Open Air Museum.
The courtyard façade bears some decorative features, even after centuries of erosion. There are traces of a frieze with a blind arcade.
The left doorway leads to a formal hall, which has a squarish vault and no recessed apse. The right room is unfinished. No rooms were added on either side of the courtyard. In fact, rooms cannot be added to the left side because of the shallow rock. This suggests the courtyard was an afterthought built around the pre-existing church. The church space was the central focus on this complex. The courtyard floor was sunk down two meters below the Church to create space. The designers carved and painted the main church, and then carved another identical church, all before carving other spaces in the courtyard.
The builders abandoned the courtyard before they could finish. They did manage to dig a gutter above and down the left side of the courtyard to channel away rain water.
Church Entrance (Narthex)
You enter through a nondescript key-shaped doorway on the right. The narthex is petite but elaborate. This entrance space, one square meter in size, has a cruciform floor plan. The flat ceiling has a square recess and a round drum, similar to the ceilings at nearby Melekli and Geyikli Churches. Such a design is structurally implausible in masonry architecture, and yet boldly accented here by the painting scheme. At ground level, the four arches each have two figures.
The nave (main room) follows a standard church pattern—a rectangle room with a barrel-vaulted ceiling. The walls have benches at the base, subdividing pilasters, and a large cornice (molding) above. The wide benches on the right have two tombs. According to the painting style, the rear tomb was part of the original design and the front one was added later.
Another side chapel stands parallel to Barbara Church. The builders broke through the original wall of St. Barbara to create another similar church. The painting program was never completed. The arched passage way between naves has another grave.
The second church has a separate entrance into a tiny, cruciform narthex with a recessed ceiling. The entrance is offset to accommodate the cross relief on the back wall. An arcade with keyhole niches decorates the side (north) wall. The apse has a high templon wall and synthronon bench. Though inferior in quality, the church has more elaborate architectural designs.
The reason for destroying the painted wall of the original church is unclear. If the main church was built in 1006/21, this unfinished side church was carved a few decades later, and then abandoned during the Seljuk invasions in the 1070s. The entrance was later blocked to convert the space into a pigeon house.
The apse has standard architectural features—a low templon wall, a raised floor, and central alter (now destroyed). The back wall of the apse was destroyed during the carving of the burial area behind the apse. In proportion to the nave, the apse is rather deep and high (with three steps leading up).
The entire apse, while painted as separate panels, is a unified scene of all creation worshipping Christ in heaven. Jesus sits enthroned, surrounded with the four creatures (cf. Rev 5). The jagged mandorla that surrounds Jesus indicates his supreme holiness. The other figures on the lower sections are oriented towards Jesus, as those who testify to and worship his glory.
Adam and Eve, as representatives of humanity, are prostrating in reverence just under the mandorla on both sides. They look like John and Mary in nearby Deesis.
Two tetramorphs (angels with four heads, symbolizing all creation) boarder the large niche under Jesus’ feet.
Two famous stylite monks, Daniel and Simeon, are the niche to the angels’ left.
The four gospel writers are shown in medallions under Adam and Eve. Mark and Luke on the left, Matthew and John on the right.
Twelve Church Fathers stand around the base. They are leaders of the historic church in the 4th through 7th centuries.
Old Testament leaders, as faces in roundels, fill the soffit (underside of arch). Right to left, they are Isaiah, Solomon, David and Elijah.
These worshipers represent completeness and entirety. All of creation--humanity, angels, monks, gospel writers, Church Fathers, and Old Testament prophets--bear witness to Christ’s glorious enthronement. Those who enter the church space are thus invited to join in this prophetic vision of Jesus being glorified in heaven.
The painting program in Barbara Kilise is the finest and best preserved in Soğanlı Valley. The lime mortar was thickly applied, then smoothened before painting. The characters are detailed and realistic, although their large proportions overcrowd each panel.
The ceiling’s rounded shape enlarges the painting surface. Compared to a flat room, this allows for a narration on each side and a more favorable viewing angle from below. The painting tells the story of Jesus’ birth. From the front right, the scenes are: Annunciation and Visitation in front, then Proof of Virginity and Joseph glaring at Mary on the back half. The back wall has Journey to Bethlehem. The narrative continues on the left vault with Nativity. The paintings program skips forward to Resurrection—the salvific bookend to the Incarnation depicted in the other scenes. The bright orange, full-body halo encompassing Jesus indicates his post-resurrection glory. Jesus stomps upon Hades, while pulling Adam and Eve up from death. Behind Jesus, the kings Solomon and David, along with four lower saints, watch in adoration. Constantine and Helena are below holding the True Cross.
On the front right wall is Deesis. Jesus hears petitions from Mary, John, and archangel Michael. A small figure of the donor may have appeared below. Most of the image was destroyed to create a second acrosolium (burial niche), leaving only the figures’ heads at the very top.
A series of military stands and St. George on horseback stand over the original grave as guardians. Three female saints stand on the back wall (right of door).
A string of six Old Testament prophets line the ceiling’s peak. The first three are Daniel, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah. Their location among the scenes of Incarnation and Resurrection underscores their prophetic message about Christ. The painting program visualizes the theological unity of the Old and New Testaments.
The arched band dividing the ceiling has framed icons of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. These seven youth hid in a cave near Ephesus to avoid persecution, and then woke up 300 years later to a very different, Christianized world (like an ancient version of Back to the Future!). Their story represents vindication and eternal life. Although their legend was famous in the early church, this is their only depiction in any Cappadocian church.
The dedicatory inscription above the doorway provides key information about this church. It reads:
This Church of St. Barbara was built during the emperors Constantine and Basil in the year 1006 AD, with a donation from Basil(ias) a “domestikos” and overseer of […]. Those who read this, pray to the Lord for him.
This church was dedicated to St. Barbara, martyred in Nicomedia (near Constantinople) in 305 AD. Her image is on the front wall, to the right of the ape. The donor of this church was Basil, a local military official (domestikos). He was stationed in the Cappadocia region during a time of Byzantine expansion eastward. Basil was not a high ranking official, but prominent enough to finance this church. The prominent military saints (Roman soldiers martyred for their faith) on the walls above the grave reflect Basil’s own military identity. These particular saints may have been personally important to Basil.
The church has a built-in, child-sized burial tomb in the back right. Basil built this church to function as a burial chapel for a child, likely his own. This helps explains why the ceiling painting emphasizes Jesus’ infancy. There are also two infant burials in the narthex, plus another two outside the entrance. The church became known for infant burials.
Why did Basil build the church in this precise location? Three monks are featured on the interior (two in the apse niche, one in the left wall niche). Basil probably chose this site because the area had become famous/sacred due to the local monks. The church was a gift to the monks and visiting pilgrims, placed here so that the monks would pray for this deceased child.
The unfinished exterior of St. Barbara’s courtyard contrasts to the interior space. A common feature of Cappadocian churches, by nature of their cave design, is their lack of external walls, so you walk toward a nondescript hole and then emerge into a different cosmos. That sense of instant relocation is profoundly experienced here at St. Barbara’s Church.