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St. Barbara Church

Updated: Nov 20, 2019

St. Barbara cave church in the Göreme Open Air Museum features Cappadocia’s most sophisticated and colorful red geometric paintings. This church (aka, Göreme Church 20) dates to around 1100AD.

St. Barbara, red paintings


The church complex has been altered to accommodate tourism, as older pictures reveal. Modern restoration covered the façade’s carved decorations (keyhole niches and gable), altered the prominent burial niches flanking narthex d, and filled in the ravine before the church to make the terrace. The refectory rooms opposite St. Barbara’s entrance were part of the same monastic complex.

St. Barbara facade

The church has a cross-in-square design but only two (crooked!) columns, thus imitating nearby Sandal Church. The four domes (three in the front section and one in the center) have painted pillars on the drum and a Greek cross on the apex. No graves appear inside the church, though the rear arm has a deep hole.

St. Barbara, nave and apse

The three separate apses have steep steps before the templon barrier. The central templon has framed crosses cut in the rock and broken arch windows. An attached altar, small seat, and niche furnish each interior. The central apse has a prothesis niche (for communion elements) on the north side.

Red Paintings

The geometric designs painted in ochre red are St. Barbara’s most distinguishing feature. The paintings generally follow architectural forms, with the most extensive paintings on the soffits (underside of arches), cornice (molding), and pendentives (triangles supporting the domes). The church has three main classes of wall paintings.

1. Patterns. The ceiling features patterns of triangles, bricks, checks, crisscrosses, zigzags, and circles. Drawings of medallion crosses, free crosses, animals, trees, and lightning also decorate the walls.

2. Animals. The north lunette has strange images of a chicken and an upright beetle. The striped chicken pecks at a plant. On the lower register, an animal (beetle?, peacock?) between two crosses attempts to box with its hands. Water seeping through the cracks has damaged the left side. The inscription in front of the boxing beetle, positioned as a direct quote, says:

“Come down, O father/abbot, I will snatch your soul!”

With these words, the devil tempts hermits away from their monastic lifestyle, down from their solitary caves and into the world. The langauge echoes Satan's words to the famous first monk Anthony, "‘I deceived many monks; I cast down many monks. But I am weak when attacking you." (Life of Antony, 6). However, the two crosses on each side disarm Satan and neutralize his power (cf., Colossians 2:15).

St. Barbara, chicken and demon (?)

3. Crucifixions. Nine different sets of three crosses appear in the interior. The shapes are abstract, distinct, and rudimentary. These nine compositions appear in the arch lunettes, the same location where scenes from Christ’s life typically appear. The sets of three crosses are non-figural substitutions for gospel scenes. The presence of one of the shapes (a square with bubble corner) in the apse conch illustrates how the images were used as a representation of Christ.

St. Barbara, set of 3 crosses

Painted Panel Icons

The elaborate red painting forms a complete interior program. The artist did not intend for additional paintings or icons in the church. Nevertheless, later artists added figural paintings of important saints to the lower portions opposite the entrance. These panel icons have a rudimentary style.

The three female saints (back left) appear as young, peaceful women. St. Barbara stands facing the door on the west transept. Though heavily scratched and destroyed, this icon is the church’s namesake. St. Barbara was a popular saint among medieval Byzantines. According to hagiographies, she was a third-century martyr from Phoenicia (modern Lebanon). Her rich pagan father guarded her in a locked tower for marriage. However, she secretly became a Christian and refused to marry. Her father and local official gruesomely beheaded her, even after witnessing many miracles. St. Barbara’s historicity is doubtful, as she first appears in the 800s, some 500 years after her death.

The icon of Mary with infant is Nikophora (“victory-bearer”). She wears a modest red robe and holds the Christ Child on her lap. This common depiction of Mary started in Constantinople in the 600s. The lady next to her is St. Eirene, holding the white cross of martyrdom.

The north wall has Saints George and Theodore on white harnessed horses. The defeated snake is barely visible at the bottom. Two faint donor inscriptions read, “Lord, help your servant priest” (between horses) and “Lord, help your servant Leon Maroulines” (right side).

The main apse features a rustic Christ Pantocrator. The image has the standard symbols of royalty: Jesus sits on a royal bench outlined with pearls and topped with a cushion, his feet rest upon a footstool, and he wears layers of red garments. A large Gospel book with a pearl-studded cross rests upon Jesus’ knee. To confirm Jesus’ identity, the composition contains Jesus’ Greek initials (IC XC) and cruciform halo. This is a rare instance in which Jesus appears alone in the apse.

The red geometric shape at Jesus’ waistline indicates that this icon of Pantocrator was added later. Except for the layer of plaster under Jesus’ head and halo, the scene was painted directly onto the rock. A mushroom-shaped border prevents the icon from filling the entire conch.

St. Barbara, apse and front domes


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