St. Basil’s Church

St. Basil’s Church in Mustafapaşa is an elegant tenth-century church overlooking a river valley. The paintings in this double-nave church feature splendid floral designs and many crosses.

St. Basil’s Church, nave ceiling with cross

The church is located two kilometers west of Mustafapaşa in Üzgeni Valley, 200 meters downriver (north) from Holy Cross church. Signs on the valley trail direct you up the cliff.

Overall Plan

The church consists of two uniform aisles set in parallel. Both naves have a flat ceiling and a raised sanctuary with an attached altar, and measure about 3.5 by 2.5 meters. An arcade with three arches divides the two spaces. The north nave has ornate carving, but only simple red lines edging the architectural features. In contrast, the south nave has simple architectural forms, but extravagant painted decoration. The naves are carved contemporaneously but were apparently completed by separate artists.

The church was entered from the south, via the large narthex. Three burial spaces remain in this burial space, though several others have likely eroded away. The western exterior has some damaged carved spaces, including rooms at levels below and above the church. Only two walls remain in the open space immediately south of the church, though this space had a flat ceiling and three large arches. The north entrance tunnel breaks through the central arch, which had a raised structure (not burial slot). This fits the profile of monastic dormitories common in Red Valley.

St. Basil’s Church, western facade

St. Basil Church dates to around AD 900. Some scholars interpret the non-figural painting as Iconoclastic (726–842). However, the artist did paint two people (on the apse wall), and the same non-figural crosses and floral patterns appear in other ninth-century churches (i.e., Grape Church/St. Niketas’ Hermitage in Red Valley).

South Nave

The south nave is the first section of the church that one enters. The space has simple carving but abundant painting. Figural designs—flowers, crosses, and geometric patterns in red, yellow, and green tones—decorate all of the interior walls. The cross plays a central role throughout the painted program; as such, this church was likely dedicated to the Holy Cross.

A large Roman cross fills the flat ceiling. Painted in gold and decorated with jewels, this great image stands guard over the worshipers. The arms of the cross divide the ceiling into four sections, each with different patterns. These geometric decorations imitate stone mosaics, a common decorative style in Byzantine churches.

The rounded tips of each cross arm create small moon-shaped sections, decorated with red squares and green dots. Two borders—a thin white section and a large twisted braid—frame (and, thus, narrow) the central section. Instead of elongating the cross to abnormal proportions, the artist created a trapezoidal section at the foot of the cross. This irregular section has a unique wave pattern and orange coloration.

The flat molding features the dedicatory inscription painted in maroon block letters. The initial section is poetry: “and on the wall of the glorious house [this church] there is an image (εικον) of the sacred wood [the cross].” This refers to the large ceiling cross, and the many other painted crosses, which protect God’s people.

The inscription continues with a formal request: “Lord, always guard your servant . . . and the elder Constantine. Grant them forgiveness of sins. And give mercy and help to your servant, the painted” (my translation of the text established by Ousterhout). Three people are mentioned here. The first two—an unnamed servant and the elder named Constantine (an older man in the community or a church officer, but not the famous emperor)—were likely the patrons who paid for the church and were then buried in the narthex. In the final sentence, the painter writes a personal request, as was customary.

The central arcade has three arches springing from the triple-stepped cornice. Green floral designs, framed in red, edge the arches. The white lunettes between the arches have yellow crosses. Modern restorers made cinderblock pillars, rejoining the carved molding and stepped base. These recreate the interior spacing but are not essential for supporting cave ceilings. The original rock pillars were destroyed, perhaps to open the room for agricultural storage.

The apse, raised three steps, has an attached altar with arched niches and short side benches. Various designs decorate the apse and symbolize the traditional figural elements. Two sets of three crosses fill the conch. The lower row, only half-preserved, has a free-floating jeweled cross, which may be Trinitarian or represent Golgotha. Between the arms of the middle cross, small black letters read, “the sign(on) of Constantine,” referring to the famous emperor’s dream and later Byzantine political symbol. Above, three distinct Maltese Crosses are set in braided rondels, with the names of Israel’s patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—in small black lettering.

St. Basil’s Church, south apse

On the front side of the apse arch, the church’s only two figural paintings—the local bishops Sts. Basil and Gregory—look toward worshippers. Though short, they are raised to a higher location, as though they stand on a pedestal. The Church Fathers wear red clerical robes. A tiny square niche appears below St. Basil on the left, perhaps to display relics.

The nave has a miniature bench and south door. The interior walls were painted with more freedom than symmetry. For example, the upper half of the back wall has a large tiled section between two asymmetrical floral designs.

In the back corner near the door, grapevines emerge from the bottom of a Roman cross—a common symbol for how the cross gives birth to the church. The nearby inscription—“cross in the air”—explains the power and function of the painted cross. The phrase “air” has a dual meaning, referring to (1) the visual location of this floating cross and (2) the domain of spiritual darkness that the cross invades and destroys (Paul labels Satan as “ruler of the power of the air” in Ephesians 2:1). For Byzantine Christians, the sign of the cross, painted or even made with a hand gesture, had the power to banish Satan and ensure salvation. This tradition dates back to the famous third-century monk Antony—"We [Christians] by the mention of Christ crucified put all demons to flight, whom you [pagans] fear as if they were gods. Where the sign of the Cross is, magic is weak and witchcraft has no strength" (Life, 87)—and is well attested to in medieval monasticism.

The south wall, largely destroyed now, had two framed crosses around the door.

North Nave

This rectangular nave has elaborate carvings, but the walls were never smoothened nor painted. The east apse, raised two steps, has an arched entrance. The two templon barriers, now destroyed, had Roman crosses with split tips, cut deep in relief and decorated with red geometric patterns.

St. Basil’s Church, north nave and apse

Two niches—a prothesis and seat—flank the rock-cut altar attached to the protruding wall. The arched niche on the front side once housed sacred relics, such as saints’ bones or holy objects. The faithful could experience the relic’s spiritual power by viewing and touching it.

Three blind arches decorate the north wall. They are ornate and deep, each with a shallow bench. The middle section has a water basin carved in its niche. Red lines accentuate the triple-stepped cornice on the sides, and even continue along the flat front face. The upper walls have short arches and lunettes below the double-stepped cornice, which leads to the flat ceiling.

Two tunnel entrances—on the plain back wall and in the western arch—were added later, once the original south entrance became inaccessible, to provide direct access to this nave.

Conclusion

With a splendid painting program, this tenth-century church pays homage to the salvific power of the Cross. This church was the funerary chapel for prominent figures from the nearby settlement and remained a popular destination for practicing the Orthodox liturgy, as the medieval Greek graffiti in the apse evinces.

© 2019 Jason Borges

photo credits

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