St. Catherine is a unique cave church in the Göreme Open Air Museum. The faded painting program and severe water damage cause many visitors to overlook this chapel’s unique elements.
St. Catherine is part of the “Yılanlı Group,” a series of 11th-century cave churches in the Göreme Open Air Museum characterized by simple red painting and a limited number of pictures. St. Catherine is located between Dark and Sandal Churches. The church closed in 2019 in preparation for restoration.
The façade of the church features ornate carvings. The large flat wall (four meters by four meters) contains three semi-circles with central crosses of different styles. An acrosolia (recessed burial chamber) and doorway are under the two left semi-circles. Such a decorated external façade is rare in Cappadocia. Usually, the residential areas (whether monastic or personal) had ornate facades. However, in churches, formal architectural elements typically appear only inside the space, not on the outside. Part of the external structure may have eroded away. The distorted room above the church may have been a monk’s cell.
The narthex (entrance room) has a cross-shaped floor plan with a central dome. The large space contains seven floor graves and two acrosolia.
The nave (main room) follows a domed cruciform pattern like that of the narthex. The arched transept vaults spring from the triangle-patterned cornice (molding). The painted corner perches supported candles that lit this dark, windowless space. The irregular dome had an embossed cross and rises above the funnel-shaped drum with blind niches that mimic windows.
All of the paintings are panel icons. The red-orange figures stand on a greyish-white background. The figures around the wall of the nave are:
St. Theodore, standing on the left wall.
St. Catherine, the destroyed figured next to the apse wall. This picture was added later, on a layer of lime plaster. The icon was a destination for later pilgrims, who scratched prayers around St. Catherine. A female donor named Anna, who likely financed the church, was kneeling on the bottom left of the frame but her image has since been destroyed.
St. Procopius, standing on the right wall.
St. George, riding a small white horse and striking his spear into a snake below. An inscription naming the patron Armolykos is above the horse’s head. Armolykos’ image appears nowhere, so he likely financed this panel icon of St. George.
The rock iconostasis screen before the apse has an arched doorway and two arched windows above the thick templon barrier. The open lunette (upper section) allows for direct viewing of Deesis in the conch. Haphazard red diamonds decorate the front, which was covered by wooden icons.
The apse includes the three great “theologians” of the Eastern Church—Gregory, Basil, and Chrysostom. St. Nicholas of Myra, the legendary St. Nick behind Santa Claus, stands with them. On the far right is the Holy Mandylion. This hagiographic towel with Jesus’ face was the “first icon.” King Abgar of Syria invited Jesus to come and heal his illness. Instead, Jesus sent his apostles along with this sacred garment, by which the king was miraculously healed.
Later Ottoman farmers repurposed the space for agricultural purposes. The bema (sanctuary floor) became a wine press, with the collection vat resting before the templon. Several notches for tying animals were made on various corners.
In recent times, St. Catherine Church has suffered severe water damage. Rainwater from the ravine running over the church enters through cracks in the rock. The condition deteriorates every year.