St. John’s Church (Gülşehir)

St. John’s Church is a rare two-story chapel with well-preserved images, including rare scenes of Heaven, Hell, and Last Judgment. The church dates to AD 1212, long after Seljuk Turks overtook Cappadocia.

The isolated church, also called Karşı Kilise, is on the eastern edge of Gulşehir, here on Google Maps. In 1995, the interior was restored and the church became an official museum site. The entrance fee is 10 TL (as of 2020).

Layout


Carved into a rock outcropping, St. John’s Church stands entirely isolated, with no other carved spaces nearby. Around AD 1200, the original, ground-level church became significant enough for people to carve another church directly above it. The tenth-century cruciform church on the floor level had no narthex, but an ornate façade. Pairs of blind arched recesses occupy each lunette, similar to churches at nearby Açık Saray. The painting program features primitive animals and simple crosses painted directly onto the rock.

St. John's Church in Gülşehir, facade

On the exterior, the upper register above the door retains nine recessed arches in three bays. (Ala Kilise in Belisırma has a similar, albeit much larger, monumental façade in place of a narthex.) Access to the upper church required the rock-cut staircase in the northwest corner. This emerged through the floor in the middle of the space.

Instead of building near or alongside the original tenth-century cruciform church, why did the builders situate this church directly above the church? In Cappadocia, secondary spaces were often carved next to a church. However, this is the only instance of one church being built over another church. This design, possible only in Cappadocia’s carvable landscape, diminishes the original church. Plus, it was an architectural failure—the builders destroyed the original dome (the round hole before the apse) and created an unstable floor, which has collapsed. Similar second-floor churches include Nikephorus Phokus Church (Çavuşin) and Domed Church (Soğanlı).

Architecture

The interior of St. John’s Church combines two floorplans. The east end of this barrel-vaulted nave merges into a cross-in-square church. On each side of the central apse, pillars (now broken) supported small bays with cross domes in each corner. The bays are raised one step, but were not side-apses. Instead of niches, standing saints occupy the two framed walls in each corner.

The broken floor and tall vaulted ceiling open the interior, which measures 6 by 4.5 meters. The wide barrel vault springs from a thin corbelled lip. The ceiling’s irregular curvature creates three bands—a vertical lower band, an angled upper band, and a broad strip at the apex. A square window on the west lunette illuminates the space.

The central apse, raised one step with the corner bays, features a recess with Theotokos Eleousia in the conch and the Mandylion painted below. An arched prothesis niche and the deacon’s recessed seat flank the sides. Around the carved apse furniture, six Church Fathers stood on painted pillars. Only Sts. Nicholaus and Gregory of Nyssa are recognizable. At a height far above the nave molding, Pantocrator in the conch has suffered water damage; only the flaming wheels and angels’ feet remain on the bottom. The builders encountered an uncarvable boulder in the tuff rock, so the large bulge remains in the upper apse.

St. John's Church in Gülşehir, apse wall

The dedicatory inscription in the apse runs along the red conch frame, set higher than the nave cornice. Though the church was constructed in Seljuk territory, the inscription mentions the reigning Byzantine ruler Theodore I Laskaris (ΘΕΟΔΟΡΟΥ ΛΑΣΚΑΡΗ) and uses the Byzantine calendar (the cosmic year 6720 = AD 1212). This was perhaps an Orthodox custom, or perhaps a subversive pledge of allegiance to the distant Greek ruler (albeit in exile in Nicaea in AD 1204–22) instead of the Seljuk ruler in Konya.

Painting

The spacious barrel-vaulted nave provides a large canvas, which the artist divided into three sections—a chronological narrative of Christ’s Passion (upper band), framed panels focused on Resurrection (lower band), and saints and donors (niches of the side walls). Deep reds and yellows were used to paint the figures, who stand on a small ground strip and against a dark blue background.

Before 1995, the paintings were barely visible because of black soot and layers of scratched graffiti. The current condition, though attractive, required intensive restoration and repainting.

Ceiling Painting

The lower band on the ceiling consists of isolated scenes with themes of resurrection and life. On the north wall, Koimesis (Dormition) fills a double section, and Three Hebrew Boys in the Furnace have pronounced red frames.

The south wall has a rare scene of Heaven/Paradise (Ο ΠΑΡΑΔΙΣΙΣ), depicted as prominent figures standing in a row. The three men with white ponytails are the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with their names inscribed above. They each hold twelve heads (the souls of the Church) in their bosom. Mary stands at the center of the scene with raised hands and a palm branch. To her right, the shirtless person holding a cross is the thief (Ο ΚΛΕΦΤΗΣ) to whom Jesus promised paradise. Compared to his bare body, Mary and the patriarchs are overdressed, with elaborate layers of clothing. The western third of this scene has been destroyed. Because this image is so rare, we do not know what would have been painted there. In this panel (the only one with a red background), palm trees appear between each of the five figures. This presence of Heaven, along with Hell and Last Judgement on the back wall, creates a strong emphasis on eternity in the painting program of St. John’s Church, perhaps at the request of the donors.

St. John's Church in Gülşehir, north wall paintings

The upper band focuses on Christ’s passion, but with a strange selection of images. For example, Crucifixion is notably absent, with Baptism appearing in its place. Perhaps the artist sketched the wrong image from his notebook onto the wall (a common occurrence). Three Hebrews in the Furnace is immediately below; these scenes visually correspond to Crucifixion in other churches. The Passion images are: Last Supper and Betrayal (west band), then Descent from Cross, Myrrhbearers at the Tomb, and Resurrection. The inscription in Resurrection is 1 Cor 15:55, where Paul taunts death with Christ’s resurrection—“Oh death, where is your victory? Oh death, where is your sting?” Images on the west end are compacted; the artist, sketching the scenes from left to right, did not leave sufficient room. In all the images, Jesus has a simple, round face with a stoic expression.

Along the apex of the barrel vault, a band of interlocking rings frames the busts of seven Old Testament prophets—David, Solomon, Elisha, Enoch, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Elijah. They represent the Old Testament Scriptures that predicted Jesus the Messiah. Most prophets appear as elders with white hair. The band’s blue background has white floral motifs between the rings.

Wall Paintings

The three walls around the nave are decorated with arched niches, one large and two small on each wall. Stylite monks are painted on both center pilasters. The double-wide arch on the south wall has Constantine and Helena holding the True Cross. The large arch on the opposite side is St. George on his white horse.

Donor panels occupy three of the arches. In the northeast corner, a male donor (now erased) holds a model of a church (cf. Selime Church and St. George in Ihlara) alongside his two sons. The image of God’s hand and the privileged location (near the apse, under Paradise) suggest that he was the main donor. The other two panels on the west wall feature female donors. In the large niche, a certain Irene stands with two girls (named Kale and Maria), next to St. Theodote (a martyr from Nicaea). Irene, the wife of the male donor, stands with a white tunic cinched with a belt, a red fur shawl, and a purple headscarf with a royal diadem. Such clothing projects her social status. The next panel has another (unnamed) female donor, then two female saints (Paraskeve and Kyriake). The women appear on the back west wall, as they occupied this space in the back of the church during the liturgy.

Front Wall

On the east wall, Annunciation frames the apse arch—Gabriel extends his hand to announce the good news, and Mary sits on her ornate stool. This is the only birth scene in St. John’s Church. The narrow portion at the top has two framed birds. Under the arch, Archangels Michael and Gabriel guard the transition into the sanctuary.

Back Wall

The west (back) wall depicts Hell and the Last Judgement, separated by a large framed window. These paintings rank among the most unique, complex, and mythical scenes in Cappadocia.

The scene of Hell on the left features all of God’s enemies—i.e., archangels, demons, the dragon, anti-Christ, and false prophet. The artist uses clawed feet, distorted faces, and naked bodies to depict evil forces. Regrettably, the scene reveals the blatant anti-Semitism of medieval Christians.

St. John's Church in Gülşehir, back wall with Hell and donor panel

On the far left, the Angel of Banishment uses his sphere to prod the group of Jewish high priests (Greek, APXIERI) further toward the evil powers. To their right, Satan is the large white figure with an ugly face and thin wings. Unlike the archangels with royal attire, Satan is naked—a symbol of his spiritual defeat. He pulls three Jewish elders by their white beards.

The large yellow “Dragon of the Sea” has fish scales, a lion head, eagle claws, and a monstrous tail. His open mouth swallows someone. The inscription at his neck is a sinister welcome to the Jews: “Come to the pit, my friends!” In Revelation 12-13, this dragon is defeated by Jesus, then joined by two other beasts, painted here as two figures on his back.

The large white naked figure with flowing hair is the anti-Christ, the opponent of God and his people. His right hand uses a snake as reins for controlling the dragon, while his left hand drags a large red figure (“the Jew”) across the scene with a braided rope. The small red person on the dragon is likely the false prophet who makes people worship the first beast (anti-Christ).

The two circles atop the scene embody characteristics of hell—“the unending fire” (red circle on the left), and “the darkness of hell” (on the right, under the dragon’s tail). Each contains the souls of sinners, represented by disfigured faces cramped together. On the bottom right, snakes crawl among the heads of souls in “the pit” (ΠΗΣΑ).

The Last Judgement occupies the right side. A female archangel stands in the center position, framed off by the sagging golden rope. With a serious face and opened wings, she holds a staff and the scale of judgment. In Byzantine art, miniature heads represent a person’s eternal soul. Each side of the scale contains a head, while more wait in the background. After being weighed, they are received by angelic beings into their eternal destiny. The grotesque naked figure, Satan, waits with a rope to tie around the necks of sinners (as in the scene of Hell). However, opposite, two large angels, with a distinguished and beautiful appearance, move with a towel (similar to the Baptism icon) to serve the righteous souls. The imagery comes from Matthew 25:31-46 and Revelation 20:10-15. In this scene, the evil figure is male, while the godly figures are female. This may correspond to the female donors and saints immediately below.

In the upper register, the two large figures on horseback are Sts. Gregory (L) and Theodore (R), who slay two dragon-headed snakes. The demonic beings are tied in knots—a symbol of their defeat at the cross, when Jesus rendered them powerless.

Conclusion

With unique architecture and painting, St. John’s Church provides an insightful glimpse into Cappadocian Christian art during the Seljuk era. Though Gulşehir is removed from other sites in Cappadocia, the church deserves a visit. Be sure to also stop by the impressive Açık Saray, situated just 5km east of St. John’s Church.

© 2019 Jason Borges

photo credits

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