Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, was highly revered by Orthodox Christians and often depicted in Cappadocian cave churches. She is known as “The Virgin Mary” and “The God-Bearer” (Greek, Theotokos). This article explains Mariology in Christian history, and how Cappadocian churches represent her.
Mary in Early Church History
Mary first appears in Jesus' infancy narratives of the New Testament. Matthew and Luke present Mary as a young devout Jewish woman. While betrothed to Joseph, God selected and blessed her to birth Israel’s Messiah. After Jesus birth, Mary appears in Jesus’ ministry and the early Church, albeit as a minor figure.
As Mary-devotion increased in the second-century, Christians wanted to know more about her life than the scant New Testament descriptions, especially. The Infancy Gospel of James is an important apocryphal text (c. 150 AD) that recounts the story of Mary’s parents (Anne and Joachim) and childhood. This book was very popular in the early church, and several of its unique stories appear in Cappadocia’s narrative programs—i.e., Mary’s Trial by Water, Murder of Zechariah, and Pursuit of Elizabeth. Even for scenes like Annunciation and Nativity, the Cappadocian artists visualize details from the Infancy Gospel of James along with the canonical gospels of Matthew and Luke.
The Infancy Gospel of James emphasizes Mary's purity, virginity, and holiness. This portrayal of Mary was significant for several reasons in early Christianity. First, the book depicts Mary as the ideal nun. Her piety and asceticism encouraged and pioneered the monastic life. Second, her pure state supported Orthodox Christology, particularly their claim to Jesus’ deity. Mary was the pure and holy “temple of God,” thus a worthy vessel for God incarnate.
The "Theotokos" in Medieval History
Cappadocian cave churches often identify Mary with the Greek title Theotokos, which translates "God-bearer.” This title emerged from the First Council of Ephesus (431) as a declaration of Jesus' complete and full divinity. The title in effect condemned the teaching of Nestorious (the patriarch of Constantinople from Antioch who favored the term Christotokos, "Christ-bearer") in favor of St. Cyril’s Alexandrine Christology. And even for later Orthodox Christians, the title of Theotokos was foremost about Jesus’ divine identity.
The devotion and adoration of Mary as an agent of salvation and redemption grew in the 500s and 600s. By the Middle Ages, when Cappadocian cave churches were built, Mary was a central part Orthodox Christianity. She was the protector of Constantinople the city, appeared often in icons, and was petitioned in the liturgy. For example, the Orthodox liturgy recited in church services recites,
"Remembering our most holy, pure, blessed, and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever virgin Mary, with all the saints, let us commit ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God."
In Cappadocian Iconography, Images of Mary fall into three main groups—scenes from the birth/infancy of Christ, scenes from the life of Christ, votive images with the Christ-child.
Icons of Mary in Jesus’ Infancy Icon
As the mother of Jesus, Mary is naturally prominent in the scenes recounting Jesus’ birth and infancy. Artists depict Mary with a modest covering, facing towards the viewers, and often with royal overtones. She is a symbol of purity and piety. The most common birth scenes with Mary include:
Annunciation—The angel Gabriel announces God’s plan for the incarnation to Mary. She is often spinning yarn, an act of feminine piety.
Visitation—Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant with John the Baptist. The babies leap in the womb upon meeting.
Testing—Mary and Joseph take a virginity test before the Jerusalem priest, as recounted in the Infancy Gospel of James.
Flight to Bethlehem—The pregnant Mary sits on a donkey, pulled by the teenage James and followed by Joseph.
Nativity—Mary gives birth to Jesus. This complex scenes draws together figures from multiple stories—the parents Joseph and Mary, the 3 magi brings gifts from the east, shepherds and their animals, angels above singing praise, the midwives Mea and Salome, and the onlooking donkey and ox (Isaiah 1:3). Jesus appears twice, both wrapped in the manger (with linens that reflect burials clothes) and washed in the basin. All these elements adopts the birth motif of heroes and gods, and depicted in Greco-Roman art. In churches with a cross-in-square floorplan, Nativity is often the main icon on the left wall.
Flight to Egypt—Similar to Flight to Bethlehem, Mary sits frontally on a donkey while her family walks, though holds the infant Jesus and goes towards “Lady Egypt."
Icons of Mary in Jesus’ Life and Ministry
Mary also appears in the later scenes from the life of Christ, though more as a supporting character. These scenes include:
Cana Wedding—Mary sits with Jesus and the disciples at the table (John 2). This scene foreshadows the Passion of Jesus, when Jesus offers his own blood/wine in institute the New Covenant meal.
Crucifixion—Mary and other ladies stand to the left of the cross.
Deposition (and Entombment)—Mary sometimes appears with Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea as they transfer Jesus’ corpse from the cross to the grave.
Deisis—Mary stands to the left of Jesus and makes petition to Jesus.
Ascension—Mary stands among the 12 disciples as they watch Jesus ascend to heaven.
Koimesis is the last narrative scene with Mary. The picture recounts with the death of Mary. In the image, Mary lies in peace as Jesus receives her soul (pictured as a small infant in his hands). The apostles watch and angels take her body for preservation until the final resurrection. This story, known as Dormition in the Latin/Western church, became a church tradition in the 700’s and does not appear in the Bible.
Icons of Mary with the Christ-Child
Mary also appears in single images holding the child Jesus. These are often called “Madonna and Child,” from the Italian for “My Lady.” This votive scenes are often prominent focal points in such churches, next to the main apse. They reflect Mary’s prominent position in salvation history (as the one who birthed and raised the Incarnate God) and in the current spiritual realm (she is close to Jesus, so can effectively intercede). Here are three examples.
1. St. Basil’s Church (Göreme OAM). One the front wall is the Virgin Mary holding the Infant Jesus. She points to Jesus, the source of truth and way of salvation. As the only painting with an underlayer of plaster and internal details, this is the finest painting in St. Basil’s chapel. The image is largely faded now. But a 1920’s picture shows a more complete picture with stoic facial features and draping clothing. There was a miniaturized male figure prostrating at Mary’s feet with the inscription, “Lord, help your servant Ignatios, a monk,” who was likely the lead monk of the small monastery.
2. Tokalı Church (Göreme AOM). The niched icon of icon “Mary the Merciful (Eleousa)” is one of Cappadocia’s most famous icons. Affection fills both faces, as the infant Jesus embraces his mother. With a tender eye and soft cheeks, Mary eyes the viewer. The image portrays the humanity of Jesus and emotes human connection.
3. Eksi Gumus (Niğde). The unique fresco of “Smiling Mary" appears in the left side apse. Jesus appears as a boy looking straight forward. Their dark brown clothes have rigid lines. The art work is unsophisticated and disproportionate , but the subject of Mary smiling is rare, making it a popular feature of the church.
Mary conceived and birthed the human Jesus, and thus became known as the Theotokos. The artists of Cappadocia gave prominence to Mary, but rarely placed here in the exalted position of the church apse, as in Constantinople churches of the same period.