The writings in cave churches, though abundant, are often overlooked. Visitors see only the pictures of saints. However, the written words and symbols are vital parts of the church’s theological function and provide important historical information. This post explains the various types of wall writings in Cappadocian cave churches.
The Language of Greek
All church writing is in medieval Greek, the language of the Byzantine Empire. So, yes, “It’s all Greek to me!” The writing is usually white paint on a dark background, though sometimes words are inscribed into the rock wall. The words are written in all capital letters, with no spaces or punctuation. Line breaks happen in the middle of a word. So, even short names appear on two separate lines. Saints’ names are often written vertically next to their heads. Multi-word inscriptions run horizontally.
The Purposes of Words
The writing within churches served various purposes.
Most basically, words identify images, such as a saint or scene. The writing provides basic information. Even easily identifiable figures like Christ and Theotokos are labeled, which suggests that words have additional symbolic functions.
The act of reading worship texts or prayers fulfilled the artists’ intent of fostering perpetual worship and prayer in the space. The writing on the wall “baits” curious viewers into praying for long-deceased saints. As visitors see and pronounce the text, the petitions are heard in heaven.
The words also marked sanctity. They visually marked a holy space. Words were essential elements of Byzantine churches. In this way, writing functions in a manner similar to that of painted icons or church architecture—as a symbol of sacred space.
Written words maintained an apotropaic function; they supposedly had the power to avert evil. The letters provided spiritual protection and ensured divine blessing. This is the case at Cemetery Church (Soğanlı) and St. Sergios (Göreme). The words have power in the spiritual realm and enact change.
Words also projected status and authority. In a world with low literacy rates, the ability to read (let alone write!) conferred respect. The written words indicated the donor’s advanced education and elite culture. Letters ascribed social importance.
Those are the functions of words. The following sections explain the various forms in which words appear.
1. Names and Titles
Most words identify the name of a saint. When saints appeared together, the artist wrote the names vertically next to the saint. The Greek word hagios (“saint” or “holy one,” hagia for females) appears on the left side, while the name appears on the right. The term “saint” is a general term, used for the apostles, Church Fathers, and martyrs. Some figures had titles as virtual last names—John Prodromes (“the forerunner”), John Chrysostom (“golden-mouth”), or Gregory Teologos (“the theologian”).
Almost all of the saints are identified by name. However, this was unnecessary because people could easily identify the saints by their faces. The addition of names was not functional, but a sacred habit. For example, Jesus is always identified by name, though he is easily recognized by his face and other attributes.
Artists utilized a well-developed series of symbols and pictographs for frequently appearing names and titles. The most common is the symbol for “saint” (Greek, agios)—the letter “A” inside a circle.
The other symbols are nomina sacra—a Christian scribal practice of abbreviating frequent names by placing a line over the first and last letters of the word. The words are usually placed above the halo. Here are the most common nomina sacra in Cappadocian churches (albiet without the line overhead).
- C XC—Jesus Christ (Greek, Iesous Xristos). These letters always appear above his head.
MP ϴY—Mother of God, i.e., Mary (Greek, Meter Theou).
- R—Prophet (Greek, prophetes). This symbol sometimes appeared in a more ornate style with more letters involved.
Iω—John (Greek, Ioannes), used for John the disciple, John the Baptist, and John Chrysostom.
IAP (with an X overhead)—Archangel, mostly for Michael and Gabriel
3. Scripture Texts on Books
Church paintings feature people holding books or scrolls with quotations from Scripture. For example, Old Testament prophets often hold an open scroll with their prophetic writings. Several churches show the four gospel-writers penning the opening lines of their books on a blank scroll. The Pantocrator scene features Jesus holding a Gospel in his left hand, sometimes open to John 8:12—“I am the light of the world.”
4. Worship Texts
The purpose of Byzantine churches was to draw people into heavenly worship. The sacred space invited people to encounter and worship God’s glory. The writing on church walls had a performative power to activate spiritual worship. The texts were designed to evoke reflection and worship. Here are several examples.
Dark Church (Göreme OAM). Christ Pantocrator looks from the central dome with piercing eyes and a broad chest. The words of Psalms 53:2 wrap around the base—“God looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God.” The words define viewers’ very engagement with the text—God looks down (the painted Pantocrator), looking for those who seek him (the reader looking into the dome).
Holy, Holy, Holy—The archangels in Christ Pantocrator stand at Jesus’ side, holding a placard with the words, “HOLY, HOLY, HOLY” (Greek, agios, agios, agios). These are the angels’ ceaseless declarations around God’s throne, as well as a common refrain in the liturgy. In this space, humans join the angels in worshipping God. For a good example, see Pancarlık Church.
5. Scene Descriptions
Scenes from Jesus’ life often include a one-word title, such as Baptism (BAPTISIS), or Resurrection (ANASTASIS). These names for biblical scenes correspond to popular Greek feast days. This is equivalent to writing “Christmas” or “Easter” next to pictures. The words connect the social feast with the underlying historical event from Jesus’ life.
Longer writing in narrative scenes is usually a direct quotation. In the scene Flight to Egypt, Mary says, “Joseph, get me down from this donkey.” Or in Crucifixion, the text says, “Behold, your mother.”
The most important writings for historical purposes are the dedication inscriptions. Donor inscriptions are written above the painted supplicant. A common formula is, “Pray for God’s servant, (name).” This information provides the name of the church donor and, sometimes, a title for that person, such as “monk,” “priest,” or a military office.
The builder’s dedicatory inscriptions are more historically useful. They provide the builder’s name, benefactor’s name, and year of completion. These inscriptions are usually located above the entrance along the cornice molding. For example, the inscription at St. Barbara Church (Soğanlı Valley) says, “This Church of St. Barbara was built during the emperors Constantine and Basil in the year 1006 AD, with a donation from Basil(ias) a “domestikos” and overseer of […]. Those who read this, pray to the Lord for him.” The inscription in Buckle Church (side chapel) reads, “The master Nikephoros painted this sanctuary with the gifts of God’s servant, Leo, the son of Constantine. People reading this, pray to the Lord for them. Amen.”
Graffiti is the final and perhaps most interesting type of writing in churches. Graffiti refers to the personal messages scratched into the wall by later visitors in post-Byzantine times. The handwritten graffiti appears in white letters. To write their messages, visitors used a sharp instrument or stick to scratch away the painted surface and expose the underlayer of white plaster.
The majority of graffiti inscriptions are from Greek pilgrims, handwritten in lowercase Greek. The inscriptions typically appear around important saints, on the background of the icons. These are invocations for salvation, help, and protection—e.g., “Please pray for salvation for George.” Such words petition angels and saints (especially Theotokos) to intervene and help. The side walls of Sandal Church (Göreme Open Air Museum) contain many petitions addressed to the Holy Cross. The prayer messages are often at eye-level so that later visitors would notice and read the requests. This ensured perpetual prayers for the pilgrim, even long after his or her departure.
Some inscriptions are quotations from the Bible or liturgy that comment upon the wall images. Other visitors simply signed their names into the wall and, occasionally, wrote the year. Most graffiti dates to the 1800s, though some dates to the early 1600s. Such graffiti has historical value for understanding post-Byzantine Christianity in Cappadocia.
Another group of graffiti comes from recent tourists. “Ahmed loves you,” or “John was here.” This is simply thoughtless degradation of sacred and historical spaces.
These are the main classes of Greek writing in Cappadocian cave churches—names, titles, symbols, Scripture books, liturgical words, scene descriptions, dedications, and (later) graffiti. Take note of the various writings inside of a church, even if you don’t know Greek.