Zelve Church 4 (Grape)

Zelve Church 4 was the main church of the Zelve community. This large double-nave church features a variety of decorative crosses. Because of the vine decoration in the north apse, locals nicknamed it Grape Church (Turkish, Üzümlü Kilise), not to be confused with another Grape Church (St. Niketas’ Hermitage) in Red Valley. After the museum entrance gate, follow the path leading left (up the east ridge) to the church. Overall Church 4 is the main space in a larger complex, which has many rooms on two levels. The rock has collapsed, exposing the interior spaces and concealing the settlement’s original layout. This church dates to the late 500s, making it one of Cappadocia’s earliest cave churches. Despite the collapsed southern wall, the church has survived nicely over 1,500 years.

Zelve Church 4, facade

The church has two parallel naves, separated by a wall with a door and two arched windows. These openings toward the front allowed worshipers in the smaller side church (paraekklesion) to follow the liturgy performed in the south church. In terms of size and prominence, Zelve Church 4 is similar to the Church of St. John the Baptist in Çavuşin. These two churches are the main katolikoi (community churches) in the area. As for painting, the church contains simple red and green designs painted directly onto the rock to accentuate the architectural features. South Church The south church has a small narthex with arcosolia graves on both sides. This room features the church’s only multi-color paintings—red figures on a dark blue background. These images were painted around AD 900—much later than the original carving. In the arched vault, Archangels Michael and Gabriel stand dressed in military attire. They hold a Maltese cross inside a bejeweled crown. This symbol of victory is the composition’s focal point and signifies a transition into the nave. Below the cross and above the door, the Theotokos sits enthroned with Christ-child on her lap. At her side stand St. Constantine (right) and his mother, Helena (left). An elaborate square window above the narthex illuminates the nave.

Zelve Church 4, north church

A Roman cross on the flat ceiling hovers over the large nave (7 meters by 6.5 meters). Besides molded edges, the large cross has minimal ornamentation. A plain bench edges the side walls. A row of Maltese crosses lines the upper wall, painted onto sculpted roundels and the flat walls. A prothesis niche and water basin appear on the south wall. On the east wall, two small arched apses flank the central sanctuary. This triple-apse design imitates basilica-style churches (such as St. John the Baptist), though the nave lacks dividing arcades. The shallow north apsidal contains a tall attached rock-cut altar, as does the deeper south apsidal with two arched niches. In the middle of the east wall, a triumphal arch was framed by two large pillars. Two tall steps lead into the sanctuary. The faint red painting above the arch was a Maltese Cross inside a floral roundel, flanked by two scaled fish. Some suggest that these fish represent Christians moving toward Jesus—an image of the Eucharist when believers partake and unite with Christ. However, in early Christianity, the fish was a discrete symbol for Jesus, as identified by Jesus’ initials (Greek, ΗC ΧC) below the fish.

Zelve Church 4, north apse

The long apse (nearly 4 meters by 2.5 meters) has a peculiar design. The side seats with angled armrests are more elaborate than the usual arched recess and, thus, resemble throne chairs. The curved back wall has three tall arched recesses divided by pillars. A cross-shaped cutting appears at the base of each niched seat to hold sacred crosses. The base of the altar remains in the middle of the apse. North Church The north aisle was less important; it has smaller dimensions (6 meters by 3.5 meters), rougher carving, and simpler decoration. This area functioned as a sort of “overflow space” for viewing the liturgy in the main apse. On the back wall, two windows illuminate the space. A secondary burial area was carved just outside the windows. The nave’s low, flat ceiling has a large relief cross. A bench lines three walls.

Zelve Church 4, north aisle

The smaller apse has an attached rock-cut altar and arched seats on each side. The bench appears to be too tall and thin for actual seating. The conch (upper apse) features grape bunches painted in red with large white dots. To the right (south), a green panel with a red floral frame contains a basic image of Joseph, an old man with his hands folded up in supplication. The inscription read, “St. Joseph, finance of the praise-worthy Theotokos.” Such a composition of grapevines and Joseph never appears in Cappadocian apses. Small Chapel A private prayer chapel (Zelve Church 4b) lies north of the church narthex. The small square nave has a barrel vault with small Maltese crosses. The phrase “Jesus Christ, Conqueror” (Greek, HC XC NHKA) appears left of the apse, just below the molding. The flattened apse has a young deacon. Based on its similarities to the main church, this church likely dates to around AD 600.


Zelve Church 4, chapel


© 2019 Jason Borges

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