This is the 100th post on the Peter Sommer Travels Blog. At this stage, a little over three years after launching the project, we feel that we have found a way to use the blog as a regular forum for information, insights, thoughts and images(!) relevant to the fascinating history and culture of the areas we travel and to the sites we visit on our tours and cruises – and hopefully beyond. To mark the occasion of the 100th posting, we have chosen a text that exemplifies what we try to do both online and in the field: to show you a site in all its beauty, fascination and detail, and then to expand from it into a broader story about what it represents within the grand tale of human effort, struggle and achievement – in short, to explain what it means. Our example features on Walking and Exploring Cappadocia and the Land of the Hittites and was written by that tour’s expert guide.

Christ Pantocrator in the central dome of the Karanlik Kilise church

Christ Pantocrator in the central dome of the Karanlik Kilise church

An elaborate cross-in-square church, carved from the bedrock, a great example of a “negative” architecture, created by removing rather than adding material, its central dome showing the imposing figure of Christ Pantocrator (the All-Powerful), initially carried by four columns – only one of which remains today, leaving the dome seemingly afloat. Arches spring from the columns to pilasters, engaged columns attached to the walls, forming corner bays which are also roofed by small cupolas depicting the Archangels. Three apses define the sanctuary area on the eastern side of the church. In the central apse, fragments of an originally tall altar screen and of the rounded altar still remain in place. All in all, an interior space that had assimilated architectural and functional elements of built monuments and was transformed into the most fashionable compound church plan of its time, utilising the properties of the soft and easily sculpted local volcanic tuff.

Whether you are a regular visitor to Turkey, or whether you are planning a first visit to that fascinating country, you have almost certainly come across these striking and colourful images. They show part of the mural decoration of the famous Karanlik Kilise (or Karanlık Kilise – the Dark Church) set in Göreme Valley. The frescoes and the edifice itself date to around the middle of the 11th century AD – they bear a very special importance for the history of Byzantine Cappadocia and its art.

The apse of the Karanlik Kilise church.

The eastern section and apse of the Karanlik Kilise church.

From the Earliest Explorations to the Göreme Open Air Museum

Göreme Park is indubitably the heart of Cappadocia and its churches are among the best-known and most frequently visited of the Cappadocian cave monuments. The area lies between several parallel colourful valleys. It preserves a vast number of painted Byzantine chapels, monastic complexes, dwellings and all kinds of spaces cut into the smooth cliffs and the conical pinnacles that were shaped millennia ago by the region’s volcanic eruptions and subsequent erosion processes caused by the region’s microclimatic conditions.

Cappadocia was first explored in the 18th and 19th centuries by European travellers who found themselves enthralled by its peculiar rock formations and the troglodyte lifestyle. Nevertheless, by the first half of the 20th century, the romantic vision of a mystic land beyond time had made way for more systematic approaches. The field investigations and the pioneering – and voluminous – study by the French Jesuit Père Guillaume de Jerphanion, published between 1925 and 1942, brought to light the significance of Cappadocia’s church paintings and contributed to new interpretations and inquiries. This was the first introductory step into a promising new era of scientific endeavour. Triggered by de Jerphanion’s life work, Cappadocian explorations and studies experienced a revival. Since then, hundreds of “new” painted churches have been discovered, and countless fresco decorations and architectural details have been recorded systematically. New approaches have emerged to elucidate crucial controversial issues regarding key methodological questions, the chronological classification and dating system, as well as the character of the region itself. Finally, many scholars and authors have dedicated their efforts to illustrating Byzantine Cappadocia and providing a better understanding fo the reality behind its images and its historical background.

Göreme open-air museum, with Karanlik Kilise on the left.

Göreme open-air museum, with Karanlik Kilise on the left.

During the late 1970s Cappadocia and its monuments attracted growing international attention; before long, preservation campaigns were undertaken for the protection of the wall-paintings of Göreme valley. A long-term development plan for the whole natural area was also initiated around the same period, to be completed in 2003. In 1985, Göreme National Park was listed as UNESCO World Heritage. At present, a new international conservation project (since 2013) aims to restore various painted chapels in Göreme and the surrounding valleys over the coming years.

Karanlik Kilise: The vivid gem of Göreme

The Karanlik Kilise wall-paintings were covered by layers of pigeon droppings ages ago, resulting in their natural protection from damage and the fine preservation of their pigments over the centuries. Unfortunately, the walls were not kept clear of later engraved graffiti. More recently, the frescoes received a second protection, this time by the hand of man. The structure was reinforced and the frescoes were consolidated and extensively restored. Some badly worn parts were repainted in an attempt to emulate the original richness of colours, leading to an entanglement of new material with the original remains. This is not the appropriate time and place to argue about goals and methods of the extremely difficult and challenging field of fresco restoration, nor to discuss or explain the diversity of approaches and the differentiations between rescuing, preserving, restoring, and repainting. The topic has been a subject of controversy more often than not, and throughout time and space, the chosen methods can range from subtle consolidation to full-blown facelift…

The vestibule and eroded (and painted) upper floor of the monastery outside Karanlik Kilise Church

The vestibule and eroded (and painted) upper floor of the monastery outside Karanlik Kilise Church

What I am trying to point out here is a misconception regarding the importance of the Karanlik Kilise paintings, which are the most frequently reproduced images of Cappadocian Byzantine Artpictures similar to the one at the top of this post are found in a great many illustrated guides, on tourist websites, in travel magazines and even in our 2014 brochure. Such brand-enhancing use of imagery tends to go hand in glove with the promotion of tourist attractions, but it must be stressed that this specific ensemble is not just visually impressive, but bears a special and dual significance.

The Karanlik Kilise wall-paintings certainly were the best preserved in the region, even before restoration. But it needs to be emphasised that irrespective of their stand-out impressiveness resulting from the effort spent on their preservation, they were also among the most prominent and brilliant examples of their period, the dynamic 11th century and the flourishing artistic production of Byzantine Cappadocia. Let’s keep it real and look at what’s there…

Painting of a red cross underneath the depiction of the Last Supper at Elmali Church in Göreme Valley.

Painting of a red cross underneath a depiction of the Last Supper at Elmali Church in Göreme Valley.

The Monastic Complex

Adjacent to the southern side of Karanlik church are the main courtyard and a series of two-storey edifices grouped together to form a monastic complex. A short tunnel opens below the floor level and gives access to the central area; millstones were used to frame and separate passages, staircases and halls, a constant and common element observed in all domestic and religious settlements as well as the subterranean cities of the region, which probably functioned as places of refuge at least occasionally. Apart from the kitchen, the refectory (dining hall) and the church itself, the functions of many rooms cannot be asserted with any precision.

For example, the image on the left/right shows the so-called vestibule, an open-fronted long and narrow hall, running along one side of the courtyard on the ground floor. Just above is another oblong room divided into four bays, most of its floor and part of the ceiling now collapsed. A frieze of small blind niches occupies the upper part of the vestibule’s walls, while a large proportion of the interior surfaces is decorated with linear ornaments in red paint: cross-medallions, interlaced ropes, curious patterns and painted masonry lines. This is the initial red decoration applied directly onto the stone after the structure was carved into the rock by the stonecutters. The crosses probably serve an apotropaic function, conveying divine protection to the edifice after the completion of its construction works and before the addition of frescoes, mainly in the chapels, bythe workshop of painters.

Two donors kneeling beside the enthroned Christ.

Two donors kneeling beside the enthroned Christ.

The Church and its Wall-Paintings

From the courtyard, a small entrance accessed by steps opens into the narthex; a barrel-vaulted hall preceding the main church, integral part of the holy space and thus embellished with wall-paintings. A small door on its eastern side gives access to the main cross-in-square chapel, while a funerary chamber was carved on the lateral side, presumably designed to house the tombs of some of the eight donors depicted on the church’s walls.

Karanlik Kilise belongs to the group of the so-called “Column Churches” of Göreme, a group of three chapels similar in form, in scale, in their pictorial programme and in the artistic style of their paintings. Apparently, they date from the same time and the same workshops of stonecutters and painters were commissioned to build and decorate all of them. Slight but significant distinctions, however, make Karanlik Kilise the most elaborately carved of those chapels and its wall-paintings the most consistent, coherent and vivid.

The Virgin and the Archangels. Note the linear treatment of their figures and garments.

The Virgin and the Archangels. Note the linear treatment of their figures and garments.

All the frescoes in the church reveal the flatness and linearity that characterise the stylistic trends of the 11th century; and of course they embody the standard values of Byzantine Art which is always “timeless, boundless and transcendent”. In Karanlik Kilise, the treatment and tightness of the figures is delicately compensated for by the vivacity of their colours, the strong ornamental character and the smooth, serene and refined expressions of the figures. With their strictly limited dynamism, the wall-paintings express the linear rigour of their time, with a certain restrained vitality and a distinctive local spirit.

The pictorial programme presents the most prominent scenes from the New Testament and the life of Christ, doctrinal images, visions and holy figures, as well as depictions of secular figures (the donors). Although it is more or less typical in so far, Karanlik Kilise’s great importance rests in the spatial juxtaposition of the images and the formation of a coherent unit, where each space, each motif and meaning are integrated with one another to formulate the significance of the entire decoration programme, which is thus expressed by the whole and by all of its parts.

Benediction of the Apostles under the Ascension in the narthex, with two of the donors  kneeling at the feet of Christ.

Benediction of the Apostles under the Ascension in the narthex, with two of the donors kneeling at the feet of Christ.

One especially revealing and significant context serves as an example here. The Ascension of Christ to Heaven theologically conceived as a historical event and at the same time a vision alluding to the anticipated return of Jesus to Earth – and the Benediction or Last Blessing of the Apostles, with two of the donors prominently kneeling on either side of Christ, are placed in the barrel vault of the narthex, in close association with the Hospitality of Abraham and the Annunciation, which flank the entrance to the main chapel. The Annunciation, the moment when the Archangel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she was to conceive the Son of God, is the first sign of the Incarnation. The Hospitality of Abraham, when three angels appeared to Abraham and announced that Sarah would have a son, is described in the Old Testament (Genesis 18, 1-8) and is the archetype of the Annunciation, as well as a scene of special Eucharistic character – since Abraham welcomes the God’s mediators and offers them rest, food and drink. So, it is an image that prefigures the Immaculate Conception, illustrates the Doctrine of the Trinity and at the same time echoes the liturgical function of the space and the funerary rites for the commemoration of the deceased that took place in the narthex.

The prophet Abraham in the southern apse.

The prophet Abraham in the southern apse.

This coherent sequence of images and symbolisms is just one of the several complex pictorial associations in Karanlik Kilise’s iconographic programme. A special and carefully composed spatial arrangement is developed in the narthex to summarize the Salvation and underline the Doctrine of the Eternal Incarnated Logos (Word of God) which is introduced by the announcement of the First Coming of Messiah (Annunciation) and is completed by his Second Coming (Ascension). This spatial symbolism is associated with the physical access to and exit from the main space of worship in the main chapel, providing a link with a second image of the Prophet Abraham – the Prophet par excellence of Paradise – located in the southern apse of the sanctuary; thus extending the spatial and symbolic sequence of meanings and references into the heart of the chapel. 

This is just a simple account of Karanlik Kilise, its frescoes and their significance. It is only one of many fascinating stories that can be told of the building, its art, its painter and donors. Göreme Valley and its monuments are a key site not just for the bizarre and impressive landscape and the serenely beautiful art, but for the stories and meanings they reveal, an invitation to explore and discover Cappadocia’s history and cultural significance. You can visit Göreme and Karanlik Kilise and hear more of those stories as one of many highlights and magnificent sites on our Walking and Exploring Cappdocia and the Land of the Hittites tour in October.

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