Dungeons and Dragons: Byzantine Cave Art in the Dark Ages
Arriving in arid Cappadocia, fresh off a forty-five minute boat ride from Greece and a sixteen-hour bus ride from the Turkish Mediterranean, the change in geological landscape is jarring. Set against a red mesa backdrop, soft stone spires the size of apartment buildings pop out of the valley floor like a spring crop of morel mushrooms. Made of volcanic ash and shaped the elements, some of the rock formations have been embellished and occupied by man. Cave dwellings have been carved into the rock walls and cone-shaped formations have been hollowed out for homes and early Byzantine Christian churches. Looking down from the rooftop terrace of our Göreme cave hotel, I gawk at the otherworldly landscape. Where am I?
While the terrain is a bizarre departure from that of Athens and the Aegean islands, the transfer of power from the city states of Classical Hellenism to the religious state of Eastern Christianity, evident in the Byzantine retreats of early Christian monastics who once holed up here, feels even more abrupt. In the Göreme Open-Air Museum, we explore several churches carved out over 1,200 years after the completion of the Parthenon, and decorated with images of Jesus, Mary, the apostles and other biblical characters in stiffly rendered two-dimensional frescoes. Gone are the high art and naturalism of Classical Greek sculpture and painting, capturing the human form in nuanced perfection. In their places are flat, physiologically awkward human figures and distorted animals. A wide-eyed St. George atop a cartoon horse holds his spear more like a violin bow than a dragon-ready weapon. Pericles, who ruled during ancient Greece’s golden age, and Constantine, who traded Jupiter for Jesus and divided the declining Roman Empire in two, may have both spoken Greek, but the sensibilities of their empires were worlds apart. Welcome to the Dark Ages.
In stately Athens, the Parthenon and the other decorated temples of the Acropolis faced outward, with the intention of pleasing and inspiring the human public; a spirit of intellectualism and enlightenment can still be felt walking the ruins today. Here, tucked into the Anatolian geology with unadorned exteriors and low, curving interiors, these cave chapels feel more like terrestrial bunkers than heavenly windows to salvation.
Our guidebook paints these Early Christian Byzantines as helping craft a “magnificent cultural and artistic legacy,” and for fostering a “flourishing” of the Byzantine arts. Perhaps I should feel more grateful than I do, standing in the presence of these solemn stick figures, to the artists for finding the religious loophole that allowed them to paint images of people and animals at all, without being deemed too idolatrous. Instead I wishfully imagine that the waves of Roman and Muslim invaders who vandalized many of the cave church frescoes by scratching out the eyes and faces, weren’t objecting to the Christians’ belief system but, rather, to their artistic backpedaling.
How can things go so dark? How can intellectual feast turn to widespread famine? In my own time and country, as pencils are traded for touch screens and arts education funding is retracted for austerity, how many generations away are we from not remembering how to draw a straight line, let alone sketch a convincing knight on horseback?
It isn’t until undertaking light research for this post that I discover the very Cappadocian Byzantine paintings I’ve been skewering are, in fact, the oldest known depictions of the Saint George motif in the world. All at once I wish I could go back and take a second look. Perhaps that cartoon horse was just playing dumb so its eyes wouldn’t be scratched out. Perhaps the crumpled dragon at its feet wasn’t as lifeless as I originally diagnosed. Perhaps it was only hibernating.
Keeping my eyes peeled for signs of Byzantine spring,