The following is my dissertation proposal approved Fall 2012 by adviser Professor Jennifer L. Ball and the Art History department of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Rising Above the Faithful: Monumental Ceiling Crosses in Byzantine Cappadocia
Alice Lynn McMichael, September 2012

Subject and Rationale:  This dissertation examines monumental ceiling crosses, architectural decorations found almost exclusively in Byzantine Cappadocia (today central Turkey). [1] An example of a monumental ceiling cross is in the 10th-century church of St. Basil where the Byzantine Christian was surrounded by vibrant floor-to-ceiling wall paintings that pulled his attention upward (Fig. 1).* On the low ceiling, just above arm’s reach, he was confronted with a monumental yellow cross, painted as if it were jeweled, and surrounded by red, yellow, and green geometric motifs. Following its massive shape, his gaze was directed toward the apse where the Eucharist was celebrated. Although his view of the altar was blocked by a partition, the ceiling cross symbolized the Divine Liturgy taking place below, cementing for the Christian a memory of Christ’s death on a cross.

Commanding the attention of viewers below, similar cross paintings and reliefs from the 6-13th centuries dominate the ceilings of twenty churches, infusing the entire space with the aura of the holy cross (Fig. 2). Scholars have described them as depictions of liturgical crosses but this is speculative because there are no extant Cappadocian liturgical objects or texts, and scholars have made no attempt to integrate them into the larger context of sacral space and liturgical function. [2] My dissertation elucidates ceiling crosses through analysis of and comparison to existing liturgical objects such as the Sion Treasure (6th c.) in museum collections, asserting that these crosses signaled several types of three-dimensional objects used on the altars below, including liturgical crosses, gospel covers, and reliquaries. As such, their placement on the ceiling is a visual expression of a regional Cappadocian liturgy and the Cult of the Cross in Byzantium.[3] This enables us to incorporate Cappadocian material culture studies into the wider conversation of a relationship between architecture and liturgy, enriching it by including the bustling but often-neglected province of Cappadocia.

The Cult of the Cross receives wide attention in western medieval studies, but its role in Byzantium, particularly Cappadocia, is insufficiently studied. Eusebius of Caesarea (4th c.) explains that God sent Emperor Constantine a “vision of a Cross of Light in the Heavens” which he later represented in “gold and precious stones.”[4] Although no jeweled objects survive from medieval Cappadocia, several ceiling crosses are made of painted “jewels” in this same tradition, a visual manifestation of the cult. Non-figural decoration has traditionally been associated with Byzantine Iconoclasm (730-843), but my work follows an emerging thread in scholarship that ascribes non-figural imagery to the Cult of the Cross instead.[5]

Literature: Early explorers documented hundreds of churches and paintings in Cappadocia, but the only survey text was written 1971.[6] Art historians Nicole Thierry, Catherine Jolivet-Levy, and Annabel Jane Wharton then concentrated on stylistic, iconographic, and epigraphic analysis to date the monuments, often exploring possible connections to Constantinople.[7] In recent decades, scholars have debunked a longstanding belief that all Cappadocian settlements were monastic, noting that churches were also on secular estates.[8] The region’s population was, thus, more diverse than previously thought, and my research investigates the liturgical experiences of the Cappadocian laity.[9] Robert Taft has explored similar Byzantine liturgical rites from Constantinople, preserved in the homilies of John Chrysostom (4th c.) and Photios (9th c), and in the Codex Barberini (8th c.), The Book of Ceremonies (10th c.), and dozens of surviving Byzantine gospel lectionaries, liturgical scrolls, and Psalters.[10] Thomas Mathews analyzed these liturgical descriptions within early Christian basilicas in Constantinople.[11] He determined that as the Cult of the Cross spread, Byzantine liturgy also evolved, deemphasizing elaborate processions through vast spaces toward the altar. Instead, the liturgy began to incorporate static rituals; in response, church interiors became smaller, relegating liturgical instruments to the altar where they would be hidden from sight behind an icon screen. Following their model, Natalia Teteriatnikov determined that Cappadocian liturgy also evolved but had a distinct regional character, based on the placement of furniture and burials within church plans.[12] My research contributes a new chapter to our understanding of the Byzantine liturgy because I contend that ceiling crosses are a response to the smaller worship area, sanctifying overhead space while mirroring the instruments on the altar below, making them visually accessible to the congregation, indicating a regional Cappadocian liturgy.

In this liturgical context, the ceiling cross symbolizes Christianity, refers to the eucharist below, and also carries the “figurative meaning” of Christ himself; it is an image with the agency of a miracle-working relic, capable of activating surrounding space.[13] To Byzantines, both gems and True Cross relics had agency to heal. Images of gemstones in ceiling crosses reference the miraculous power of these objects. Similar items in the west have been examined by Cynthia Hahn and Brigitte Buettner who address the ancient perception of both the cross and gems as metaphors for light; by using this criteria to discuss “gemmed” ceiling crosses and relic theory in Cappadocia, I insert these images into the broader field of medieval devotional studies.[14]

Proposed Contributions: My discussion and documentation of monumental ceiling crosses will demonstrate the importance of the Cult of the Cross in Byzantium while overturning the previous understanding of Cappadocian material as relating to Iconoclasm. The deeper exploration of these issues in Cappadocia will allow medieval studies as a whole to examine them with greater precision.

Outline of Dissertation: The introduction will consider the importance of the ceiling in Christian sacred spaces and note alternatives to ceiling crosses (e.g. medallions of saints, or Christological scenes), emphasizing the placement of ceiling crosses as an artistic and theological decision to guide viewers’ attention toward objects on the altar.

Chapter one, “Ceiling Cross Typology,” will offer a typology of the ceiling crosses, including formal analysis and possible meanings, along with a timeline for the development of these representations. While this chapter will provide a broad overview and catalog of monumental ceiling crosses, subsequent chapters will present a series of case studies of crosses in their spatial and liturgical context.

Chapter two, “Crosses with Agency,” will explore the Cult of the Cross in Byzantium. Given the lack of extant metal or jeweled Cappadocian crosses, ceiling crosses offer a rare glimpse into the use of such ritual objects. Constantine’s mother is often depicted holding a jeweled reliquary of the True Cross, conflating her discovery of its relics with Constantine’s vision of light in Cappadocian iconography. This chapter treats jewels as objects of light with significant iconographic references to the Cult of the Cross.

Chapter Three, “Crosses as Stand-ins for Saints” examines the church of St. Basil in Sinassos (9-10th c.), a site with a monumental ceiling cross and three crosses in the apse that are inscribed with names of prophets, serving as stand-ins for human figures. That the crosses represent prophets rather than Christ is problematic because as St. Basil himself noted, the honor paid to an image is bestowed upon its prototype, and one would expect references to Christ. I argue that these crosses are parallels for the martyrs depicted as flowers in the lives of SS. Felix and Prudentius. The aniconism here is not iconoclasm but an indication of local cult activity.[15]

Chapter four, “Crosses for Commemoration,” explores ceiling crosses in burial contexts, focusing on the tomb of a local bishop in Karabas Church (ca.1061). Its painted ceiling cross sanctifies the burial space that is connected to an adjoining chapael’s apse by a small window. While the ceiling cross may have served as a devotional image for the bishop in life, I argue that his sanctified burial space was kept active, by relic collecting and sounds of commemoration in the memorial space, allowing for his concelebration of the liturgy even after death.

Chapter five, “Crosses that Activate Spaces” examines literary descriptions of ritual and liturgical practice uncovering possible meanings in the interaction of the ceiling cross in the space.[16] By showing how ceiling crosses reflect Cappadocian liturgy, I demonstrate that they were a key element in activating the ceiling as an important part of Cappadocian holy space, projecting liturgical vessels onto the ceiling, a space shared by priests and the congregation. Here I discuss ceiling crosses as alternative architectural elements to cross vaults or decorated domes, looking outside Cappadocia to Armenia, Phrygia, and the Latin west.

Plan of Research: My research in Cappadocia began with a workshop in 2011 during which I explored sixty churches, including seventeen with ceiling crosses. In the catacombs of Rome (2008) and Malta (2009) I observed the original viewing conditions of images in rock-cut spaces similar to those in Cappadocia. My independent study with Professor Ball (2011) on monumental catacomb paintings is part of chapter four.

Many liturgical documents are at Dumbarton Oaks Research Institute in Washington, DC where I plan to visit in early 2013.[17] I will spend fall 2012 applying for funding and researching the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s outstanding holdings of processional crosses, gemmed items, and reliquaries. In summer 2013 I will document remaining ceiling crosses in Cappadocia. I will spend Spring 2013-Spring 2015 writing and will defend my dissertation during Spring 2015.

Fig. 1a and b Painted ceiling cross in the Church of St. Basil (c. 9-10th c.) near the town of Sinassos (left) and a view of the interior facing the apse (right).


Fig. 2 Relief carving (c. 6th cent.) on the ceiling of the Church of Three Crosses in the Rose Valley.

*Photo credit: A.L. McMichael, used in accordance with VRA Fair Use Guidelines.

[1] Cappadocia is a region of central Turkey that includes the present-day cities of Aksaray, Kayseri, and Nevsehir.

[2] See Nicole Thierry, “The Rock Churches,” in Arts of Cappadocia, ed. Luciano Giovannini (London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1971), 163 for a brief description of ceiling crosses. An example of liturgical items depicted above their prototypes on an alter can be found in the apse of Hagia Sophia, Kiev (11th c). Other liturgical objects are depicted in the imperial mosaics of S. Vitale in Ravenna and in the Communion of the Apostles scene on the Riha Paten (6th c.); for descriptions in primary texts, see Agnellus XXVII, De Maximiano (c. 80) and Nicephorus, Antirrh. III, 36 (c. 815) in Cyril A. Mango, The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312-1453: Sources and Documents (Toronto; London: University of Toronto Press in association with the Medieval Academy of America, 1986), 107 and 176. See also John A. Cotsonis, Byzantine Figural Processional Crosses (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1995).

[3] According to Christian tradition, Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, discovered the wood from Christ’s crucifixion on her fourth-century pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This wood was venerated as the True Cross and was captured by Umayyad Muslim forces during the siege of Jerusalem in 614. Christians recovered the relic in 628, invigorating widespread veneration of it as the focus of the Cult of the Cross. See Natalia Teteriatnikov, “The Liturgical Planning of Byzantine Churches in Cappadocia,” (Pontificio Istituto Orientale, 1996) for the identification of a specifically Cappadocian liturgy.

[4] Eusebius of Caesarea, “The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. P. Schaff and H. Wace, vol. 1, reprint., 2nd Series (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1955),

[5] Nicole Thierry, “The Rock Churches,” in Arts of Cappadocia, ed. Luciano Giovannini (London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1971), 128–175; Leslie Brubaker, Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2012). Maria Xenakis, “Recherches sur les églises byzantines de Cappadoce et leur décor peint (VIe-IXe Siècles)” (dissertation, Universite de Paris 1, Pantheon‐Sorbonne, 2011).

[6] Guillaume de Jerphanion, Une nouvelle province de l’art: les eglises rupestres de Cappadoce, 7 vols. (Paris: P. Geuthner, 1925); Marcell Restle, Byzantine Wall Painting in Asia Minor, 3 vols. (Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1968). Luciano Giovannini, ed., Arts of Cappadocia (London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1971).

[7] Nicole Thierry, La Cappadoce de l’antiquité au Moyen Age (Turnhout: Brepols, 2002); Catherine Jolivet-Lévy, Etudes Cappadociennes (London: Pindar Press, 2002). Annabel Jane Wharton and Paul M. Schwartzbaum, Tokalı Kilise: Tenth-Century Metropolitan Art in Byzantine Cappadocia (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1986). See also Lyn Rodley, Cave Monasteries of Byzantine Cappadocia. Orig. pub.1985. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[8] Robert G. Ousterhout, “Survey of the Byzantine Settlement at Çanlı Kilise in Cappadocia: Results of the 1995 and 1996 Seasons,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 51 (January 1, 1997): 301–306; Thomas F. Mathews and Annie Christine Daskalakis Mathews, “Islamic-Style Mansions in Byzantine Cappadocia and the Development of the Inverted T-Plan,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 56, no. 3 (1997): 294–315; Veronica Kalas, “The 2004 Survey of the Byzantine Settlement at Selime-Yaprakhisar in the Peristrema Valley, Cappadocia,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 60 (January 1, 2006): 271–293. Lyn Rodley, Cave Monasteries of Byzantine Cappadocia. Orig. pub.1985. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[9] See also J. Eric Cooper and Michael J. Decker, Life and Society in Byzantine Cappadocia (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

[10] Robert F. Taft, The Byzantine Rite: A Short History (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992). These ceremonies are often depicted in spaces where they would be reenacted, demonstrated in such diverse locations as the imperial mosaics of S. Vitale in Ravenna (ca. 547) and the frescoes of Church of the Peribleptos, in Mistra, Greece (14th c).

[11] Thomas F. Mathews, The Early Churches of Constantinople: Architecture and Liturgy (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1971).

[12] Natalia Teteriatnikov, “The Liturgical Planning of Byzantine Churches in Cappadocia” (Pontificio Istituto Orientale, 1996).

[13] Cynthia J. Hahn, Strange Beauty: Issues in the Making and Meaning of Reliquaries, 400-circa 1204 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012), 75.

[14] Brigitte Buettner, “Precious Stones, Mineral Beings, and Performative Materiality (in Fifteenth-Century Northern Art),” in Shaping Objects: Art, Materials, Making, and Meanings, ed. Christy Anderson, Anne Dunlop, and Pamela H. Smith (forthcoming); Glenn Peers, Sacred Shock: Framing Visual Experience in Byzantium (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004); Hahn, Strange Beauty.

[15] Patricia Cox Miller, “‘The Little Blue Flower Is Red’: Relics and the Poetizing of the Body,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 8, no. 2 (2000): 213–236.

[16] The writings of John Chrysostom, for instance, describe a procession of silver crosses topped with candles which transformed the Sea of Marmara into a “river of fire.” Taft, The Byzantine Rite, 32.

[17] To facilitate primary text research I spent summer 2012 learning Greek and will continue formal study of it through Spring 2013. The majority of secondary literature on Cappadocia is in French, which I already know. I will occasionally use my German skills for secondary literature as well.