Wednesday, November 22, 2017


Robert G. Ousterhout, Visualizing Community: Art, Material Culture, and Settlement in Byzantine Cappadocia. Dumbarton Oaks Studies, 46. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Trustees for Harvard University, 2017. Pp. xxv, 532. ISBN 9780884024132. $90.00.

Reviewed by Hugh Jeffery, Lincoln College, Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site

The past two decades have seen something of a revolution in our understanding of medieval Cappadocia. The interpretation of the region's spectacular remains presents many challenges. Scholars have tended to focus on mural paintings, with less attention given to architectural and social context. Many domestic, agricultural and military installations remain undocumented. An almost complete absence of textual sources adds further difficulty. In brief, Cappadocia takes Christopher Hawkes' classic Ladder of Inference and turns it upon its head. One may quickly glean the theological arguments manifest in a particular painted program, but the economic and social relations of medieval Cappadocian communities remain elusive.

Byzantine Cappadocia has generally been interpreted as a pious landscape of scattered monastic communities. This paradigm began to unravel in the late 1990s as researchers began to investigate more mundane aspects of Cappadocian material culture. Monks and monasteries could certainly be found within the landscape, but not necessarily in any greater proportion than in any other territory of the empire. Robert Ousterhout was at the forefront of the secularization of Byzantine Cappadocia. A Byzantine Settlement in Cappadocia, first published in 2005, presented the results of four seasons of intensive survey at the settlement surrounding the Çanlı Kilise, an eleventh-century masonry church in the west of the region.1 Ousterhout interpreted the settlement as a town housing local landowners, their dependents, peasants, monks and soldiers assigned to the garrison of a nearby fortress. Visualizing Community draws on decades of experience, employing new approaches and interpretive paradigms to illuminate such communities across the whole of medieval Cappadocia.

The book has two principal thrusts. The first is a close analysis of the region's ecclesiastical architecture. Ousterhout demonstrates how the rock-cut architecture of the region was concerned less with replication of masonry forms than with signification, rhetorically exploiting familiar architectonic codes in order to create particular kinds of sacred space. The second thrust contextualises these monuments in a new social history of Cappadocia, exploring the relationships among monasteries, manors, towns, fortresses and cemeteries. These two approaches are complementary, as the architectural semiotics illustrate on a micro scale the priorities of the wider society—particularly with regard to the signification of holy space appropriate for the commemoration of the dead. The first two chapters are therefore concerned with architecture and mural painting, with the third and fourth treating socioeconomic relations and funerary archaeology.

In his initial chapter, "Architecture," Ousterhout sets out the first comprehensive analysis of ecclesiastical architecture in Cappadocia. He includes both built and rock-cut spaces, dating from late antiquity to the thirteenth century. Churches are presented chronologically by period (early Christian, transitional, middle Byzantine, and thirteenth century), and typologically within each period (single nave, atrophied Greek cross, cross-in-square, etc.). This is followed by discussions of identifiable workshops and local idiosyncrasies, concluding with some remarks on the relationships between carved space and masonry archetype. Ousterhout's structure allows the reader to contextualise both innovative and archaising monuments within a general narrative of architectural development in Cappadocia and the wider Byzantine world. The introduction of the cross-in-square church to Cappadocia in the tenth century is often cited as a manifestation of contacts with the capital. Careful analysis reveals how the Cappadocian carved cross-in-square departed from its Constantinopolitan and masonry predecessors while maintaining some of their symbolic connotations. Throughout Ousterhout is keen to bring the reader within the small and dimly lit interiors of his churches. This concern for visual experience leads to some fascinating reappraisals of the phase chronologies for several churches, including that at Karabaş in the Soğanlı valley and the famous Tokalı Kilise in Göreme. Ousterhout argues that the origins of both complexes may be found in small hermitages, and that the peculiar orientations of the later churches carved around these chambers permitted lines of sight between the hermit's cell and liturgical performances.

With the second chapter, "Painting in its Contexts," Visualising Community returns to the better-trodden territory of Cappadocian mural painting. Ousterhout does not attempt to give a complete overview of iconographies or stylistic developments, since such matters have been discussed at length elsewhere. However, he does not presuppose an intimate knowledge of Cappadocian painting, and provides a brief introduction to different modes of decoration. Having familiarised the reader with these essentials, Ousterhout turns to the question of how mural painting relates the architectural forms analysed in the preceding chapter. His approach focuses on craftsmen and their workshops, employing analyses of working practices developed in his 1999 Master Builders of Byzantium. Despite their fame today, it must have been extremely difficult to secure the services of a mural painter in Byzantine Cappadocia. A great number of spectacular churches never received a painted program, and even in the most sumptuously decorated monuments it is apparent that the artists arrived long after the execution of the architecture. Painters often plastered over sculpted decoration, and encountered great difficulty fitting their iconographic programs into the forms left by the excavator-architect.

These observations have significant implications for the mechanics of cultural transmission between Cappadocia and Constantinople. In the latter, the development of the Feast Cycle decorative program, in which Biblical events were depicted as individual iconic images, went hand-in-hand with that of the cross-in-square church and was dependent upon its discrete interior surfaces—lunettes, pendentives, vaults, etc. Ousterhout demonstrates that the Feast Cycle and the cross-in-square church arrived in Cappadocia through separate channels. So, for example, the painter of the early tenth- century Kılıçlar Kilisesi at Göreme, one of the first cross-in-square churches of Cappadocia, was unfamiliar with the new form and struggled to impose a continuous narrative around its multifaceted architecture.

Chapter three shares its title with that of the book as a whole, and contextualises the monuments discussed in the first two chapters. These hundred pages convincingly refute the monastic paradigm that dominated twentieth-century Cappadocian studies, describing a wide range of settlements within a productive agricultural landscape. Just as in his descriptions of church interiors, here Ousterhout consistently evokes the visual connections within the landscape. The ancient village of Soandos lies within the angle of a steep forked valley. During the tenth and eleventh centuries the valley was dominated by the Skepides family, whose portraits may now be seen in many of the churches they sponsored. Ousterhout argues that a rock-cut courtyard complex in the western fork, known locally as the Han, was not a monastery but in fact the palatial residence of the Skepides. Its imposing façade of horseshoe arches was intended to be visible from the irregular troglodytic chambers of the village below. A true monastery was located directly opposite the aristocratic Han, with cemeteries and more churches stretching up the eastern fork. Social relations are embedded into the local topography. Ousterhout also describes landscapes of fear and organised violence: fortresses, underground refuges, and redoubts cut into the backrooms of aristocratic manors and sealed by rolling stone doors. The analysis integrates the pious and violent landscapes into a complex social whole.

It is in this section that one perhaps regrets the lack of reference to numismatic evidence—or rather to its absence across the region. Ousterhout's surveys at the Çanlı Kilise settlement turned up only six coins, all post-Byzantine. The collections of the Niğde and Kayseri museums suggest that monetised exchange began only in the eleventh century.2 That the complex economies of tenth-century Cappadocia functioned without small denomination coinage seems relevant to an analysis of social and economic relations.

The fourth and final chapter, in which Ousterhout discusses monastic and funerary archaeology, is likely to prove the most controversial. Noting the frequent overlap between monasteries and cemeteries, he demonstrates that the latter almost always predate the former. Moreover, almost all Cappadocian churches were equipped for special burials in their first phase. These observations lead to an extensive review of Göreme, the most remarkable assemblage of rock-cut churches in all of Cappadocia. Ousterhout traces the development of the site. The earliest Christian spaces date to late antiquity and were situated within an ancient necropolis. These were followed by a cluster of tenth-century churches along the site's northwestern ridge, by the most elaborate eleventh-century monuments within a natural crescent at its southernmost extent, and finally by a complex of slightly later and smaller churches to the west. Surrounding the medieval churches are many rock-cut refectories, which have led to the common interpretation that a church and one or more refectories formed a monastic "unit." However, Ousterhout points out that there are far more refectories than churches, that churches are small and remote while refectories are large and easy to access, and that we are lacking many of the more utilitarian structures that would be required for large monasteries. He argues that these landscapes were in fact commemorative spaces for the lay dead. In place of active lavriotic communities, Ousterhout leaves only small groups of caretaker monks tending to the funerary chapels of the Cappadocian nobility. The refectories were used for special meals accompanying funerary liturgies or held in memory of the deceased. Nevertheless, Ousterhout admits that Göreme is anomalous even for Cappadocia, and one wonders why this extraordinary incidence of refectories should be exclusively confined to this site. Are we to imagine a Cappadocian Valley of the Kings? Would this not require an extremely wide catchment area for deceased aristocrats?

Ousterhout concludes with a fascinating essay on architectural semiotics and the production of sacred space. He distinguishes first between structural logic and architectonic detailing. The columns, vaults, and domes of the rupestrian churches are clearly informed by masonry archetypes. Working in negative space within the living rock, the excavator- architect was freed from any gravitational and structural impositions. Domes may therefore inflate illogically from flat ceilings, or be offered illusory support from a variety of ingenious pseudo-pendentitves. Yet these features might be overburdened by architectonic detailing, such as ribbed vaults or arcaded interior walls. Ousterhout's argument is reminiscent of Umberto Eco's take on the semiotics of gothic vaulting: "the communicative value of the ogival ribbing remains… [even] if the ribbing had been articulated only to communicate the function, and not to permit it".3 The architectonicity of the Cappadocian monuments contributed to the signification of their "church-ness," thereby creating an immanently holy space. The miniaturization of Cappadocian churches is likewise adduced in support of a reading as "iconic" architecture. Petite rock-cut liturgical furnishings reinforce the effect of the miniaturization. The ambo of the sixth-century Durmuş Kadır Kilisesi is miniscule. However, if one assumes a consistent scale between ambo and architectural space then this reduction in size performs important miniaturizing work, transforming the chapel into a miniature basilica. Liturgical spaces in Cappadocia are often multiplied. Tiny sanctuaries within pastophoria, equipped with complete liturgical furniture, would have been ludicrously cramped spaces for any liturgical performance. Ousterhout suggests that these are likewise communicative, maintaining holy space through the continuous anticipation of liturgies that might never be said. These communicative features are related to the commemorative function of Cappadocian architecture in that they create and maintain the holy space for burial ad sanctos, even in the absence of frequent worship by human actors.

Visualizing Community emphatically succeeds in its ambitious reassessment of Byzantine Cappadocia. This is now the best reference work for the region's famous churches, providing a thorough account of architectural developments complemented by insightful theoretical discussion. The bustling communities that inhabited this bizarre landscape are brought to life as never before. Necessary reading for the Byzantinist, but recommended for all those interested in how we might read the social lives of architectural spaces.


1.   Ousterhout, R. G., A Byzantine Settlement in Cappadocia (Washington, D.C: Dumbarton Oaks, 2011).
2.   Prigent, V., and Métivier, S., "La circulation monétaire dans la Cappadoce byzantine d'après les collections des musées de Kayseri et de Nigde," in Mélanges Cécile Morrisson = Travaux et Mémoires 16 (Paris, 2010) 577-618.
3.   Eco, U. "Function and Sign: The Semiotics of Architecture," in N. Leach, ed. Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory (New York: Routledge, 1997).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.