Religious art

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Decoration in the earliest Nubian churches was in the form of carved stone or, occasionally, wood. After the eighth century, however, virtually all churches were decorated with painted murals. They were always found in the sanctuary and along the full length of the nave and aisles, somewhat less commonly in the eastern and western corner rooms. Although often referred to in literature as frescoes, the paintings were in fact executed on dry, not wet plaster.

Remnants of murals were preserved in 59 Nobadian churches, but in most cases they were too incomplete to yield information about the original designs. In 12 churches there were reasonably complete paintings, and seven buildings preserved most of the original program of decoration. The paintings however had in all cases been defaced in post-Christian times, except in three buildings that had been abandoned and filled with sand before the coming of Islam.

There was no one consistent program of decoration throughout the churches. In the sanctuary there was nearly always either a colossal figure of Christ or one of the Virgin, flanked on either side by the Apostles. A Nativity scene very often occupied the east end of the north aisle, but could occasionally occur in other locations. Other designs might occur anywhere in the church. More than 100 different designs have been identified, no one of which occurs in all the churches. Especially common were the head of Christ in a winged mandorla, surrounded by the symbols of the four evangelists; cavalier saints, who are usually shown spearing a reviled figure on the ground; portraits of kings, eparchs and bishops receiving the protection of the Virgin and Child, the Trinity or an angel; representations of an archangel; idealized portraits of important personages; and jeweled crosses. Curiously enough, the only Old Testament scene represented - in at least four churches - is that of the three Hebrew youths in the fiery furnace at Babylon, protected by the Angel of the Lord.

Prior to 1970, the most complete program of decoration preserved in any Nubian church was that in the tiny Terminal Christian church of Abdel Qadir (Griffith 1928; Monneret de Villard 1937, pls. 174-80), although the designs had all been defaced. Then, during the archaeological salvage campaign of the 1960s, nearly complete and undefaced decorative programs were found in the cathedral of Faras (especially Michalowski and Gerster 1967) and the churches of Abdallah Nirqi (Van Moorsel, Jacquet and Schneider 1975), and Sonqi Tino (Donadoni and Curto 1968). These, and especially the Faras paintings, are the sources of most of our current information about Nubian painting. The cathedral at Faras had been redecorated three times, allowing the excavator to recognize a succession of quite distinct styles, which he designated the Violet, White, Red-yellow, and Multi-colored styles. The earliest paintings were quite muted in color, and closely similar to contemporary paintings in Egyptian churches, while the later, much more elaborate and colorful paintings exhibit a distinct Nubian style.

Evidence suggests that for the mass of Nubian votaries, the church paintings were the main foci of worship, much like the icons of Russian churches. They became dilapidated through the continual practice of rubbing against them, or even chipping off bits, and had periodically to be renewed. Many Nubian churches besides that at Faras showed evidence of one or more repaintings.

Sources: there is thus far no comprehensive study of Nubian church art. The fullest available discussion is that of Michalowski in Michalowski and Gerster 1967, although it refers only to the Faras paintings. For the late paintings, post-dating Faras, see Martens-Czarnecka 1992. A more comprehensive but brief overview of all known paintings will be found in Adams 2009, 401-5.

(Contributed by William Y. Adams.)