The most spectacular archaeological discovery of the International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia was that of the Faras Cathedral, buried in the sand with its medieval program of wall decoration largely preserved. Nearly 200 individual paintings were found on the cathedral walls and in adjoining bishops’ tombs, and of these 169 were successfully removed and preserved prior to the final destruction of FARAS by the waters of Lake Nasser. The Faras murals, now divided between the Sudan National Museum and the National Museum in Warsaw, provide by far the fullest surviving record of medieval NUBIAN CHURCH ART. By a stroke of good fortune, the Faras Cathedral had been abandoned and filled with sand before the end of the Christian Nubian period, so that its paintings had been largely spared the vandalism that has been visited upon many Nubian church paintings in the Islamic period.
Like most Nubian churches, the Faras Cathedral had been periodically redecorated, resulting in an accumulation of painting one on top of another. The skill of the Polish excavators and conservators who undertook the work at Faras enabled them in many cases to remove successive layers of paintings individually, thus revealing a general developmental history of Nubian church art. The paintings were believed by Kazimierz MICHALOWSKI, the Polish excavation director at Faras, to reflect four main phases of stylistic development. These were designated as the violet style (early eighth to mid-ninth century), the white style (mid-ninth to early tenth century), the red-yellow style (tenth century), and the multi-colored style (eleventh and twelfth centuries). The earlier styles are clearly similar to contemporary examples of church decoration in Egypt, as reflected at BAWIT, Saqqara, and elsewhere. They are characterized by somewhat muted colors and by very formalized and static treatment of the human figure. The two later styles are more distinctively Nubian and are characterized by brilliant colors, lavish ornamental detail, and somewhat more lifelike human figures.
The largest and most spectacular of all the Faras murals is a representation of the three Hebrew youths Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, protected by the archangel MICHAEL. It is in the multicolored style and is nearly 10 feet (3 m) long. Other very large paintings include a complex nativity scene (which is unique in that the attendant shepherds are given the names of Arnias and Lekotes), a crucifixion, a descent from the cross, and portraits of archangels, saints, and the Holy Family. There are at least nine madonnas. In four of them, she is associated as a protectress with a Nubian bishop or a member of the Nubian ruling family. Several other paintings are idealized portraits of Nubian bishops, kings, and eparchs. In their portraits, the Nubians are always shown with dark faces, in contrast to the white faces of the non-Nubians.
The sequence of stylistic development in the Faras murals is more or less parallelled in other Nubian churches, although the multicolored style seems to have reached full development only at Faras itself. Michalowski believes that Faras was the artistic center of Nubia, from which other church painters took their inspiration, but there is not enough surviving evidence to establish this clearly.
Some of the Faras paintings have been exhibited at the New York World’s Fair (1964), the Petit Palais in Paris (1964), and the Villa Hügel in Essen (1969). Over one hundred of the paintings are on permanent exhibition in Warsaw and Khartoum.
[See also: Nubian Church Art.]
- Michalowski, K. Faras, centre artistique de la Nubie chrétienne. Leiden, 1966.
- ___. Faras. Warsaw, 1974.
- , and G. Gerster. Faras, die Kathedrale aus dem Wüstensand. Zurich and Cologne, 1967.
- Vantini, G. The Excavations at Faras: A Contribution to the History of Christian Nubia, pp. 201-236. Bologna, 1970.
- ___. Christianity in the Sudan, pp. 149-56. Bologna, 1981.
- Weitzmann, K. “Some Remarks on the Sources of the Fresco Paintings of the Cathedral of Faras.” In Kunst und Geschichte Nubiens in christlicher Zeit, ed. E. Dinkler. Recklinghausen, 1970.