Wallpainting and other arts

Churches were decorated with wall-paintings, but few have survived from the earliest churches. The earliest wall-paintings discovered are at Abu Oda, from the seventh century; they are followed by those at Wadi es-Sebua, Faras and 'Abd el-Oadir as well as the church at Abdallah Nirqi and Naqa el Oqba and elsewhere. The wall-paintings at Faras are the best known of those preserved from medieval Nubia. British excavations had been undertaken at the monastic site, on the west bank of the Nile between Egypt and the Republic of Sudan, by F. L. Griffiths in 1910-12. But it was the work by the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology during the first half of the 1960s that uncovered the cathedral and bishop's palace, revealing nearly two hundred wall-paintings on the walls of the cathedral and nearby bishops' tombs. These are now divided between the Sudan National Museum in Khartoum and the National Museum in Warsaw. The apse was crowned with the Christ in Majesty with the apocalyptic beings with, below, the Mother of God with the Apostles, and below that the painted equivalent of the already-mentioned eagle/dove frieze that had decorated the earlier church here. The scene of the Nativity was painted on the north side, and the head of Christ and four Evangelists were on the south wall. Equestrian saints, including George, were also depicted. One painting, dated to 1092, shows the three Hebrews in the fiery furnace, each named, protected by St Michael.

There are also other images of the Virgin and Child and several portraits of saints, royal personages, bishops and eparchs, the latter being those officials who ruled at Oasr Ibrim on behalf of the king and held control of defence and commercial relations with Egypt. The portrait of Bishop Marianos protected by the Virgin and Child, dateable to c.1005-39, is reproduced here (Figure 19.11). Although the name of this particular bishop is not included in the list of bishops from Faras, he can be identified through his stele which was found at Oasr Ibrim and which designates him as the Bishop of Pakhoras. He must have died during a visit to Oasr Ibrim. Characteristic of the portrait is the rich colouring and ornamentation of his episcopal garments. Four styles were identified at Faras by Kazimierz Michaiowski: the violet style of the early eighth to mid-ninth century; the white between the mid-ninth to early tenth century; the red and yellow style attributed to the tenth century, and the multicoloured work of the late tenth to early twelfth century. A final phase is identifiable from the thirteenth century. These categorizations have been refined by subsequent work, including that at Kom H and at the Monastery of the Holy Trinity at Old Dongola.

Unlike ordinary mortals, who were simply buried wrapped in a shroud, ecclesiastics were buried in their robes with objects pertinent to their office. One example is Bishop

Timotheus, who was buried in the north crypt of the cathedral at Faras in the late fourteenth century wearing ecclesiastical robes and with his cross staff and other objects (now in the British Museum) and scrolls bearing testimonial letters from the Patriarch of Alexandria in Coptic and Arabic (now in Cairo).

Early churches display extensive stone and wood carving, using floral motifs as well as some Christian symbols, including the cross and birds. An example is the section of sandstone frieze from the first cathedral at Faras, built in the early seventh century, and now in the British Museum (Figure 19.12), where a cross is depicted immediately above twenty-four birds, eagles or doves, with outstretched wings standing next to an altar between columns and looking towards the apse. Traces of a blue ground indicate that the frieze was originally painted. Altars in early Nubian churches were located within the central sanctuary, and were most likely of wood; of these only the sockets remain, showing that they would have been raised on four wooden legs. Some altars had marble tops, imported from the Aegean, similar to those in the monasteries of the Wadi Natrun in Egypt. Sculpture in the round is rarely found, although columns and column bases and capitals are common. During the sixth and most of the seventh century the sandstone capitals from Nobadia are Greco-Roman in inspiration while those of Makouria and Alwa, generally carved of hard stone, are in lower relief. Stone was commonly used for screens and window grilles, an example of the latter appearing in the Church of the Granite Columns in Old Dongola, ornamented with crosses and geometric patterns. Floor mosaics made of pebbles to form geometric shapes and crosses are known in a few churches in Old Dongola and Meinarti of the seventh to the turn of the eighth centuries. Woodwork was also used, not only for roof construction but also screens, including the hijab, the main sanctuary screen, as in Coptic churches. It was also used for lintels, altars, stairs and tribunes. It has been suggested that this wood was imported, as its use was reduced after the Arab conquests of the early seventh century.

Old Nubian, written in Coptic script, was the everyday language, and was also used for religious and liturgical texts, alongside Greek, in monasteries and churches. Papyri and parchment have been well preserved at the site of Oasr Ibrim. Pectoral crosses, terracotta figurines and ceramic 'icons' with relief representations of saints have also been found in excavations in Nubia.

Pottery from the north is exemplified by the 'Dongola ware' of the ninth to tenth centuries. Particularly characteristic of this ware are bowls with white or cream buff slip decorated with animals or Christian symbols. In the south, the 'Soba ware' from the kingdom of Alwa is known for its chalices, bowls and other vessels, the exterior and sometimes the interior of which are decorated with dots, rosettes and crosses as well as a variety of patterns, painted over a brown, red or cream slip. Some use animal motifs, such as lions, gazelles, frogs and birds, as well as the human face. Some of these motifs are copies of designs found in wall-paintings. Ibn el Aswani wrote of the prosperity of Alwa when he visited it in the late tenth century. Survey and excavation work at Soba since the 1980s, uncovering both churches and palatial structures, as well as the fine pottery, including chalices, bowls and other vessels, suggests its likely prosperity. Its continuing prosperity is attested by the fine imported Islamic glass, probably of the fourteenth century.

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