St Anna's Fresco

Saint Anne of Nubia – “it will make you speechless”.

Go, ye swift messengers, to a nation scattered and peeled, to a people terrible from their beginning hitherto; a nation meted out and trodden down, whose land the rivers have spoiled!

Book of Isaiah 18:2

Treasures of the Flooded Desert
Professor Kazimierz Michałowski supervises the digging of a test trench across the Great Kom T. Biniewski / Institute of Mediterranean and Oriental Cultures; Polish Academy of Sciences 1961

Saint Anne is a Nubian wall painting estimated to have been painted between the 8th and 9th centuries, by using the technique al secco with tempera on plaster. This early Christian painting was discovered by a Polish archaeological team led by the Professor Kazimierz Michałowski during a campaign undertaken in the 1960s under the patronage of UNESCO (the Nubian Campaign) in Faras. The image itself belongs to a unique collection of wall paintings and architectural elements from the Faras Cathedral, discovered by an archeological mission. Faras Gallery is the only permanent exhibition in Europe featuring Medieval Nubian paintings from the Nile River Valley south of the First Cataract. The collection of over 60 paintings from the 8th to 14th centuries came from the cathedral in the city of Faras, a large urban centre in the Medieval kingdom of Nobadia, in present-day Sudan.

Nobadian rulers controlling the Nile Valley from the first to the third cataracts converted to Christianity around 548 AD influenced by missionaries sent from Constantinople by the Empress Theodora.

Treasures of the Flooded Desert
Faras (detail) A. Dziewanowski / Institute of Mediterranean and Oriental Cultures; Polish Academy of Sciences 1963

The first cathedral was erected in the 7th century, when the city was still known as Pachoras, and likely stood at the exact site where Polish archaeologists taking part in the Nubia Campaign discovered the subsequent 8th century cathedral. The Nubia Campaign was an extensive international mission to preserve ancient legacies threatened by flooding from the imminent construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt and the resulting formation of the artificial reservoir, Lake Nasser. Since 1964 the painting is in the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw, of which the image has been used as a logo.

Saint Anne, of David’s house and line, was the mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus according to apocryphal Christian tradition. Mary’s mother is not named in the canonical gospels. In writing, Anne’s name and that of her husband Joachim come only from New Testament apocrypha, of which the Gospel of James (written perhaps around 150 AD) seems to be the earliest that mentions them. In the painting, St Anne places her finger against her mouth, asking for silence, which may allude to the ‘divine silence’. The finger on the mouth could also indicate that the saint is praying.

Treasures of the Flooded Desert
Polish excavations in Faras. Conservation works: covering the faces of the paintings with a mixture of wax and rasin
A. Dziewanowski / Institute of Mediterranean and Oriental Cultures; Polish Academy of Sciences 1963

This gesture is rarely visible in Christian art and probably it refers to the tradition of Egyptian Christians (the Copts) who did so while praying undertone. It was believed to ward off evil powers trying to break into a human heart. Personally, I also understand this gesture as a synonym of a mystery and unuttered truth, which remains in silence. Also it is likely that Nubian women, similar to all women in the Christian world, directed their prayers towards St Anne requesting a child and a successful labour.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

  1. The Professor Kazimierz Michałowski Faras Gallery. (2018) In: National Museum in Warsaw. Accessed on 12th of July, 2018. Available at <https://bit.ly/1p8RMzR>.
  2. The Faras Gallery. Treasures from the Flooded Desert. The Collection of Nubian Art in the National Museum of Warsaw. (2018) In: Google Arts&Culture. Accessed on 12th of July, 2018. Available at <https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/ zAKSFOp2_BDeIg>.
  3. The Faras Gallery. Treasures from the Flooded Desert. The Collection of Nubian Art in the National Museum of Warsaw. (2018) In: Google Arts&Culture. Accessed on 12th of July, 2018. Accessed on 12th of July, 2018. Available at <https://bit.ly/2usw1pO>.
  4. The Faras Gallery. Treasures from the Flooded Desert. The Collection of Nubian Art in the National Museum of Warsaw. (2018) In: Google Arts&Culture. Accessed on 12th of July, 2018. Accessed on 12th of July, 2018. Available at <https://bit.ly/2L7w6tf>.

4 thoughts on “Saint Anne of Nubia – “it will make you speechless”.”

  1. Nice read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing some research on that. And he actually bought me lunch because I found it for him smile So let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch!

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