Passing by Warsaw on my way from the Chopin Airport to my hometown, I decided to stop at the National Museum of Warsaw to explore once again the Faras Gallery. One of its precious treasure is a fragmentary wall painting, described as the image of Saint Anne of Nubia. Like other wall paintings from the same gallery, it originally featured the cathedral of Faras (earlier Pechoras), located in the capital of the Kingdom of Nobatia (or Nobadia) (Cartwright, 2019).
Birth and re-birth of Christian Nubia
Established in the 4th century AD, Nobatia had grown out of a long ancient tradition of Egypt and the Kingdom of Kush (Ibid.; Adams, 1991:1800). Since the early Middle Ages it had been inhabited by a tribe of the Nobatae who developed their culture beyond the first cataract of the Nile, between present-day Egypt and Sudan (NMW, 2014-2015:[0:11-0:30]; Cartwright, 2019). To the south, there also existed other Nubian kingdoms, namely Makouria and Alwa (Adams, 1991:1800). Christianity reached this region in the 6th century AD, brought there by Byzantine missionaries (NMW, 2014-2015:[0:30-0:45]; Cartwright, 2019) but initially inspired by the Christian tradition of Egypt, and with minor influences from Byzantium, Syria and Palestine (Adams, 1991:1811-1812).
After the Islamic invasion of Egypt in the 7th century, Nubia emerged as a lonely “Christian island among the sands of Sahara desert” (NMW, 2014-2015:[0:45-0:59]), having developed its culture until the 14th century, when it was eventually sunk by the same enemy, with its monuments covered in sand (Ibid.:[2:00-2:10]). “They were [only] reborn [in the 1960s] when a Polish archaeological [rescue] expedition, headed by Professor Kazimierz Michałowski, explored the sites designated for flooding by the waters of the Nile at the Aswan Dam” (Ibid.:[2:10-2:26]). As a result, preserved objects from the Faras cathedral, mainly priceless mural paintings, were shared between the National Museum of Sudan in Khartoum and the National Museum of Warsaw (Ibid.:2:41-2:52; NMW, 2019). The painting of Saint Anne has been displayed as a part of the Nubian Collection in the Faras Gallery since 1972 (NMW, 2014-2015:[2:42-2:52]; NMW, 2019). In 2014, the exhibition was redesigned, to mimic the layout of the cathedral interior and “present the wall paintings in a way that reflects their original placement, with the sound of authentic Coptic liturgical chanting heightening the experience for visitors” (NMW, 2019).
Styles of Faras wall paintings
“In church art, as in church architecture, it appears that the Nubians assimilated and combined influences from a variety of sources as well as adding touches of their own” (Adams, 1991:1812). Nevertheless, Nubian artists and architects did not only imitate the foreign traditions but created a Christian culture of their own, which is fully reflected by a distinctive style of Nubian mural paintings (Ibid.:1812; NMW, 2014-2015:[0:58-1:30]). “Initially monumental and austere, they gradually became to take on a unique local character allowing to be distinguished from Egyptian or Ethiopian images” (NMW, 2014-2015:[1:30-1:44]). Professor Michałowski has recognised different successive styles in the Faras art of mural paintings, in terms of their design, used colours and iconography (Adams, 1991:1812).
From the 8th to around 10th century, dimmed colours predominated, mainly ochre, white, and shades of violet (Ibid.:1812). Simultaneously, there were linear, frontal and schematic representations of human characters with elongated limbs, exceedingly large and absent eyes, and very few decorations (Ibid.:1812, Dobrzeniecki, 1988:95). They are stylistically typical of the Christian Egypt and it is believed that they were created by Coptic artists (Adams, 1991:1811-1812; Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[1:25-1:40]). Among the represented figures facing the viewer there were mainly the images of Christ, His Mother, saints, angels and warriors (Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[1:42-2:10]). Between the 10th and 14th century, Faras artists created in their own style, which had mainly been elaborated from the Byzantine, and apart from saints, they also represented Nubian dignitaries: bishops and kings (Ibid.:[2:10-2:40]). The paintings became intensely multicoloured, human depictions – more naturalistic and dynamic, with lavishly decorated details (Ibid.:[2:40-3:05]; Adams, 1991:1812). Saint Anne of Faras is dated back to the 8th century and so it features the characteristics of the early period (Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[1:25-2:10]). Her image together with other Nubian paintings are usually referred to as frescoes (Mierzejewska, 2014-2019). However, they are all tempera made on dry mud plaster by applying local natural pigments (Ibid.; Jurkow, Manowski, 2014 [3:05-3:20]).
Construction phases of the Faras cathedral
Apparently, the earlier 7th century cathedral of Faras was originally dedicated to the Twelve Apostles (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:96). In the 8th century, a larger temple replaced it on the same site but it was already devoted to the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary (Ibid.:96; Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[0:15-0:48]). The temple itself played a role of a metropolitan church in its earliest period and was built on the basilican plan with an apse (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). With the passing time, its construction had continuously been developing until the 14th century (Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[0:15-1:15]) and only since the 8th century, the cathedral’s walls had been plastered and covered in paintings (Ibid.:[0:15-0:48];Adams, 1991:1811). One of the most famous of all is the painting under study – a fragmentary preserved image representing the head and left arm of Saint Anne. In the 8th century, it decorated the northern wall of the northern aisle of the Faras cathedral (Mierzejewska, 2014:154).
Female programme in the Nubian art
In the East, as in the whole Christian world, the inside of the church was segregated by gender (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:103). In line with this architectural tradition, the northern aisle of the Faras cathedral was dedicated to saint women and is believed to have been reserved for the female part of the Christian congregation (Mierzejewska, 2014:154; Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:103). Simultaneously, access to other parts of the church, except vestibules, was strictly restricted to women (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:103). As the status of women in Christian Nubia is thought to have been relatively high (Ibid.:104), the iconographical programme of the northern aisle must have once answered their spiritual needs (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). The idea is supported by the fact, there were found numerous representations of saint women, among them foundresses, queens, martyrs, mothers and healers (Ibid.:154). On the whole, there are preserved around thirty wall paintings from the northern aisle, half of which represent female themes (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:104).
At the same time, in other parts of the church, women characters, beside the Virgin Mary, were depicted relatively rarely (Ibid.:104). “[I]n the context of ‘the women-oriented programme” (Ibid.:125), the image of Saint Anne has been considered by scholars as one of the most significant (Ibid.:110, 125). “The veneration of Saint Anne is oftentimes cited as specifically ‘female’” (Ibid.:126). Undoubtedly, Nubian women, like other women in the whole Christian world, turned in prayers to Saint Anne for help when they wish to conceive, deliver successfully, or they ask for wellbeing of their children and their own (Mierzejewska, 2014:155; Mierzejewska, 2014-2019; see Gerstel 1998:96-98). By miraculous events in Saint Anne’s life, Christian women surely hoped for her intercession and fulfilment of their personal prayers (Mierzejewska, 2014:155).
Ancestors of God
Saint Anne, the Mother of Saint Mary, does not appear as a biblical character in the Canonical Gospels (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). The Bible is equally silent about the lifetime of the Virgin Mary (Ibid.:154; Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019). The story of Saint Anne and her Holy Daughter, however, are described in apocryphal gospels: the Infancy Gospel of Matthew, composed around the 7th century, and in the Protoevangelium of James, written in Greek, probably in Coptic Egypt, in the 2nd century (Dobrzeniecki, 1988:95; Mierzejewska, 2014:154).
Anonymous authors tell there about the events accompanying the birth and childhood of Saint Mary, clearly following the model of the Old Testament, describing miraculous births of patriarchs, such as Isaac, or the New Testament birth of Saint John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-25) (Mierzejewska, 2014:154; Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019). According to the apocryphal stories, Saint Anne was married to Joachim, a pious Jew and descendant of the House of David (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). For a long time, they had been childless, which was considered as a reproach in Israel (Ibid.:154). However, thanks to their persistent prayers and the faith in God’s grace, being already in years Anne conceived and gave birth to a daughter, Mary – the future Mother of God (Ibid.:154). This is why in a later tradition the Jewish couple has become known as Theopatores, which means Ancestors of God (Ibid.:154). Existing also in Coptic Egypt, the same tradition locates this event in Bethlehem, believed to be Saint Anne’s hometown (Ibid.:154).
Mother of Theotokos
Particular interest in Saint Mary’s hagiography, which is not recorded in the Scripture, especially grew after the Council of Ephesus convened in 431, where the Virgin Mary formally became regarded as Theotokos (Mother of God) (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). The Council’s decision had inspired numerous literary works dedicated to Saint Mary’s lifetime, including Her parents’ (Ibid.:154). Consequently, important events from Her lifetime were referred to as the subjects of the Liturgy and became frequently illustrated in contemporary art (Ibid.:154). In the Eastern Christianity, the image of Saint Anne with the little Mary has represented significant theological truths supporting the human nature of the Virgin born from human parents and so the human nature of Christ (Ibid.:154). Moreover, the granted title of Theotokos inspired more feasts dedicated to Saint Mary, which were consequently introduced in the Liturgical Calendar (Ibid.:154). Among them, there is a feast commonly known in the Eastern Church as the Conception of Saint Anne, to celebrate the moment when she became the Mother of Theotokos (9th December) (Ibid.:154; Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019). It also exists in the Catholic Church but it is known under the name of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (8th December) (Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019; see Mierzejewska, 2014:154).
Saint Anne of Faras
The fragmentary image of Saint Anne may have been once a part of a larger representation (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:110,125): the Saint was possibly depicted in a full figure, while standing or being enthroned, with a little Mary in her arms or on her lap, which is indicated by her head slightly bowed to one side (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). Such an assumption exists because of “[t]he inscription accompanying the image of Saint Anne, [which] implies that the image of her daughter – Mary was also a part of the painting” (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:125). Tadeusz Dobrzeniecki (1988:97), however, notices that the same inscription can equally signify Saint Anne’s title of the Mother of Theotokos, which means she may have been depicted alone, without her Daughter.
Saint Anne of Faras is wearing a violet maphorion covering her head and surrounding the oval face, which is filled with calm and gentleness (Ibid.:110,125). Her wide open and large eyes are dominant and seem to smile while looking straight ahead (Ibid.:110,125). In their look, they give an expression similar to those observed in Egyptian portraits of Fayum (Ibid.:110,112,125; see Dobrzeniecki, 1988:106). Once the viewer has got an impression the saint is looking beyond them, absent, the other time, they feel her warm gaze of understanding and comfort (see Dobrzeniecki, 1988:103). Even if Saint Anne’s figure cannot be seen entirely, it must evidently have been slender with elongated limbs; her right hand is supporting the chin and the long index finger is placed on the lips (Ibid.:95).
Portrayal with no analogies
Representations of Saint Anne were quite common in the Christian art of the 8th century (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:110;125), however, “the portrayal […] from Faras is for many reasons exceptional” (Ibid.:125). First of all, Saint Anne is missing a halo around her head, even though it was usually depicted as a typical feature of all saints (Ibid.:110,125). While there is another example of such a representation in the 8th century art (Theotokos, Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome, Italy), Saint Anne’s image seems outstanding in this respect (Ibid.:110;125) and “devoid of any direct or obvious analogies” (Ibid.:126). Dobrzeniecki (1988:95) suggests it is because her character does not appear in the Canon Scripture but only in the apocrypha. In turn, Aleksandra Sulikowska-Bełczowska (2016:125) points out to “[a]nother singular trait” of the same portrayal: “the juvenile or perhaps timeless appearance of Saint Anne’ face” (Ibid.:125). As it is described in the apocryphal story mentioned above, Saint Anne was well along in years when she conceived her Daughter by God’s will and as such she was usually represented by artists (Ibid.:112;125). Also Sharon Gerstel (1998:98) observes that the saint’s “portrait-like depictions always underline her old age” (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:125), especially in the contemporary art of Byzantium (Ibid.:112,125). Yet the most original feature of all in the Faras image is the Saint’s mysterious gesture she makes by touching her lips with the index finger of the right hand (Ibid.:112,125; Mierzejewska, 2016:155). Its mystery has triggered a great interest among scholars and their numerous attempts for a possible interpretation have appeared in the literature on the subject (see Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:110,125).
Timeless image of silence
The index finger posed on Saint Anne’s lips as if asking for silence may be a reference to the “silence of God” (Mierzejewska, 2016:155). The subject was brought into attention by Ignatius of Antioch, a Christian mystic who died martyr death in c. 110 (Ibid.:155). For Ignatius there are three mysteries related to the Daughter of Saint Anne, Saint Mary, namely, Her Virginity, miraculous Conception and the Birth of the Son of God (Ibid.:155). According to his writings, “silence expresses what is characteristic of the Father, as logos expresses what is characteristic of the Son” (Ryan, 1988:22). Bożena Mierzejewska (2014:155; see Mierzejewska, 2014-2019) also observes that the index finger on the lips may indicate a prayer in which Saint Anne is immersed. As the painting comes from the period of a dominant Coptic influence in Nubia, the traces of Saint Anne’s gesture may lead to Christian Egypt (Mierzejewska, 2014-2019).
There are actually similar representations of Coptic monks in the Monastery of Bawit, in Egypt, who were depicted with their fingers on the lips while reciting the psalms, according to a monastic tradition of placing the index finger of the right hand on the lips while praying in silence (Mierzejewska, 2014:155; Mierzejewska, 2014-2019). It was believed as well that the gesture protected a praying person against the evil powers trying to attack their heart (Ibid.:155; Mierzejewska, 2014-2019). Sulikowska-Bełczowska (2016) mentions that the gesture is usually considered by scholars as the sign of contemplation, as it is in the case of representations of the Old Testament character of Sarah, who has just learnt she is going to conceive, or of the Virgin Mary at the moment of Annunciation (Ibid.:112-114; 125-126). “It could also express either sorrow or stupefaction in the face of sanctity – and, consequently, create a symbolic image of a human being listening to the voice of God” (Ibid.:125; see Dobrzeniecki, 1988). Saint Anne’s gesture may have also had a more practical function of reminding women gathered in the cathedral’s aisle to keep silent in the church (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:114,126).
“Most perfect of all prayers”
The living cult of Saint Anne in Nubia, particularly in Faras, is testified by other paintings with her image found in in the northern aisle of local churches (Mierzejewska, 2014:155). Once Saint Anne is represented enthroned with Saint Mary on her lap, probably breastfeeding the Daughter (Ibid.:155), another time, she is depicted in a standing position (Ibid.:155). Such representations bring to mind some aspects of the iconographic depictions of the Virgin Mary, such as Galaktotrophousa, Hodegetria, or Eleusa (see Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:128-129). The appearance of Saint Mary’s Mother in Eastern churches may have also meant a celebration of the mentioned feast of the Conception of St. Anne (Ibid.:114,126), where her image would be a part of “the [entire] history of salvation [by] conveying a meaning close to the scenes placed on the northern side of the church related to the [representation] of the Nativity” (Ibid.:126-127).
In this context, Saint Anne’s gesture would symbolise her Immaculate Conception, as – according to the theological tradition – Saint Anne would have conceived Mary by kissing her husband’s lips (Dobrzeniecki, 1988:96). The miracle is represented likewise in the Coptic art, where Saint Anne is kissing a dove symbolising the Holy Spirit (Ibid.:96). Accordingly, Saint Anne of Faras is depicted at the very moment of the Immaculate Conception being experienced in the state of ecstasy and mystical silence, which is shown by her gesture of the index finger (Ibid.:196). Silence is therefore the most perfect of all prayers (Ibid.:196). This is a lesson that Saint Anne from Nubia teaches in present-day Warsaw.
Worth being remembered
Among all the representations of Saint Anne, which were very common and highly estimated in the Eastern Christianity, the image of Faras clearly stands out with its unique iconographical features described above. Despite numerous and thorough studies, their meaning still eludes a full interpretation and so its mystery triggers a continuous interest in the Nubian culture and its oriental face. Although the Nubian Christianity had gone away together with its Faras cathedral, left behind under the water, the preserved Nubian paintings, such as the image of Saint Anne, stay above as silent witnesses of the lost Christian civilisation that once flourished in the sands of the desert. Although Nubia made an individual and local culture, it was at once a part of the larger early Christian tradition, and so its heritage remains an invaluable source on the Christian history and art in Africa.
Featured photo: A detail from the 3D model of the Faras Cathedral (narthex), showing the Mother of God with the Child surrounded by two Archangels, Saint Michael (left) and Saint Gabriel (right). Their wings form a kind of canopy over the head of Saint Mary – a concept known in both Nubian and Coptic art. Photo by Karolina Kaczmarek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Ecole France Langue, Paris; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.
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