When the main entrance to the cathedral in the western facade was walled over before AD 923, a flat recess replaced it in the interior, in the narthex. After being plastered, it was decorated with a depiction of enthroned Virgin Mary with Child, and archangels Michael and Gabriel painted on the sides. Later on, the walls were plastered anew two times, and each time a new composition was painted.
The figures of archangels Michael and Gabriel flanking the recess come from the original decoration. The angels in Byzantine imperial costumes were guards of the Mother of God and Her Son, covering them with their elevated wings which formed a kind of a baldachin above the throne. The artist, in this manner referenced an allusion to the wings of the cherubim which similarly covered the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple of Jerusalem.
Both archangels hold in their left hands a disc or an orb – the imperial symbol of the reign over the world. In his right hand, Michael holds a trumpet, the attribute of a herald announcing the Second Coming of Christ on Judgement Day. Gabriel raises a sword held in his right hand. In Coptic magical texts the divine emissary Gabriel is also the angel of punishment whose weapon is the sword. The horn and the sword were likely to remind the penitents standing in this part of the church in the narthex about the upcoming Judgement.
Midway through the tenth century AD the entire wall including the recess was plastered for the second time. In the twelfth century AD a portrait of Virgin Mary wearing a crown and imperial coat; standing with The Child in Her arms against the dark blue night sky was painted in the recess. The Mother of God holds a narrow kerchief wrapped around Her thumb, which was an element of court dress of Byzantine ladies usually worn by hand or by the belt.
The damage to the face and eyes of the figures was inflicted after the Muslim conquest of Nubia in accordance with the ban on visual representations of living beings observed in Islam.