The Collection of Nubian Art at the National Museum in Warsaw
Salvation of at least a part of the most valuable monuments became a top priority not only for Egyptian and Sudanese governments, but also for the international world of archaeology. It was then that UNESCO addressed an international appeal to archaeologists to help to salvage the heritage of ancient cultures within Lower Nubia on the territories of Egypt and Sudan. This extraordinary enterprise would demand immense efforts on the part of numerous international organisations, research teams, scientists and experts in related fields. In exchange for the participation in the ‘Nubian Campaign’, the governments of Egypt and Sudan offered one half of future finds to the participating countries.
Professor Michałowski was the director of the Polish Research Station of Mediterranean Archaeology of the Warsaw University in Cairo, and the deputy director of the National Museum in Warsaw.
From the list of archaeological sites to be saved through salvage excavations, Professor Michałowski selected Faras, a small town in Sudan near the Egyptian border, known in ancient times as Pakhoras.
They also examined widespread Meroitic cemeteries near Faras with numerous tombs giving evidence of the wealth of Faras’ inhabitants at the time, as well as remains of several medieval churches, a hermit’s grotto and ruins of a large building from the Meroitic period which had been rebuilt during Christian times – assumed to be the palace of the royal governor. Finally, the British team confirmed that the 16 metre high mound in the centre of Faras dating from the Meroitic period contained ruins of a building but did not examine it.
The walls of the Faras (Pakhoras) eighth-century AD cathedral were covered with religious depictions painted during 700 years of continuous functioning of the church, that is, until the fourteenth century AD. Those paintings are priceless testimony of the rich culture of medieval Nubia, preserved for posterity, firing the imagination and research interests of several generations of researchers and art lovers.
Faras Cathedral was attended by the faithful from the eighth through the fourteenth century AD. During that period it was refurbished several times. It was a building in a square plan whose sides measured about twenty four metres, with the apse oriented eastwards. The church was located among other buildings in town.
Its walls, preserved as high as to the level of the base of the vault in some places, were constructed in blocks of grey sandstone in the bottom part, and in fired red clay brick in the upper part. There were two entrances: northern and southern. In the middle of the western facade the outline of a third entrance was visible, but the doorway was walled over for unknown reasons.
The church was divided into three parts: chancel, aisles and narthex. The chancel was closed with a semicircular apse housing a tiered platform for the priests, in front of which a mortared altar was placed. A baptistery, with a baptismal font later concealed under the floor, was adjacent to the chancel from the south. On the southern side, a sacristy was located, furnished with wall recesses used to store liturgical books and equipment.
Massive pillars divided the central part of the church into three aisles: the higher central nave and shorter side aisles, which had adjacent chapels on the north and the south side. Wide pilasters supported arches of the vaults and divided the aisles into five articulate bays. The elongated middle bays formed a kind of a transept giving the interior a cruciform shape.
Thanks to the efforts of conservators from the National Museum in Warsaw, backed up by the rest of the team, the majority of the paintings were successfully detached from the walls of Faras Cathedral. Also, many pieces of architectural decoration and others priceless artefacts from the town’s area were salvaged.
The detachment of paintings from the cathedral walls was a difficult process. It was additionally complicated by accumulated technical problems, shortage of necessary equipment and materials, unfavourable climatic conditions, and, most of all, the limited amount of time, which enforced hurried action.
The first phase of the proceedings consisted in the safeguarding of the delicate surface of the paintings and its proper hardening, so that they would not break or crack while detached from the wall. In order to achieve this, the faces of the paintings were covered with sheets of delicate Japanese tissue. Then, one or two layers of a warm mixture prepared from beeswax, Venetian turpentine and resin was pressed into the tissue by means of long-handled irons. The successive layers of mixture were separated by layers of gauze. Strips of linen canvas were ironed into the upper parts of each painting with ropes sewn onto the canvas. They would later be used to transfer the painted fragments of plaster onto special wooden constructions resembling flat cases or screens, and then to fasten them to the cases that had been angled to the wall.
The conservators cut off the slices of safeguarded plaster from the wall using knives and saws on long handles. The pieces were then carefully transported onto the screens. The next phase was to remove excess plaster from the reverse side of the paintings and to strengthen them with new plaster, wire and aluminium net, after which the paintings were wrapped up in cotton blankets and packed into wooden boxes.
The National Museum in Warsaw received 67 paintings, a group of stone elements from the architectural decoration of the cathedral and other churches and buildings in Faras, epitaphs of local bishops and priests, as well as products of Nubian craftsmen, including a large group of painted pottery from local works.
The Nubian Campaign of 1960–70 led to a massive breakthrough in research on ancient and medieval Nubia. There were invaluable sites which could not be salvaged; yet many ancient temples have been discovered and examined, as well as more than 50 medieval churches in larger towns, like Qasr Ibrim, Faras, or Jebel Adda. A considerable number of monuments of ancient cultures developing within the Nile Valley since prehistoric times has been saved from irreversable destruction.
The Faras artefacts formed the nucleus of the Nubian collection of the National Museum in Warsaw. They were later followed by findings from the excavations run by Polish archaeologists since 1965 until present day at Old Dongola, the capital of the medieval kingdom of Makuria. In 2010, the Museum acquired a considerable body of artefacts from the salvage excavations carried out in the area of the Fourth Cataract. Mainly tomb deposits – pottery, decorative items and elements of weaponry from the Post-Meroitic period (the fourth through sixth century AD) and the early Christian period – both of which were scarcely represented in the Museum’s collections. The Nubian collection in Warsaw remains the largest and the most valuable gathering of medieval Nubian artefacts in Europe.
One of the most remarkable paintings in the main exhibition space is the captivating image of Saint Anne.
It is likely Nubian women, similar to all women in the Christian world, directed their prayers towards St Anne requesting a child, successful labour, good health and life for their children and themselves.
The finger St Anne puts to her mouth, asking for silence, may allude to the ‘divine silence’ within which, as St Ignatius of Antioch put it, three mysteries related to the person of Mary were realized: the divine conception, the virginity and the birth of the Son of God. The finger on the mouth could also indicate that the saint is immersed in prayer.
The north nave reveals the exquisite image of St. Anne. Two chapels on the south end of the church hold the portrait of the Hermit Ammonios and images of the Nubian bishops Petros and Marianos. Also replicated are the cathedral’s narthex, where the majority of the Museum’s collection was discovered. The western part of the church contained this. The nartex was a spacious hall where penitent sinners gathered.
When the main entrance to the cathedral in the western facade was walled over, before AD 923, the interior then had a flat recess, in the narthex. After being plastered, it was decorated with a depiction of the 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 costume, were guards of the Mother of God and Her Son, covering them with their elevated wings, which formed a kind of canopy (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, the narthex, of the inevitable Judgement. Midway through the tenth century AD the entire wall, including the recess, was plastered over for the second time.
In the twelfth century AD a portrait of the 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 in the hand or on 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.
When the oldest wall paintings were created in the cathedral in Faras, the role of imagery in the Church had already been established. They had become an essential element of liturgy and private devotion. Their function was not limited to decoration or education, but primarily as devices enabling the believers to communicate with God and the saints.
The picture, being a vehicle of theological truth, was supposed to articulate it simply and clearly. The style would express the timeless character of the truths conveyed, hence an explicit tendency towards dematerialization and simple geometrical forms. Sparse, ascetic means of artistic expression would unveil not what is material, earthly and transient, but what is immaterial, divine and eternal.
Increasingly from the tenth century AD, the role of patrons and private founders, both clergymen and laymen, was connected to the royal court, greatly contributing to the variety of forms and themes in paintings. Pictures painted at the time and later may have remained linear and flat with distinct outlines, but they also steadily absorbed characteristic traits of court art. Painters took more care to work on details such as the elements of costume, their ornaments, or forms and decoration of regalia, attributes or weaponry. The colour range broadened, enriched by saturated red, emerald green, blue, and a variety of shades of brown and grey. Colours were boldly paired, for instance, red and green, green and yellow, yellow and blue. Narrative compositions gained more dynamism and expression, as the figures were presented in motion, often vehement, making eye contact with each other and engaging in action.
Continuing on through the gallery, visitors will see wall paintings from the cathedral’s stairwells and outer walls, including depictions of St. Mercurius killing the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate or the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus, as well as decorative architectural elements from Meroitic and Post-Meroitic structures and from the Faras cathedral itself.
Among the numerous elements of architectural decoration displayed at the Faras Gallery there are column capitals, cornices, lintels with relief geometric decoration, depictions of animals and Christian symbols like fish, cockerels, eagles or doves and, most of all – the cross. Christian builders would reuse stone blocks with engraved hieroglyphs taken from pharaonic temples.
The following part of the exhibition is devoted to the most universal sign of Christian identity – the cross, the theological symbol Christians consider not as a sign of death, but of victory. Crosses exhibited in glass vitrines – hand crosses, processional crosses, pectoral crosses – were once used by the believers of various Eastern rites living in Ethiopia, Egypt, Romania, the Hutsul region, Ukraine, Rus’, and Russia.
Complementing the exhibition of the wall paintings are display cases holding ceramic pottery produced in Nubia or imported from Coptic Egypt, as well as small artefacts found during excavations in Faras, Old Dongola and the vicinity of the Fourth Cataract. These areas were also in danger of flooding from a different man-made reservoir built along that stretch of the Nile.
In a dedicated space a multimedia presentations allows visitors to learn about the history of Christian Nubia, its architecture, the cathedral paintings, and their interesting iconography. A digital reconstruction of the cathedral interior in 3D stereoscopy offers the first opportunity to enter a Nubian church in more than 1,000 years.
The Faras Gallery is home to Europe’s only display of cultural artefacts and artworks from the Christian period in Lower Nubia. Today, 67 of the paintings reside in the National Museum in Warsaw alongside other fascinating artefacts from Faras, making up the largest and most valuable collection of archaeological artefacts from foreign excavation sites so far acquired by any Polish museum.
We invite those eager to learn more to our virtual tour with Bożena Mierzejewska.
Bożena Mierzejewska, author of the concept of the Faras Gallery
Anna Knapek, Education Department, NMW
Alfred Twardecki, curator of Collection of Ancient and Eastern Christian Art, NMW
Founder of the new Faras Gallery
Wojciech Pawłowski and Family
Archive photography – courtesy of
Institute of Mediterranean and Oriental Cultures
Polish Academy of Sciences