"Each part of the world recapitulates, shares in and experiences the history of the world as a whole"
Fernand Braudel

Theophany, Christian wall painting

mid 8th century AD- beginning of 11th century AD
Abdullah Nirqi, central church
1.81 m x 1.96 m

This wall painting is from the central church of Abdullah Nirqi, located 280km south of Aswan. Three scenes appear in this fragment: to the right, the vestiges of a scene of protection by the Virgin; the left, a small figure; and in the centre, a theophany (Divine Appearance). The latter is composed of a Greek cross with a bust of Christ Pantocrator in a mandorla, blessing with his right hand and holding a book in his left, his head surrounded by a halo with a cross. In between the arms of the large cross are haloed and winged symbols of the Four Evangelists: a human head for St. John, an eagle for St. Luke, a bull for St. Matthew, and finally a lion for St. Mark. A number of inscriptions are visible on the left.

It is difficult to date these scenes without referring to paintings of the cathedral in the city of Faras, which was the artistic and cultural centre of the region. The production of the protection scene can be dated to the mid-8th to the mid-9th century, whilst the theophany scene is more recent, between the late 10th and the early 11th century.

Nubia was Christianized quite late, towards the middle of the 6th century by a monk called Julian sent by the Byzantine empress Theodora and Bishop Theodore of Philae. At the end of this century the three Nubian kingdoms, Nobadia, Makuria and then Alwa, were converted to Christianity and pagan temples converted into churches.

Christianity remained dominant in Nubia for five centuries, and it was not until the 13th century when Mamluks sent expeditions that the penetration of Islam commenced, even if the first confrontations already took place from the 7th century. The end of the last Christian principalities would be dated to the 16th century.

A representation similar to the central scene of this painting can be seen in France, for example on the tympanum of the abbey church of Arles-sur-Tech in Roussillon which dates back to the 11th-12th century: it shows a seated Christ Pantocrator blessing and holding a book in the centre of a Greek cross, the arms of which carry the symbols of the Four Evangelists.

It is perhaps from the image of Christ Pantocrator, very common in Byzantine art, that this iconography was diffused throughout the Christian world. The silver cross motif, itself also very present in Byzantine art, has spread in Egyptian Coptic art (wall paintings of hermitages of Kellia) as in the art of the High Middle Ages in Western Europe (the cross in the treasury of the Cathedral of Tournai, dated 7th-9th century).

Furthermore, these two elements are often found together particularly in Byzantine art and Coptic art, as central motifs in the apses of churches: for example, in the church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe (Ravenna, 6th century), where the cross in the apse, adorned with jewels, is decorated with a bust of the Saviour. The mosaic in the apse of the church Santa Pudenziana in Rome (5th century, restored in the 16th century) shows the combination of Jesus, the cross and the Evangelists. The Abdullah Nirqi painting seems to be the first example of this combination in Nubia.

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