The discovery of the early Christian cathedral with its well preserved set of wall paintings was called the “Miracle of Faras”. A forgotten chapter in art history – the medieval painting of Christian Nubia, of which little had been known before – was thus reclaimed.
The paintings were preserved in good condition thanks to the desert sand that the wind blew into the ruins, gradually filling the abandoned church. Its solid walls were used as a foundation by the Arabs who built their citadel on top.
More than 150 wall paintings were preserved on four different coats of wall plaster. The oldest images can be dated to the 8th century and may well have been painted by painters brought to Nubia from outside. They are characterized by simplicity and sparing use of means of expression. Single images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, archangels and saints predominated among the first pictures.
The painting technique was tempera on dry plaster with paints based on ocher and other natural pigments found in the desert environment of the Nile Valley. The oldest painting palette is quite modest, reduced to a few tones of ocher, naturally available in the desert around the Nile Valley, supplemented with white, black and purple.
The repertoire was equally modest. There were surprisingly few narrative scenes taken from the Old and New Testaments. Isolated frontal images of human figures, both sacred and secular, prevailed: Christ, the Virgin Mary, archangels, holy bishops, holy warriors and hermits. Often more than life-size, these figures stand motionless, captured within a black outline, their faces schematic, showing little differentiation. Wide-open eyes, unnaturally big, look forward, imbuing the images with spiritual depth.
Painting at Faras flourished in the 10th and 11th centuries. Nubian artists decorating the walls of the cathedral at this time developed their own style based on Byzantine models. The murals became more colorful with warm yellows, reds and browns in predominance. Portraits of kings and bishops were added to the repertoire. They were rendered with considerable realism, paying attention to details: shade of the skin, elements of dress and insignias of power. The most important of the wall paintings of this period is the monumental scene of the Nativity. The picture of Three Youths in a Fiery Furnace from this time is just as exceptional, the scene being inspired by a Biblical story from the Book of Daniel.
The wall paintings from Faras were preserved thanks to the work of Polish conservators who preserved them on the walls of the cathedral, then detached them from the walls and packed them for transport to Khartoum and Warsaw.