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Refitted fragments of painted wall plaster from the Kom el-Nana church, depicting saints giving benediction.

Roman wall paintings from Kom el-Nana

Gillian Pyke
During the 2000 season at the late Roman monastery complex at Kom el-Nana, the rear part of a church was excavated: the apse, narrow flanking rooms and the end of the probable nave. Fallen fragments of painted wall plaster were found in the fill of the apse (see the plan of the church and location of the plaster fragments). Thanks to the careful retrieval of the pieces, it was possible to reconstruct them over several study seasons, and to determine the nature of the decoration. The scene is important as it is relatively well dated and the fact that it is fallen has allowed the techniques of its execution to be studied.

View of the east end of the church within the Kom el-Nana monastery, at the end of the 2000 season. The painted plaster originated from within the apse. The main part of the church, lying to the west, remains unexcavated.
View of the east end of the church within the Kom el-Nana monastery, at the end of the 2000 season. The painted plaster originated from within the apse. The main part of the church, lying to the west, remains unexcavated.

Reconstructing the painted scene

Recovering the plaster fragments. There are here being placed on wooden trays before being taken back to the expedition house for conservation and study. Before the walls collapsed, the floor of the church had already been removed, so the rubble lay directly on desert sand.
Recovering the plaster fragments. There are here being placed on wooden trays before being taken back to the expedition house for conservation and study. Before the walls collapsed, the floor of the church had already been removed, so the rubble lay directly on desert sand.

The apse scene consists of a bipartite representation of the ascension of Christ, the lower register showing the twelve apostles and Virgin Mary, and the upper depicting Christ triumphant on a chariot. The lower register is the better preserved. The figures of John, James, Andrew and Bartholomew can be identified by the legends between their feet, while the figure of Peter holds the keys of the gates of Heaven. The apostles wear pale red, gold and green cloaks, probably alternating, which is unevenly divided so that one hem crosses the body diagonally, while the other falls vertically from the apostle’s left elbow. This garment is worn over a tunic with a black stripe (clavus) on each side. The pale blue stripes on the tunic probably represent gathers. The hem of the garment consists of a wavy line, and there are Coptic crosses in each corner of the garment. On his feet, each apostle wears white footwear with a black heel and toe, the latter with a black tongue along the top of the foot. This style of dress has its origins in the secular clothing of the middle and upper classes of the Roman Empire at the time that Christ and the apostles lived.

Plan of church and plaster fragments
Reconstructed fragments of a painted wall plaster from the apse showing a figure of the apostle Andrew. Click here for a line drawing.

Apart from Peter, and perhaps Andrew, each apostle probably held a rolled scroll. This iconographic item is more usually held by prophets, but the apostles are similarly depicted in a comparable scene at Bawit, and another at Naqlun. The various positions of the arms of the figures suggest that they were in relatively active poses.

Reconstructed fragments of painted wall plaster from the apse showing figures o fthe apostles John and James. Click here for a line drawing.
Reconstructed fragments of painted wall plaster from the apse showing figures of the apostles John and James. Click here for a line drawing.

A few small fragments of a dark red garment have been tentatively attributed to the Virgin Mary, who characteristically wears a long robe that covers her body from head to foot. It is unfortunately impossible to determine her pose from these few fragments. Comparable scenes from Bawit and elsewhere show her either with both arms raised in an orans (praise) position, or seated on a throne with the infant Christ.

The upper register is very poorly preserved, but one of the chariot wheels survives, as well as part of the white cloak, tunic and red staff/sceptre of Christ and the golden mandorla surrounding him. The wheel is unusual in being shown in its entirety, rather than consisting of only the part appearing below the mandorla. Its green colour and construction, with only four spokes, is also uncharacteristic. The appearance of Christ in a white garment is similarly unusual, but might have its origin in the description of an enthroned figure whose garment was ‘as white as snow’ in the vision of Daniel (Daniel 7:9). In scenes of this type, Christ is characteristically shown holding a codex in the left hand, and with his right raised in benediction, and no parallels could be found for Christ holding a staff or sceptre. Other possible elements of the scene include the lozenge shaped figures in red, with a central bar, which might perhaps be an impressionistic rendering of the eyes that appear on the wings of the four beasts of the Apocalypse.

The painted scene was probably located above the level of the niches, the in situ plaster around and below which was grey and undecorated. It was painted onto an area of plaster that had been specially prepared to receive it, consisting of two layers of mud plaster, with two layers of white plaster above. The uppermost plaster layer comprised a thin layer of fine white plaster to provide a smooth surface on which the artist painted the scene. Traces of red and white paint between the first and second mud plaster layers suggest that the scene was mapped out before the white plaster was applied.

The pigments used in the painting were all locally available, giving a palette consisting of: black, white, red, pale blue, green, golden yellow, and white. Various shades were achieved by mixing the pigments. The paint was applied using at least two brush widths, the wider used for blocks of colour, being the width of the wide stripes on the cloaks. The narrow brush was used for outlining the figures and garments, and for details such as the facial features. The painting style and pigments used in the faces of the apostles, especially the use of impressionistic red strokes for the lips, nostrils and eyes, and combination of flesh tone and olive green for shading on the faces is very similar to that on a scene from Bawit. This might perhaps suggest that the artist at least had knowledge of the Bawit paintings, or was himself responsible for some of them.

Further reading

Pyke, G. 2003. Church wall paintings from Kom el-Nana. Egyptian Archaeology 22, 16-17.

Pyke, G. in preparation. The Decorated Wall Plaster from the Church at the Monastic Site of Kom el-Nana (Tell el-Amarna, Middle Egypt), with contributions by J. Tait and A. Naguib.

Plan of church &
plaster fragments

 
 

Website first posted September 2000; last updated November 2010 | enquiries concerning website: email bjk2@cam.ac.uk