THE COPTIC FACE OF THE ARCHANGEL GABRIEL FROM 7TH CENTURY
Archangel Gabriel. Fragment of Coptic fresco of the 7th century
The face of St. Gabriel
The Archangel Gabriel holding the world sphere in his left hand
Marie-Gabrielle Leblanc is a French art historian with special interest in Coptic art, wrote a short article on the fresco from the Cathedral of Faras, in Lower Nubia, which is dated the 7th century, and represents Archangel Gabriel. Archangel Gabriel is one of three main archangels revered in the Coptic Church, together with Michael and Raphael. In the Coptic Synaxarium, he is commemorated on 22 Kiyahk.
I have translated and abridged Leblanc’s short article, with little editing:
This angel is a rare example of the Christian art of Sudan. It is a fresco from the Cathedral of Faras. Faras (Παχώρας, Pakhôras) was a Christian site in Lower Nubia on the Sudanese-Egyptian border from the Sudanese side, 20 kilometers south of Abu Simbel. Since 1964, Faras drowned in the waters of Lake Nasser. The temple of Abu Simbel and thirteen ancient temples were moved, and only the excavated contents of other sites excavated were moved. The Cathedral of Faras was excavated by Polish archaeologists, and the frescoes were shared between Poland and Sudan (Khartoum Museum). The above painted fresco is kept at the National Museum in Warsaw.
Although Faras (or its submerged site) is located in modern Sudan, this piece of art is actually Christian Egyptian (Coptic) art. The simplified rounded, open eyes that stare at the unseen and eternal are typical of this art.
“Gabriel” is written in Greek above his head. He wears the long stole of Coptic Orthodox deacons. The face has stylised features typical of Coptic Egypt and Ethiopia. The eyes recall the funerary portraits of Roman Egypt, the “Fayum portraits”, of the 1st century BC to 1st century AD, which inspired the first icons from the third century. His wings are studded with eyes, because he sees God constantly. He holds in his right hand a roll of papyrus (God’s word), recalling what he brought in the announcement to Mary in Nazareth. In his left hand, he holds a sphere representing the world.