Today the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates the memory of Saint John the Baptist. It is quite fitting for the liturgical calendar, since yesterday the Orthodox Greeks were celebrating the Epiphany during the Baptism of Christ in the river Jordan by Saint John.
It is not easy to define the moment in the calendar that Christians in medieval Nubia would be celebrating the Baptism of Jesus, but we know that they did, since there has been found one mural with this iconographic theme on the east wall of Room 41 of the Northwest Annex to the monastery on Kom H in Old Dongola (see Martens-Czarnecka, The Wall Paintings from the Monastery on Kom H in Dongola, Warsaw 2011, pp. 147-150).
Otherwise, there are three representations of the Baptist in Nubia that attracted the attention of my dear friend Dobrochna Zielińska: one from the Petros Cathedral at Faras, one from Sonqi Tino, and one from the Church of Angels at Tamit. The reason that these murals can be studied together is that in all these cases Saint John is represented beside Saint Stephen in the diakonikon (southern pastophorion), each saint occupying a corner of a wall, the western and southern in Faras, and the eastern and southern in the other two instances.
This positioning of the two saints cannot be coincidental. A search in the textual tradition in Greek, as can be found in Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, provides meaningful insights: John and Stephen appear next to each other in several works, but they are mainly named one after the other as martyrs of Christ, in fact the two first ones who martyred for the new faith. We can see this in the homilies by John Chrysostom (4th-5th century) Ad populum Antiochenum and Sermo cum iret in exsilium, as well as the Chrysostomian Letter 125 to the exiled Bishop Kyriakos. The same sequence can be found in the sermons of other preachers too, like in the Homilia in sanctum Longinum centurionem by Hesychius (5th-6th century), but for Nubia Chrysostom’s works must be considered as more plausible sources of inspiration.
However, there is another set of instances where these two saints are named next to each, namely in the Liturgy of saint Gregory:
– The first is in the end of the Anaphora, where they are named right after Mary and right before Mark and Gregory.
– And the second in the end of the entire Liturgy, where they are named right after the angelic powers and before Apostles, Prophets, and Martyrs, and finally Saint Mark.
In both cases they are called: “Του αγίου ενδόξου, προφήτου, προδρόμου, βαπτιστού και μάρτυρος Ιωάννου” and “Του αγίου Στεφάνου, του πρωτοδιακόνου και πρωτομάρτυρος”, underlining thus their importance as those who come first in a group of very significant holy figures for the Christian faith.
So, is it not legitimate to suggest that John the Baptist and Saint Stephen are depicted together at that specific corner of some churches in Nubia, both because of their identities as protomartyrs and because of some liturgical function?
In other words, given the idea that the Mass was performed (also) as a procession inside the Nubian churches and in front of the venerated images in each text that would be read in a given day, we could make the educated guess that these images were painted there because two very important moments during the Mass, the conclusion of the Eucharist and the end of the entire Liturgy, were performed in front of their figures.
In fact, these are figures of a type of Christian cult, that of the martyrs, which is definitely worth more research.
It should be noted that a similar structure can be found in St. Basil’s Liturgy, but not in the Liturgy of John Chrysostom, where Stephen is not mentioned. But the variety of liturgical patterns in the Nubian Church has been recognized many times, and we will return to this topic in the future again, in an article to be co-authored with Dobrochna Zielińska .