An early depiction of Jesus was recently discovered in a circa 6th century Byzantine church deep in Israel’s Negev Desert. Dr. Emma Maayan-Fanar identified the Christian Messiah’s portrait from a few faint outlines with the help of a combination of conditions that was almost miraculous.
Alongside Haifa University archaeologists and conservationists Prof. Guy Bar-Oz, Yotam Tepper, and Ravit Linn, art historian Maayan-Fanar is participating in a multi-year interdisciplinary research project called the Negev Byzantine Bio-Archaeology Research Program at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Shivta. Its self-stated goal is to look into “the reasons for the collapse of a complex society in an environmentally marginal region 1,500 years ago.”
Maayan-Fanar told The Times of Israel this week that during a recent visit to the North Church, one of three at the site, she glanced at the baptistery apse above her and immediately saw the face of Jesus staring down at her.
“I was under the apse at the right place at the right time. It’s just so hidden — it’s impossible to see — but the conditions of the light were just right,” said Maayan-Fanar.
In an article in the August edition of the journal Antiquity, the research team writes that the face, set in a larger depiction of Jesus’ baptism, is “the first pre-iconoclastic baptism-of-Christ scene to be found in the Holy Land.”
Unlike the flowing robes and hair usually found in Western depictions, the Jesus seen here is youthful, with a cropped curly coif.
In the Antiquity report, the researchers write, “Despite its fragmentary condition, it reveals a youth’s face depicted on the apse’s upper section. The figure has short curly hair, a prolonged face, large eyes and an elongated nose.”
“Christ’s face in this painting is an important discovery in itself. It belongs to the iconographic scheme of a short-haired Christ, which was especially widespread in Egypt and Syro-Palestine, but gone from later Byzantine art. Early sixth-century texts include polemics concerning the authenticity of Christ’s visual appearance, including his hairstyle. Based on iconography, we estimate that this scene was also painted in the sixth century AD,” write the authors.
To the untrained layman, the faint lines captured by her professional photographer husband Dror Maayan look somewhat like faint iron stains often found after a desert rain. As Prof. James Davila, a biblical scholar/blogger, put it, “To my unpracticed eye the new wall depiction of Jesus looks like one of those ‘Jesus on a piece of toast’ pictures that surface constantly on the internet.”
The key, however, is to look at the outlines with a trained eye. In his post including the Haaretz article that broke the story this week, Davila added, “But I’m sure the art historians looking at the original wall can see it better than I can.”
For the Antiquity article, Maayan-Fanar generated penciled reconstruction of the image on a high-resolution photograph taken by her husband. With her guidelines, the faint smudges become a portrait of a young man.
But is it Jesus?
According to Maayan-Fanar, there is little doubt. Early Christian art and iconography follow well-known formulaic patterns, she said.
“Those who know the iconography of early Christianity can recognize such an image even from almost nothing,” she said.
The location of the image, in the baptistery where remains of the cross-shaped stone baptismal basin still remain, increases her certainty.
Maayan-Fanar has also identified a second, larger figure as John the Baptist. This combination of a large John the Baptist with a youthful Jesus is common in Christian art. “Paint traces throughout the apse suggest that these faces were part of a wider scene, which could contain additional figures,” write the researchers.
The discovery of this painting is “extremely important,” they write.
“Thus far, it is the only in situ baptism-of-Christ scene to date confidently to the pre-iconoclastic Holy Land. Therefore, it can illuminate Byzantine Shivta’s Christian community and Early Christian art across the region.”
More research on the horizon
Surrounding the face of Jesus are additional details at the scene’s center, hidden beneath an accumulation of dust and mud. According to the researchers, the dirt layer has protected the underlying paint from further deterioration.
Conservationist Linn said the team is planning on using a variety of techniques and technologies to document as much information as possible about the painting. The trick is to see the unseen without touching it and causing any further deterioration.
What is revolutionary in the field of archaeology, she said, is that much of this work can now be done in the field, rather than taking samples back to the laboratory.
“We’re trying to get out as much information as possible onsite, but there’s not a lot to go on, I agree,” Linn said. She said the identification of the image as Jesus is much more than an “educated guess” based on parallel examples found elsewhere in early Christendom.
Last year, the team publicized an additional Jesus image: a Transfiguration scene in the site’s mid-4th century CE southern church, which is only one of two figurative examples of the scene from the early Christian period, according to the researchers.
The dating of the Jesus painting cannot be given with 100 percent certainty, but an inscription carved on the floor of the church dates the structure’s renovation to 640 CE. Armenian graffiti indicates the church was not abandoned prior to the 9th century.
Using visible induced luminescence (VIL) imaging, the team mapped the distribution of Egyptian blue pigment in the painting and uncovered previously unseen starbursts of light emanating from the bodies of the Jesus and other figures found there.
“Although this motif is an important part of the Transfiguration narrative and appears in most of its scenes depicted elsewhere, it had not been previously identified in this painting as it was undetectable by any other inspection technique,” write the researchers.
Linn said the research and conservation plan for the new painting found this year in the northern church is still in formation. The team plans to examine each stone block individually, and as a whole.
“Before doing anything, we need to know what we’re going to do and with what,” she said, adding that the image is just a small portion of the much larger ongoing bioarchaeology project.
A 360-approach to archaeological scholarship
The project is based at the Zinman Institute of Archaeology of the University of Haifa and headed by Bar-Oz, but includes scientists from a wide swath of disciplines. Previous publications have highlighted desert agriculture and animal husbandry, as well as other archaeological discoveries.
“Shivta is the focal point in our ongoing project to explore the forces and processes which enabled a burgeoning urban and agricultural society to flourish during the Byzantine period in the arid region of the Negev, as well as to understand the factors that led to its decline,” write the researchers.
Located deep in the Negev Desert, Shivta was settled, potentially by the nomadic Nabateans, in the early Roman period. According to the archaeologists, “The settlement was apparently first established by the Nabataeans in the 1st century CE, prior to the Roman annexation of the region (105/106 CE).” The few indications of Nabatean settlement there are only a handful of potsherds, which could have been brought there by others during the Roman period, said Tepper.
The village reached its peak at a settlement slightly distanced from the Nabatean village during Byzantine times (5th–6th centuries CE). It was eventually abandoned soon after its cultural transition and transformation in the Early Islamic period (mid-7th–mid-8th centuries CE), only to be rediscovered by Holy Land archaeologists in the 19th century, writes the research team in a recent report, “Probing the Byzantine/Early Islamic Transition in the Negev: The Renewed Shivta Excavations, 2015–2016.”
There were previous excavations at the site, including one that “briefly noted” the recently discovered Jesus face in the late 1920s, writes Maayan-Fanar in the August Antiquity article. But the documentation of the digs was partial — if at all — and the Haifa University team felt the field was wide open for further research.
Interestingly, perhaps due to the chain of multicultural settlement, there is an urban legend that promotes site as a center for interfaith coexistence. This is not really borne out through archaeological footprints, according to the authors.
“The presence of three large churches indicates that Shivta was a prosperous Christian community. By comparison, the single mosque is significantly smaller than the earlier monuments, pointing to a decline in population at the site,” they write.
It appears, they write, that although the mosque is centrally located adjacent to the South Church and the public reservoirs, there was a sharp decrease in the village population during the Early Islamic period. According to the team’s findings, these early Muslims would have been primarily found “in abandoned and destroyed Byzantine structures,” which could indicate population replacement, rather than coexistence.
Coexistence, agriculture, and even the face of Jesus are just a few of the puzzle pieces being examined by the 360-degree multi-disciplinary team.
“We’re continuing the research and expect there will be many more interesting projects in the near future,” said Linn.