Exceptionally Early Painting Of Jesus' Face Discovered In Ancient Israeli Church

The Baptistery chamber beside the Northern Church, Shivta. Dror Maayan/Antiquity

Today’s image of Jesus, for some reason, is often a bearded white guy with long blonde hair. However, if we look at depictions of Christ created in antiquity, we see a person who looks very similar to the Jesus we find in iconic Western artworks from the Renaissance, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper or Diego Velazquez’s Cristo Crucificado.

Archaeologists from the University of Haifa in Israel have recently discovered a previously unknown 1,500-year-old painting of Jesus at an Early Byzantine church in the Negev desert of southern Israel.

Unfortunately, centuries of baking Sun have not been kind to the painting, with little more remaining than a few faint lines and hints of color. Nevertheless, the experts argue that something very important once stood here.

"I was there at the right time, at the right place with the right angle of light and, suddenly, I saw eyes," lead study author Emma Maayan-Fanar from the University of Haifa told Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

"It was the face of Jesus at his baptism, looking at us."

Look closely: The painting (left) and the proposed reconstruction of the image (right). Dror Maayan/Antiquity

Writing in the journal Antiquity, the researchers claim it once depicted an important religious figure with short curly hair, no beard, and a long nose surrounded by a halo. Since the painting was once located above a crucifix-shaped Baptist font, they also believe it depicted the baptism of Christ, a common scene in Christian art.

But this is no ordinary image of Jesus. It appears that the painting might be the very first pre-iconoclastic baptism of Christ scene to be found in the Holy Land. Images of Jesus from this era in Israel are extremely rare as many factions of Christianity, including the Byzantine Empire after the 8th century CE, believed that the creation of religious images was akin to the worship of icons.

“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,” the study authors write.

“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 [CE].”

In 2011, archaeologists discovered what they believe to be the oldest image of Christ, dating back to some time around 235 CE. Numerous depictions of baby Jesus have also been found across the Mediterranean.  

However, it’s truly exceptional to find an image of Christ in Israel, the Holy Land itself, from the sixth century CE.

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