A Rare Byzantine Painting of Jesus’ Face Has Been Uncovered in Israel
Archaeologists in Israel have discovered a painting of the face of Jesus Christ from the Byzantine period. The find is exciting experts, who believe that the discovery can help us to understand Early Christian art because the depiction is not one that conforms to the traditional representation of Christ. Moreover, it can help researchers to better understand Byzantine religious culture and its development in the early Medieval period.
The painting was discovered by experts from the University of Haifa at a long-abandoned Byzantine village known as Shivta. This was once a significant settlement on the frontier of the Byzantine Empire, in the Negev desert in what is now Israel. Shivta was a large Christian village with several churches and was at its peak just before the rise of Islam (6th century AD). After the Islamic conquests of the Eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire, the village went into rapid decline and was abandoned during the 9th century AD. It was only rediscovered in the 19th century.
The Northern Church, Shivta. (Dror Maayan)
A team from the University of Haifa was studying the ruined village in order to understand the collapse of the Byzantine presence in the area in the aftermath of the Islamic conquest. According to Cambridge Core, they were examining ‘’the Shivta churches’ main features’’ when the painting was identified. The researchers were documenting the surviving artwork on the village’s southernmost Christian church’s apse wall when a team member saw the remarkable image of Christ, completely by chance.
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The painting high on the apse wall was first identified in the 1920s. However, such were the layers of dirt and grime on the Church walls, that no one was really sure what was depicted. The painting was known to be that of Jesus, but no one could really make out the image.
However, one member of the team, Maayan-Fanar, was studying the apse when with the right angle of the sunlight she saw a face looking back at her. By a stroke of great luck, she was able to see traces of the painting under deposits of grime because of the sunlight streaming into the interior of the church. The Western Journal reports that Maayan-Fanar stated that suddenly, “It was the face of Jesus at his baptism, looking at us.”
Remnants of the baptism-of-Christ scene (indicated by white arrow) on the apse of the Baptistery chamber. (Dror Maayan)
A Fortunate Discovery
The painting of Christ that was revealed is one which showed him as a young man who was beardless, had curly hair, a long nose, and expressive eyes. In the early centuries in some areas of the Byzantine Empire, Christ was regularly depicted as a youth. Fox News reports that this was a style of portraiture that “was especially widespread in Egypt and Syro-Palestine, but gone from later Byzantine art.” A similar image of the Christian Messiah has also been uncovered in Rome.
An image of a large figure who is shown with a halo was painted near the figure of Jesus. It is believed that this was possibly the figure of John the Baptist. According to Cambridge Core “the location of the scene—above the crucifix-shaped Baptist font—suggests its identification as the baptism of Christ.” The baptism of Christ was a popular subject in the early history of Byzantine Art, especially outside Byzantium.
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This 6th-century mosaic detail from the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna depicts Christ with a halo of mother of pearl on a precious gold background. (Lawrence OP/CC BY NC ND 2.0)
It is believed that Jesus’ face was once part of a larger scene in the apse, based on the discovery of paint fragments, and it is possible that more figures could be detected in the future. Experts want to continue to study the image and find ways of preserving it for posterity. The painting is extremely rare, as many early examples of Byzantine art were destroyed during the two periods of Iconoclasm during the 7th and 8th century AD. The scene is also helping experts to understand the development of Byzantine art in the regions of the Empire. It is also the only painting of Christ’s baptism that has survived in the region.
Top image: The face of Christ with proposed reconstruction. Source: Dror Maayan
By Ed Whelan