This story was originally published Nov. 14, 2018
Precious little early Christian art has survived in the Holy Land, though this is where the religion itself was born. But now, an extremely rare depiction of Jesus from the early Christian era has been found in the ruins of Shivta, a large Byzantine farming village in the heart of Israel’s Negev desert.
“His face is right there, looking at us,” says Dr. Emma Maayan-Fanar, the art historian who finally noticed the wall painting a century after it was uncovered.
A first painting found by others in Shivta last year turned out to show Jesus’ transfiguration: the present team was the one to realize what the painting showed, but the drawing of his face did not survive the centuries. The second one shows his baptism and his face. Maayan-Fanar and the team – Dr. Ravit Linn, Dr. Yotam Tepper and Prof. Guy Bar-Oz of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa – described the find in the world archaeological journal Antiquity: "Christ's face revealed at Shivta".
The gospels never describe Jesus’ appearance. All depictions of him are later artist impressions, and while surviving depictions of Jesus abound in old monasteries and churches elsewhere, they are all but nonexistent in Israel.
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In contrast to the Western image of Jesus as someone with flowing long hair and, sometimes, a beard, the Shivta painting shows him in the Eastern style with short curly hair, a long face and an elongated nose, says Maayan-Fanar.
Shivta is in the heart of the Negev, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) southwest of Be’er Sheva. The village was founded in the 2nd century C.E. and survived for about 650 years, before being abandoned in the early Islamic period.
This was no shriveled desert backwater. Shivta sustained a large population and during its heyday in the fifth to seventh centuries, had no less than three churches. It apparently never had a Jewish presence, though it did have a mosque in the early Islamic period, says Tepper.
The first painting in Shivta of Jesus, also badly eroded, had been found in the southernmost church. This second one of his baptism – which naturally would have taken place in his adulthood, not infancy – has been found in the northern church, says Maayan-Fanar. But it almost wasn’t.
Now you see it
The ruins at Shivta were first discovered in 1871 by the linguist and explorer Edward Henry Palmer, and have received much archaeological attention since. But the archaeologists of yore kept terrible records, and also it seems that past excavators noticed the churches but did not observe the murals.
How could the church have been found and explored, yet the painting go undetected for a century?
The wall painting was badly damaged and has centuries of dirt accretion on it. Also, says Maayan-Fanar, it was very high – possibly to cause awe among its observers in antiquity: They had to look up at it.
Archaeologists exploring the site in the 1920s thought they saw something, but that sighting was never pursued, the art historian tells Haaretz. She herself had been at the site several times and hadn’t noticed it. And then...
“I was there at the right time, at the right place with the right angle of light and, suddenly, I saw eyes,” Maayan-Fanar says. “It was the face of Jesus at his baptism, looking at us.”
Her husband, the professional photographer Dror Maayan, took hi-res photographs of the site, and in them the image lost for over 1,500 years becomes clearer. “We can really see him now,” says the art historian.
The image of Jesus
What Jesus looked like has been the subject of debate as heated as it is pointless, since there are no known contemporary descriptions of him. The earliest “portrait” of him, found in Syria, dates to 200 years after his death. And in any case, histories of the time were known more for their messages and less for their meticulous accuracy.
Jesus is generally shown with brown eyes, based on the general (and probably correct) assumption that he should look like people did in the Middle East 2,000 years ago. Actually, the coastal Levant is thronged with blue-eyed people, going back about 6,500 years to the arrival of Aryan migrants from Iran or southern Turkey, who mixed with the locals. Just based on local norms, Jesus’ eyes could have been anything from blue to hazel-green to brown.
As for his hair, its style in Christian art is a matter of time and place – and that’s assuming he wasn’t balding, as happens to some men. During the first centuries of Christianity’s evolution, Jesus was depicted in all sorts of ways: with short hair, long hair, bearded or bare-chinned. There was no consensus image, explains Maayan-Fanar.
For instance, catacombs in Rome dating to about the 4th century show Jesus with short hair, she says. So do the pictures of Jesus drawn by the Coptic Christians in Egypt and early Byzantines in Syria.
By about the sixth century, though, in the West Jesus would come to be drawn with long hair and a beard, while in the East he would continue to be drawn with short hair for some time to come.
The earliest-known image of Jesus is found in Dura, Syria (on the border with Iran), and has been dated somewhere from the year 233 to 256. Around 1,800 years ago, Dura had been a burgeoning multicultural metropolis, with Jews, pagans and Christians all rubbing shoulders and houses of worship for each. One of the murals in the Dura-Europos church baptistery depicts Jesus as the faithful shepherd, carrying a sheep on his shoulder. It has a decidedly eastern flavor.
The images there survived because the whole city was destroyed around the mid-third century and the murals were buried in sand – and thus preserved. The Shivta imagery also seems eastern.
Looking at the photographs of the apse at Shivta is not entirely helpful to the layman. But Tepper explains that preserving and restoring the paintings – by Linn – will take time. And cost money.
Meanwhile, Maayan Fanar says that “standing in the apse, you can see discolorations, red lines.” The high-tech photography helped tease the facial features drawn in antiquity, and also showed that there were two figures.
The figure interpreted as John the Baptist is drawn large and youthful Jesus was smaller, as was customary in Byzantine art. Another reason to interpret the remains of the painting as this image is context: The mural was in the baptistery, Maayan-Fanar points out.
It bears adding that the dating of the churches in Shivta, and the subjects of their murals, pend confirmation.
Even inscriptions found in the ruins at Shivta have not been particularly helpful in dating the village or its edifices, Tepper says. “Some think the churches were first built in the 4th century,” Maayan-Fanar says - particularly Abraham Negev, who studied Byzantine settlement in the Negev.
Tepper points out that a mosaic in the northern church dates to the 6th century, and according to Maayan-Fanar, the images in the village are in keeping with finds dated to the sixth century – in nearby Egypt, for instance.
As for the second painting of Jesus in Shivta, it had been noticed and described a year ago and is equally extraordinary – not just for surviving, but because it shows Jesus’ “transfiguration.” In other words, becoming divinely radiant while climbing Mount Tabor (aka Kfar Tavor), according to the gospels.
Only two depictions of his transfiguration had been known until last year: One in Ravenna, Italy; and the other in St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai. Then, last year, a third was found in Shivta, of all places, says Maayan Fanar.
Lesson one: Evidently, it wasn’t that the early Christian artists weren’t depicting the scene for theological reasons – the paintings simply didn’t survive. Lesson two: Shivta had been important in the greater scheme of Byzantine things.
Come the Islamic period, a mosque was built by the southern church. Some take their juxtaposition as attesting to religious coexistence and tolerance. Tepper thinks that’s perhaps a tad sentimental, and suggests instead that the mosque had been erected after the church was abandoned.
“There’s Arabic graffiti on the northern church,” Tepper says, qualifying that it hasn’t been dated yet. Arabic graffiti has also been found in other ancient churches in the Negev, and it doesn’t seem likely to attest to benign coexistence.
In any case, the whole site met its end sometime in the late 8th or early 9th century, possibly by quake or other natural catastrophe, leaving behind ruins. And, it seems, two paintings of Jesus.
There were almost certainly other paintings, but they are gone. “There are some areas with remains of plaster and paint, but you can’t see a thing,” Maayan-Fanar says.
Of course, given the faintness of the image in Shivta, the identification of Jesus and John the Baptist are arguable. The fact is, the church and its baptistery were sitting there uncovered for nearly a century and nobody saw the face of Jesus looking at us, Maayan-Fanar admits. But in the future, God – and budgets – willing, the painting can be restored and everybody can see it.