In the Negev desert of southern Israel lie the ruins of Shivta, a large Christian village dating from the Byzantine period (mid-300’s to 700’s A.D.).
At its peak, three different Christian churches served the village’s thriving Christian community.
And a painting just discovered inside one of those churches gives us an unprecedented glimpse at the face of Christ (photos inside).
The discoveries were made by experts from Israel’s University of Haifa who traveled to Shivta to do a deeper analysis of the church structures there.
“Due to poor preservation, the painting was only briefly noted in the late 1920s,” explained their paper which was recently published in the journal Antiquity.
But with their deeper analysis, they were able to make out a facial outline.
“The figure has short curly hair, a prolonged face, large eyes and an elongated nose. The neck and upper portion are also observable,” their paper stated.
“To the left of the figure, another, much larger face surrounded by a halo is visible. Paint traces throughout the apse suggest that these faces were part of a wider scene, which could contain additional figures. The location of the scene—above the crucifix-shaped Baptist font—suggests its identification as the baptism of Christ. Thus, this face portrays the youthful Christ, while the face on the left is most probably of John the Baptist.”
Dated to the fifth or sixth century A.D., the painting is a rare discovery and gives us a glimpse at pre-iconoclastic, pre-Islam, Christian artwork.
“The discovery of this painting is extremely important. 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.”
The Byzantine Iconoclasm was a period of Byzantine history during the 8th and 9th centuries in which church leaders in the East opposed and even outright banned the use of religious images and iconography.
While the Western Church continued to produce, preserve, and use religious images, the Eastern Church saw their widespread destruction.
That means many of the paintings in the Eastern Church dating to the same time as this painting at the Shivta church site were destroyed.
Of particular interest is the fact that Jesus is depicted having short hair.
Beginning in the 6th century, texts written by church leaders started to question the authenticity of Christ’s appearance, particularly a short hairstyle, which disappears from later Byzantine art.
In addition to other dating methods, the depiction of a short-haired Jesus is in line art found before these writings gained popularity and changed Christian art.
The painting is also rare in that it is found in a settlement that declined in power and wealth after the rise of Islam in the Middle East, and was eventually abandoned altogether.
Many such sites were taken over by invading Muslims and converted to Mosques, with all remnants of their Christian history wiped out.
The site, now officially the Shivta National Park, is preserved as UNESCO World Heritage site.
This study was licensed by the Israel Antiquities Authority and conducted with the permission of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.
The project was funded in part by the European Research Council under the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program as well as the Israel Science Foundation.