New depiction of young Jesus discovered in ancient desert monastery

Because of the badly preserved state of the painting and its height further up along one of the church’s apses, it had been relatively easy for archaeologists to miss the traces of red paint.

November 21, 2018 16:00
2 minute read.
New depiction of young Jesus discovered in ancient desert monastery

Site of newly-discovered Jesus image at the Byzantine site of Shivta. (photo credit: HAIFA UNIVERSITY)


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A previously unknown painting of Jesus’s face found at the Byzantine site of Shivta, in the Negev Desert highlands, reveals a possibly new depiction of his baptism in the eyes of the era’s Christian worshipers.

Early Christian imagery is rare to find in the Holy Land, despite the religion’s origins in Byzantine Palestine, and all the more so in the little-traversed Negev region. Another painting long noted by explorers and academics was found in the southern church of the Shivta town, which depicted the famous transfiguration narrative of Jesus, often noted in Christian teachings as a key moment when humankind is bridged with God in a sacrosanct interaction.

But the new painting – discovered by Dr. Emma Maayan-Fanar, Dr. Ravit Linn, Dr. Yotam Tepper and Dr. Guy Bar-Oz as part of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology of the University of Haifa’s ongoing excavations in the Negev region – offers an original portrayal of Jesus’s baptism and his youthful countenance. The findings were published in the archaeological journal Antiquity in August.

Because of the badly preserved state of the painting and its height further up along one of the church’s apses, it had been relatively easy for most explorers and archaeologists to miss the traces of red paint left, Maayan-Fanar said.

Maayan-Fanar was able to identify a pair of eyes, presumed to be those of the younger Jesus, on the apse of the baptistery adjoining the northern church. Upon further inspection, she and Linn were able to detect more traces of paint, leading to the identification of two figures.

Under high resolution and particular lighting, the team was able to capture the figure’s short curly hair, an elongated nose, large eyes and long face. To the left of the Jesus figure is another figure, supposedly that of John the Baptist. The larger face is surrounded by a halo, and the rest of the paint traces suggest that a full scene was painted, which may have included other figures. Given the painting’s location in the baptistery, the two researchers have suggested that it would have been a baptism scene.

It would be the only in situ scene of Jesus’s baptism recorded to date in the pre-iconoclastic Byzantine Palestine.

The northern church in Shivta is noted for its grand size on the northern edge of the town and several flanking rooms that may have served as part of a monastery.

The University of Haifa’s ongoing work in recent years has helped reopen the case of Byzantine Christianity in the Negev, as well as the daily life of towns in the little-known region. Shivta was one of a handful of towns known to archaeologists that formed the peak of the Negev’s economy and population during the Roman and Byzantine eras.

While the population of Shivta has only been estimated by scholars, the town contained a total of three churches, which likely served pilgrims and travelers on their way to and from Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Desert. The town’s population peak was during the fourth to seventh centuries, but was eventually abandoned by the eighth and ninth centuries, after the Islamic conquest took over the region starting in 636 CE.

Although the region’s eventual abandonment – still mostly obscure to scholars and historians – likewise led to the decline of Christianity in the Negev, the area was nonetheless a crucial piece of the Byzantine Empire’s outer limits and a gateway for economic and religious traffic in the period.

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