A previously-unknown 1,500-year-old painting of Christ’s face has been uncovered at a Byzantine church in Israel’s Negev desert.
The discovery in the ancient Byzantine village of Shivta has thrilled archaeologists. Although the painting is fragmented, experts from Israel’s University of Haifa were able to make out the facial outline. Their research was published recently in the journal Antiquity.
The painting, which is believed to date from the sixth century A.D., depicts Jesus as a short-haired youth.
“Christ’s face in this painting is an important discovery in itself,” they explained in their paper. “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 painting was briefly noted in the 1920s, but has now undergone more analysis. In their study, the University of Haifa archaeologists explain that Christ is depicted next to a much larger figure, which is probably John the Baptist. “The location of the scene — above the [church’s] crucifix-shaped Baptist font — suggests its identification as the baptism of Christ,” said the study’s authors.
Experts describe the painting’s discovery as extremely important, noting that it predates the religious iconography used in the Orthodox Christian Church. “Thus far, it is the only in situ baptism-of-Christ scene to date confidently to the pre-iconoclastic Holy Land,” they said in the study. “Therefore, it can illuminate Byzantine Shivta’s Christian community and Early Christian art across the region.”
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