Archaeologists have discovered the face of a young man painted in the apse of an old Israeli church. According to them, it is a representation of Jesus.
Archaeologists have made an astonishing discovery in a baptistery in the ancient village of Shivta, in southern Israel. On the stone dome overlooking the baptismal basin, a face has been drawn. Visible only because of erosion and bad weather, it depicts a young man with curly hair and long nose. But no beard for this man who researchers think is an ancient painting of Jesus.
In the right place at the right time
The face is not easy to distinguish at first. The few red pigments still adorning the surface of the weather-damaged stone dome had already been noticed by archaeologists in the 1920s, however the poor state of conservation of the motif soon made it fall into oblivion. According to Emma Maayan-Fanar, specialist in art history, it's a real stroke of luck that ensured that it was noticed once again.
‘I was there at the right time, in the right place, the light was falling at the right angle, and suddenly I saw eyes,’ she says. ‘It was the face of Jesus at his baptism, contemplating us.’ Clean-shaven, the young man is portrayed with an oval face framed by a thick mass of curly hair and a long nose overhanging a thin mouth. A representation which is very different from the one we are used to seeing, as reported in the Antiquity newspaper.
Traces of pigments surrounding the drawing suggest the presence of other important religious figures. The positioning of the young man's face, near the top of the apse, provides, according to archaeologists, a relatively solid proof of his identity. Another representation of Jesus was discovered last year by the same team, near the baptistery. However, its state of conservation only allowed a handful of details to be collected.
An unlikely representation, but rare
The village of Shivta was founded about 1,800 years ago before becoming a village of farmers on what would probably have been a popular pilgrimage route. Despite intensive excavations, there was no indication of the date of construction of the church housing this newly discovered drawing. The drawing would have nevertheless been done at least 1,800 years after the death of Jesus, suggesting that its resemblance to the young man is very unlikely.
But for archaeologists, that's not what's important. Indeed, this would be the first pre-iconoclastic representation of a baptism scene ever discovered in the Holy Land. Representations of Christ are rare in the Middle East, or have been destroyed or displaced, giving this newly discovered motif quite a bit of value. As to what Jesus really looked like, the question remains open.