The image of Jesus, hidden in the Negev church, is one of the oldest in Israel

The image of Jesus, hidden in the Negev church, is one of the oldest in Israel

The image of Jesus, hidden in the Negev Church, is one of the oldest in Israel.

Translation of an article published in The Times of Israel .

A young man, “the short, curly hair, long and oval face, big eyes and long nose”, represented in a tarnished paint found in the Byzantine church of the sixth century of the ancient village of Shivta.

One of the first representations of Jesus was recently discovered in a Byzantine church dating from the sixth century in the heart of the Negev Desert, Israel. Dr. Emma Maayan-Fanar identified the portrait of the Christian Messiah from a few vague outlines using a combination of conditions that was almost miraculous. Along with archaeologists and conservation specialists from Haifa University Prof. Guy Bar-Oz, Yotam Tepper and Ravit Linn, art historian Maayan-Fanar is involved in a multi-year interdisciplinary research project called The Byzantine Bioarchaeological Research Program of the Negev at UNESCO World Heritage Site Shivta. Its stated purpose is to examine “the reasons for the collapse of a complex society in an ecologically hostile region 1,500 years ago.”

Two weeks ago, Maayan-Fanar told The Times of Israel that during a recent visit to the North Church, one of three churches on the site, she took a look at the apse of the baptistery above her and immediately saw the face of Jesus who was staring at her. “I was under the apse in the right place at the right time. It’s so hidden – it’s impossible to see – but the light conditions were perfect, “says Maayan-Fanar.

In an article published in the August issue of Antiquity , the research team writes that the face, placed in a broader representation of Jesus’ baptism, is “the first scene of Christ’s baptism dating from the pre-iconoclastic period to be found in the Holy Land “.

Unlike the flowing dresses and hair usually encountered in Western depictions, the Jesus we see here is young, short-haired and curly.

In the report presented in the journal Antiquity , the researchers write: “Despite its fragmentary state, it reveals the face of a young man represented on the upper part of the apse. The figure has short, curly hair, a long oval face, large eyes and an elongated nose. “

“The face of Christ in this painting is an important discovery in itself. It belongs to the iconographic scheme of a Christ with short hair, particularly prevalent in Egypt and Syro-Palestine, but disappeared from later Byzantine art. The texts of the early sixth century include controversy over the authenticity of the visual appearance of Christ, including his hairstyle. Based on the iconography, we believe that this scene was also painted in the sixth century AD, “the authors write.

For the layman who has not received training, the fuzzy lines captured by Dror Maayan, his professional photographer and husband, look a bit like the iron stains often found after a rain in the desert. As Professor James Davila, an intellectual / blogger, has said, “to my inexperienced eyes, the new mural depiction of Jesus looks like one of those images of” Jesus on a piece of toast “that constantly appear on the Internet “.

The key, however, is to look at the contours with a seasoned eye. In his publication, including the Haaretz article behind the revelation, Davila added, “But I’m sure art history specialists who look at the original wall can see it better than me. “.

For the article published by the journal Antiquity , Maayan-Fanar made a reconstruction of the pencil image on a high-resolution photograph taken by her husband. With the contours she drew, the small spots become the portrait of a young man.

But is it Jesus?

According to Maayan-Fanar, there is little doubt. Primitive Christian art and iconography follow well-known formulas, she says. “Those who know the iconography of early Christianity can recognize such an image even from almost nothing,” she says. The location of the image, in the baptistery where there are still remains of the baptismal basin in stone in the form of a cross, increases its certainty.

Maayan-Fanar also identified a second, larger character, as being John the Baptist. This combination of a great John the Baptist and a young Jesus is common in Christian art. “Traces of painting in the apse suggest that these faces were part of a larger scene, which could contain additional characters,” the researchers write. The discovery of this painting is “extremely important,” they write. “Until now, it is the only scene of the baptism of Christ in situ (note: in his environment of origin) found in the Holy Land dating with certainty of the pre-iconoclastic period. Therefore, it can shed light on the Byzantine Christian community of Shivta and primitive Christian art throughout the region. “

More research on the horizon

Around the face of Jesus, in the center of the stage, are additional details hidden under an accumulation of dust and mud. According to the researchers, the dirt layer protected the underlying paint from further deterioration.

The team plans to use a variety of techniques and technologies to gather as much information as possible about the painting, according to conservation expert Linn. The trick is to see the invisible without touching the paint and without causing further deterioration. What is revolutionary about archeology, she says, is that much of this work can now be done in the field, rather than taking samples to take to the laboratory. “We try to spread as much information as we can on the spot, but there is not much to do, it’s true,” says Linn. According to her, viewing the image as representing Jesus is much more than an “enlightened guess” based on parallel examples found elsewhere in early Christendom.

Last year, the team has released another image of Jesus: a scene of the Transfiguration church found in the south of the site from the mid-fourth century AD. AD, which is only one of two figurative examples of the scene of the beginning of the Christian period, according to the researchers.

The dating of the painting of Jesus can not be given with absolute certainty, but an inscription engraved on the ground of the church dates the renovation of the structure in 640 apr. AD Armenian graffiti indicate that the church was not abandoned until the ninth century.

Using Visible Induced Luminescence Imaging (VIL), the team mapped the distribution of the Egyptian blue pigment in the painting and discovered radiant stars of unseen lights emanating from the bodies of Jesus and other figures that are there.

“Although this motif is an important part of the Transfiguration story and appears in most of the scenes depicted elsewhere, it was not previously identified in this painting because it was not detectable by any other technique. inspection, “the researchers write.

Linn said the research and conservation plan for the new painting found this year in the North Church is still in formation. The team plans to examine each block of stone individually and as a whole.

“Before we do anything, we need to know what we are going to do and what with,” she said, adding that the image is only a small part of the much larger bioarchaeology project. course.

A 360 ° approach to archaeological study

The project is based at the Zinman Institute of Archeology of Haifa University and led by Bar-Oz, but includes scientists from a wide range of disciplines. Previous publications have focused on agriculture and animal husbandry in the desert, as well as other archaeological discoveries. “Shivta is the focal point of our current project to explore the strengths and processes that allowed a burgeoning urban and agricultural society to flourish during the Byzantine period in the arid Negev, as well as to understand the which led to its decline, “the researchers write.

Located in the heart of the Negev desert, Shivta was colonized, potentially by the nomadic Nabataeans, at the beginning of the Roman era. According to archaeologists, “The colony was established for the first time by the Nabataeans in the first century AD. BC, before the Roman annexation of the region (105/106) “. The few signs of a Nabataean colony are a handful of potsherds, which could have been brought by others in Roman times, says Tepper.

The town reached its peak in a slightly distant colony Nabataean village in the Byzantine period (V-VI th th c. AD.). It was finally abandoned shortly after its cultural transition and transformation at the beginning of the Islamic period (middle of the seventh -.. The middle of the VIII th century AD), only to be rediscovered by archaeologists in the Holy Land in the nineteenth century, wrote the research team in a recent report entitled “Probing the transition from the Byzantine period / the early Islamic period in the Negev Shivta new excavation, 2015-2016.”

There have been previous excavations on the site, including one that “briefly lifted up” the face of Jesus recently discovered in the late 1920s, writes Maayan-Fanar in the August issue of Antiquity . But the documentation of the excavations was partial – if any – and the Haifa University team felt the field was sufficiently open to accommodate further research.

It is interesting to note that, perhaps because of the chain of multicultural colonies, there is an urban legend that promotes the site as a center of interfaith coexistence. This is not really confirmed by the archaeological footprints, according to the authors.

“The presence of three large churches indicates that Shivta was a prosperous Christian community. In comparison, the single mosque is much smaller than previous monuments, indicating a decline in the population on the site, “they write.

It seems, they write, that although the mosque is centrally located, next to the South Church and public reservoirs, there has been a sharp decline in the village population during the early Islamic period. According to the findings of the team, these early Muslims were mainly found in “abandoned and destroyed Byzantine structures”, which could indicate population replacement rather than coexistence. The coexistence, the agriculture and even the face of Jesus are just some of the pieces of the puzzle examined by the 360-degree multidisciplinary team. “We are continuing research and we expect there to be many more interesting projects in the near future,” Linn said.