1,500 year-old portrait of Jesus found in Israel

Recreation by Dr Emma Maayan-Fanar. Photo: Dror Maayan

A portrait dating back 1,500 years depicting a young Jesus was found in the ruins of a Byzantine church in the Negev Desert in Israel. Although fragmented, experts claim that it shows a youthful Christ with shorter curly hair.

Dr Emma Maayan-Fanar, who is part of a project called the ‘Negev Byzantine Bio-Archaeology Research Program’, said that it was only due to the perfect conditions that she made out the portrait. “I was under the apse at the right place at the right time,” she said, “It’s just so hidden – it’s impossible to see – but the conditions of the light were just right.”

Photo: Dror Maayan

The face is being considered part of a larger depiction of Jesus’ baptism, making it “the first pre-iconoclastic baptism-of-Christ scene to be found in the Holy Land.” The research team also wrote that, “Despite its fragmentary condition, it reveals a youth’s face depicted on the apse’s upper section. The figure has short curly hair, a prolonged face, large eyes and an elongated nose.

The image of Christ with short hair was widespread in Egypt and Syro-Palestine, but disappeared in favour of the more modern image of Jesus. Early sixth-century texts are said to discuss the polemic of what Jesus really looked like, which is what led the researchers to believe that the portrait is from the sixth century AD.

Dr Maayan-Fanar said that she has little doubts that the image is indeed of Christ considering the “well-known formulaic patterns” of early Christian art and iconography. She said that, “Those who know the iconography of early Christianity can recognise such an image even from almost nothing.”

This, along with the identification of a larger figure thought to be John the Baptist which is also popular in Christian art, form part o what can be a wider scene containing additional figures. “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.”