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Does This 1,500-Year-Old Painting Show What Jesus Looked Like?

A sixth-century image discovered in Israel depicts Jesus with short, curly hair.
The face of Christ, with proposed reconstruction, found in the Baptistery chamber beside an ancient Israeli church.

The face of Christ, with proposed reconstruction, found in the Baptistery chamber beside an ancient Israeli church.

In an extremely rare early painting found in an ancient Israeli church, Jesus looks completely different from the long-haired, bearded Western image of him.

Archaeologists from the University of Haifa in Israel discovered the previously unknown 1,500-year-old painting of Jesus in the ruins of a Byzantine-era farming village in the Negev desert of southern Israel.

“I was there at the right time, at the right place with the right angle of light and, suddenly, I saw eyes," art historian Emma Maayan-Fanar, who first noticed the image on the wall of a church, recounted to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "It was the face of Jesus at his baptism, looking at us."

As the gospels never describe Jesus’ appearance, and no known contemporary description of him exists, every image of him we see is based on later artistic versions. In the early centuries of Christianity’s evolution, Maayan-Fanar told Haaretz, Christ was depicted various ways, both with short and long hair, bearded and clean-shaven. But by the sixth century, Western images consistently showed Jesus with long, flowing hair and (often) a beard.

The Baptistery chamber beside the Northern Church in Shivta.

The Baptistery chamber beside the Northern Church in Shivta.

Though exposure to the sun over centuries has reduced the image found in the ancient village of Shivta to little more than faint outlines and smudges of color, Maayan-Fanar and her colleagues argue that it depicts a young man with “short curly hair, a prolonged face, large eyes and an elongated nose.”

Writing of their discovery in the journal Antiquity, the researchers conclude that the image was painted in the sixth century A.D., and “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 once located above a Baptist font in the shape of a crucifix, leading the researchers to conclude it may have depicted the baptism of Christ, a common theme in early Christian and Byzantine art.

Though Christianity was born in the Holy Land, very little early Christian art survives there from this particular period. Beginning in the eighth century A.D., during the so-called “Iconoclastic Controversy,” many Christians in the Byzantine Empire considered creating religious images to be the equivalent of worshipping icons, which were outlawed by Emperor Leo III in 726 A.D. and remained so until the middle of the 9th century.

The newly discovered painting appears to be the first pre-iconoclastic scene of Christ’s baptism found in the Holy Land.

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