The Holy Face in the desert – an unprecedented discovery
Dr. Emma Maayan Fanar, University of Haifa – Email contact: [email protected]
Photos: Dror Maayan
This short essay presents an unprecedented finding of the 1,500 years old wall-painting of the Holy Face of Christ in Shivta (Sobbota/Soubaita/Esbeita), a rural settlement in the Negev desert. After flourishing from the fourth or fifth to approximately the eighth century, it gradually declined and was ultimately abandoned. At its peak, the village, while not very large, was relatively prosperous, with about 170 buildings, some of them two-storied, housing approximately 2,200 people. Walls of three monumental churches in Shivta were once painted extensively with religious scenes and figures. Not much has survived of these once-colorful wall paintings, but even small surviving fragments offer surprises for those of us studying them. In fact, until recently, only the scene of the Transfiguration of Christ in the southern apse of the South Church was identified with certainty.
Recently, another wall painting was identified in the baptistery of the North Church, the most beautiful of Shivta churches. It was built on the edge of the settlement and perhaps constituted a part of the monastic complex. According to archaeological research, it was originally built with one apse and probably became a triple-apse church sometime in the early sixth century. Its walls, first painted with wall paintings, were later covered with marble. The baptistery is constructed as a side chapel with an apse on its eastern end. Within it is a cross-shaped monolith baptismal font, raised on a two-step platform that was separated from the aisle of the chapel by a chancel screen.
During one of my visits to Shivta, I was sitting in the shade of the baptistery apse of the North Church trying to escape from the heat. Some spots of paint caught my attention, and it felt like eyes were looking at me from within the apse, just above the baptismal font. How had the image remained undiscovered for so long? In fact, it was mentioned in passing by scholars from the École Biblique who surveyed the church in the late 1920s. They even suggested that the scene portrayed the Baptism of Christ. But the painting was in such a poor state that no one else could discern these figures.
Today, only outlines of two figures can be seen faintly. Despite its fragmentary condition, the image reveals a frontally positioned figure of a youth with short curly hair, elongated face, large eyes, and long nose. The body’s neck and upper part are also traceable. To the left of this figure, another, much bigger face, surrounded by a halo, is visible. Traces of paint throughout the apse suggest these figures were part of a wider scene, which may have contained additional figures. Fortunately, because this depiction is consistent with the well-known iconographic scheme, and given its position within the baptistery, it is very likely that the scene depicts the baptism of Christ.
Portraying one of the most important events in the Gospels (Matthew 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–23), the baptism of Christ scene is frequently found in early Christian and Byzantine art. Although the scene did not survive in an architectural setting in Palestine, it exists in illuminated manuscripts and many small objects (e.g., plaques, pilgrim tokens, textiles) originating in Syro-Palestine and Egypt, which can serve as points of comparison between the iconography and the Shivta scene.
Consistent with early Christian iconographic convention, in this representation of the narrative, John the Baptist’s figure is proportionally larger than that of Christ, who is depicted as much smaller and younger. Despite the paucity and obscurity of details, this proportional distinction is clearly visible in the Shivta painting.
Christ’s face is the best-preserved part of the painting. Its was an important discovery, since it is the only one to survive in an architectural setting in the Holy Land. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the discovery sparked worldwide attention. Yet it was received with special scrutiny because many did not expect Christ to look the way he does here – young and beardless, with short curly hair. Even in the scene of his baptism, both in Byzantine and Western art, we are used to seeing Christ as a mature and bearded man with long wavy hair falling below his shoulders. I was asked repeatedly if, since the image was discovered in the Holy Land, it is possible that it shows what Christ really looked like.
We must remember, however, that in early Christian and early Byzantine art, Christ was depicted in variety of ways, sometimes even within the same monument or manuscript. In the baptism scene, his youthful image reflects a theological convention – the symbolic notion of the baptism as rebirth. For example, he is shown this way in the fifth-century Arian baptistery in Ravenna. In the Orthodox baptistery (Ravenna, c.500) the image is different, with Christ depicted as more mature. Unfortunately, most of the upper part of the image, including his face, underwent restoration, so we do not know if, in fact, the current image reflects the original. By the ninth century, the iconographic change was already complete, and from then on, Christ would be depicted as a mature man in the baptism scene, reflecting the age when he was baptized by John.
Whereas in Ravenna, the image of the long-haired Christ is prevalent, in Shivta, the image belongs to the iconographic scheme of a short-haired Christ, which was especially widespread in Egypt and Syro-Palestine. Early sixth-century texts include polemics concerning the authenticity of Christ’s visual appearance, including his hairstyle – curiously, the short hair was perceived as more authentic then. Although both images were common in the sixth century, the short-haired Christ later almost disappeared together with the eastern provinces of the Byzantine empire that were lost to Islam in the seventh century. On the other hand, the long-haired image became widespread, and from the ninth century on, it would be perceived as authentic.
We can now examine the wall painting in the baptistery in Shivta in context. We can imagine a catechumen descending the three steps into the cruciform font to be baptized, while the priest stands next to the font waiting for him. The scene of Christ’s baptism is depicted directly above the cruciform font, establishing a visual and symbolic link between both events: Christ descended into the waters to sanctify them and the Christian descended in order to be sanctified by the baptismal water. Thus, the person undergoing baptism does it in the presence of Christ, with the priest as a mediator. Just as John the Baptist placed his hand on Christ’s head, the priest places his hand on the person’s head. The baptism ritual symbolizes both death and rebirth: The catechumen descends into the water, buried in the water as Christ was in the rock, and rise up again “walking in the newness of life” (Cyril of Jerusalem, The Catechetical Lectures 3.12), resurrected and reborn.
The importance of the finding of the wall painting in the baptistery of the North Church at Shivta is immense: it is a rare surviving example of early Byzantine iconography and an original wall painting in its architectural setting. As a result, it provides insight into the religious and cultural life of Byzantine Shivta and Christianity in the Negev, of which only magnificent ruins remain.