While exploring a church in the desert of southern Israel, Emma Maayan-Fanar just happened to be at the right place at the right time. She was looking at a Baptist font and as the light from the sun hit a certain angle, she realized she was staring into the eyes of an ancient painting. Because the Baptist font is shaped like a crucifix, Maayan-Fanar, who is from the University of Haifa, believes it is depicting Jesus Christ himself at his baptism.
After years of exposure to the sun, the painting is very faded, but experts have reconstructed an outline. The man has short, curly hair and a clean shaven face, which is in contrast to a lot of images of Jesus, who is often portrayed with long hair and a beard. The painting could be as old as 1500 years, making it one of the earliest depictions of Jesus.
According to the paper Maayan-Fanar and others wrote, it might even be the first pre-iconoclastic image of Jesus’ baptism. What does this mean? During the “iconoclastic” era, which describes a time in Byzantine Empire history, images of Jesus and other religious figures was considered icon worship, which was illegal for about a century. As a result, there are very few examples of early Christian art, especially from Israel.
The church painting may have more secrets to reveal. Dirt and mud covers the surface, which may have actually worked as a protective layer. Maayan-Fanar and her co-authors believe John the Baptist could be in the painting, as well, his head surrounded by a large halo.
This painting joins other recent discoveries. In 2014, archaeologists excavating buried tombs in Egypt believed they found an ancient depiction of Jesus on the walls. Like the Baptist font image, the figure had curly hair. Three years earlier, in 2011, archaeologists at the Sea of Galilee found a booklet dating back 2,000 years, but its authenticity has been questioned.