Yale Art Gallery painting might be oldest known image of the Virgin Mary

Six wall paintings on display at the Yale University Art Gallery once decorated the baptistery of the earliest known church, a house-church discovered in the ancient city of Dura-Europos. The paintings, which date to about A.D. 240, include some of the earliest known depictions of Jesus, and they might also include the earliest known depiction of his mother.

One of the paintings shows a woman drawing water from a well. There is no inscription on the painting identifying her. According to the gallery’s description, the painting depicts a scene recorded in The Gospel of John in which Jesus converses with a woman from Samaria.

Michael Peppard, an associate professor of theology at Fordham University, argues that the woman at the well is the Virgin Mary.

In a Jan. 20 op-ed in The New York Times, Peppard argues that the wall painting depicts the Annunciation, the moment when the angel Gabriel announced that Mary would conceive and give birth to Jesus. If Peppard is correct, then the wall painting is the oldest reliably datable image of Mary.

Peppard calls the art gallery’s interpretation “certainly plausible,” but he notes that the Samaritan woman was usually shown in conversation with Jesus, not alone as she is depicted in the wall painting.

Peppard cites a description of the Annunciation in a second-century biography of Mary’s early life in which Gabriel interrupts Mary as she is drawing water with a pitcher. He argues that Byzantine images of the scene closely resemble the image from Dura-Europos. 

Finally, Peppard cites photographs and drawings made by the archeologists during the excavation that show two painted lines touching the woman’s back and a “starburst” at her torso. He writes that these details, today invisible to the naked eye, “appear to represent a motion toward the woman’s body and a spark of activity within it, as if something invisible were approaching and entering her — an incarnation.”

Lisa Brody, the gallery’s associate curator of ancient art, said that Peppard’s argument is solid.

“I’m interested to hear what other scholars of early Christian iconography will say, but his argument is convincing,” she said. “It’s certainly plausible, and I don’t have any quarrel with it.”

Founded around 300 B.C., Dura-Europos was a cosmopolitan city at the crossroads of the Greek, Persian, and Roman worlds. Residents of the city spoke many languages, represented many ethnicities — including Greek, Roman, and Palmyrene — and practiced many religions. The city included the Christian house-church, a large and elaborate synagogue, and pagan temples to Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern gods.

Yale and the French Academy of Inscriptions and Letters sponsored a series of excavations of the site during the 1920s and 1930s. The art gallery’s Dura-Europos collection features artwork, sculpture, and more than 12,000 artifacts of daily life.

Dura-Europos is located in eastern Syria under the control of the Islamic State.  In recent years, it has been heavily looted and damaged.

“The fact that the site itself is basically gone now makes the fact that we have this collection preserved, on view, and cared for, together with the context provided by the excavation records, that much more important,” Brody said.

Discovered in 1932, the wall paintings were from a “house-church,” so-called because the building’s exterior was indistinguishable from other houses. To avoid persecution, early Christians met secretly inside homes. (Churches began being designed and built as places of worship after the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century.)

The baptistery, a place where converts were initiated, was the church-building’s most elaborate room.

“The wall paintings are extremely important,” Brody said. “They were found in context so we can work with them as a unit. The images tend to be interpreted as images of salvation. Water plays a role with the scene of Christ walking on water and the scene with the well.”

Following their discovery, conservators coated the wall paintings in polyvinyl acetate to prevent flaking. Considered a state-of-art technique at the time, the treatment proved to be unstable. In the 1970s, the paintings had deteriorated so much that they were transferred from their plaster backing to fiberglass.

“It was a drastic measure, but it was considered necessary,” Brody said.

In preparation for their installation in the art gallery’s Dura-Europos exhibit, the paintings were restored based on the photographs and drawings from the excavation.  

“Normally, we would not perform such restoration of an ancient wall painting, but we decided it was necessary,” Brody said. “We didn’t try to make them look like new, but using the photographic documentation of the excavation, we tried as much as possible to make them look as they appeared in 1932 when they were discovered.”