The image of Christ from the Negev desert – which means this sensation and what does Zeus

“In the Negev desert discovered a unique image of Christ,” this news appeared in almost all news feeds. What is unique about the opening, “Pravmir” dealt with bizantology Alexei Letovym, Director of the Research center for Eastern Christian culture, as head of the Institute of world culture of Moscow state University, academician of the Russian Academy of arts.

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Find new image of Christ in a place called shivta in the Negev desert in southern Israel, on the one hand, certainly interesting, with another – is not some unique event and discovery on a global scale.

I know the critic, who saw it almost disappeared image. Interestingly, Emma Maan-Fanar – a native of Vladimir, where, after graduating from school, moved with his parents to Israel. Now she is a young Professor at the University of Haifa, a good specialist of international level. Opened this image it almost by accident.

According to Emma, she came to this place many times and never paid any attention to this image, it was just invisible.

Photo: Dror Maayan

But once the sun’s rays fell in such a way that she saw the outline of the figure and the eyes, as if looking at it from above. After that her husband – a wonderful Israeli photographer Dror Maan took photos that allowed careful consideration to the picture.

In the settlement of shivta preserved three of the temple – part of the huge heritage that has faced the Arab invasion in the VII century. Simply breathtaking when you consider how beautiful and blooming once was this Christian land, hundreds of temples, some of which are quite ornate. Huge world, a whole civilization, which had disappeared, lost in the Sands.

Almost 15 years ago in an expedition in Syria, I was told that only around the city of Aleppo, there are more than 300 such victims Christian cities, most of which are not even excavated. So in the VII century during the Arab conquest, was a tragedy of enormous proportions, when virtually overnight are gone, the Christian world of the Middle East. On the other hand, the speed of disappearance – a gift to archaeologists because the huge number of monuments have survived in the Sands and upon detection of a fall to us in perfect condition – albeit in ruins, but untouched by subsequent layers, often with precise dates.

The most typical example of a place where, by the way, preserved a truly unique and ancient image of Christ known is a city – garrison called Dura-Europos, now in modern-day Syria, destroyed by the Persians before the Arab invasion and slowly departed into the Sands.

The Good Shepherd. Dura-Europos

The city was accidentally discovered by the British army in the twenties of the last century. It was great, really sensational archaeological discovery. Excavations conducted, incidentally, also our former compatriot, who immigrated to the U.S. after the revolution, the famous historian and archaeologist, Mikhail Ivanovich Rostovtsev.

Found there the image of Christ in the form of the Good Shepherd was made to 256 years – the exact date of the destruction of the city. Later images refer to the Roman catacombs, and it is the second half of the III – IV century.

“To portray Zeus in the guise of Christ”

Returning to the finding in Shivta – we see the image of the young man with long curly hair. And this young man was most likely depicted in the ancient scene of Baptism, and the mural probably dates from the VI century ad. For this era it is certainly not unique: already in the VI century we have a huge number of different images of Christ.

Photo: Ravit Linn

I had to study the polymorphism of images of Christ in Christian art, that is, when, how and why Christ is depicted in Christian art in different images. The tradition of different images of Christ is very ancient, it is related to the fact that the gospel does not say how Christ looked. In early Christian times it was a matter of serious, and sometimes even violent disputes between theologians. Some, for example, argued that in Christ, as the Messiah, foretold by the prophet Isaiah, there was “no form or Majesty” (ISA. 53,2).

By the XI century basically argued three main image, although in reality they were much more. First – the ancient of days, the image of Christ-an old man who appeared in visions to the prophets before His appearance on earth. The second is Emmanuel, that is, the image of Christ in the image of the Child. And the image of Christ, a middle-aged man, most familiar to us, with long hair falling on the shoulders, and beard. One of the oldest and well-known icons of this type, the Sinai icon of Christ Pantocrator of the VI century, where He is depicted as a Mature man of 30-40 with long facial features, long hair and a beard.

A. Lidov in the Sinai near the icon of Christ Pantocrator VI.

Understanding the origin of this type, we understand that at its core is not a description of the real Christ, but a direct borrowing from the images of Zeus, which was incredibly popular in the late antique world. Almost every pagan house was a bust with the image of Zeus, the Supreme pagan deity.

When Christian artists created the image of the Savior, they turned to the usual image of Zeus.

As was the case in V–VI centuries, we can see the example of the story told to us by the Church historian Theodore Anagnostou. This story says that a secret pagan in the beginning of VI century, secretly worshipped Zeus in the era of victorious Christianity, came to a certain artist and asked him to make pseudocone, to portray Zeus in the guise of Christ. He hung out at her house, and all official guests had to think that this icon of Christ, and the way to demonstrate Christian piety of the owner. But being alone he regarded this image as the image of Zeus.

The story, naturally, had an instructive sense, the deception was discovered, and cheaters punished. But then Church historian makes the very curious conclusion that it is better not to represent Christ are so similar to Zeus, but much better – in the form of a youth with curly hair. In fact, this image of Christ as a young man with curly hair we see in the surviving fragments of frescoes in the Shivta. That is another type of Christ, who in this era was no less popular than the image of Christ, a middle-aged man.

A classic example of such an image of Christ in the form of a beautiful youth seated on the heavenly sphere can be seen in the mosaics of San Vitale in Ravenna. For the early Byzantines it was the image of Christ, which knows no age and eternally in Heaven.

Mosaic Church of San Vitale

In the same complex shivta is another interesting image in the apse is preserved a rare for that time the scene of the Transfiguration, because the iconography of the image just appears.

So these findings, even if they are not sensation, important for each investigator, as he formed and developed a particular iconographic type.

Where are we, and where this Resafa

And how many more undiscovered, unexplored paintings!

Even take not so distant from us to Greece – how many churches of the XIII–XIV centuries, with ancient frescoes are not published, not studied. On the same island of Rhodes more than 150 Byzantine churches with well-preserved ancient paintings, and published just a little. And this situation in Greece, almost everywhere, we know and see are only the tip of the iceberg, but the bulk of this art still remains undeveloped.

The situation in the middle East a little better. Although I must say that for the study of Christian culture of the Middle East has done a lot not only of Israel, but especially Italian and French archaeologists, who regularly went on expeditions, were excavated, published, published discovered monuments.

Alas, in recent years, this activity has almost ceased, for example, in Syria, in the situation of a brutal civil war speech about research, just not talking. A pity, because we’re talking about the same context of Christian culture, which until the end and not read.

For example, on the outskirts of Syria is the city Resafa, the epicentre of the military conflict. It would seem that where we are, and where this Resafa? But if you dig a little bit deeper, it turns out that Resafa is an ancient Sergiopolis, named in honor of the Martyr Sergius, there was his power, and it was one of the main centers of Christian pilgrimage in the whole of Syria until the Arab invasion.

Let me remind you that in the name of the Martyr Sergius baptized St. Sergius of Radonezh.

So all these ancient paintings, temples in different parts of the world can be compared with the blood vessels one body that we sometimes don’t see, but they are connected by a huge Christian world to which it belongs and the Russian Orthodox civilization, that is, we are with you.

Thus, history is all undoubtedly important. This, I repeat, not a sensation, not something unique, it’s a small opening. But there is such a human, for example, I really lovely face, this rare image of Christ opened our compatriot, who became one of the major experts on Christian art and archaeology.

Church, where he found the image. Photo: Dror Maayan

Actually, I should say that the Department of art history at Jerusalem University, which she finished, features a very high quality education. Despite the fact that it is the Israeli public University, the majority of experts, oddly enough, engaged in Christian art. And I remember this episode that occurred at a large Congress, held in Jerusalem.

It was called “the Jerusalem of the ideal and real in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic art”. And it was a huge event, hundreds of scientists from around the world came. And here at the close of this conference has been a scandal associated with the dominance of Christian and Islamic that was a deliberate choice of the organizers and first Professor Bezalel Narkiss, who himself was an outstanding expert on ancient Armenian manuscripts and miniatures descended from an ancient family, the founders of the state of Israel.

At the final meeting of present at a hall of Israeli fundamentalists attacked him and began to blame the fact that Jerusalem needs to engage in Jewish art, and the solid reports about art Christian and Islamic. About 300 participants from all over the world frozen in suspense. But the organizer witty, dignified and calmly replied to his accuser, saying: “If a respected critic, requiring a truly Jewish art, tell me how it is possible to study it, not in comparison with Christian and Islamic imagery, the science will be very grateful to him. Because while such a methodology has not yet discovered”.

Alexei Lidov. Photo: Mikhail Tereshchenko

And this remaining in the memory of the story seems to be a good lesson for all of us, because to understand the beauty, the originality and the depth of their own tradition can only be comparing and studying the traditions existing in parallel, and realizing the real context, without which all the statements about national identity become unfounded.

The thought involuntarily turns to the great tradition of Orthodox icons, which cannot be understood without knowledge of the wide world around, and that’s why a new discovery in the Negev desert has for us all.

1 Srejovic – being. (κοῖλος τοῦς κροτάφους) with whiskey or sunken cheeks.

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