NEW HAVEN – An early third-century religious fresco that has hung in the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven for more than 80 years is drawing new interest.
Religious scholars, art enthusiasts and gallery-goers are questioning the identity of a biblical woman depicted on a slab of a wall dug up by Yale archeologists in the 1920s and 1930s. This mural is from a baptistry (a room for baptisms and initiations) in a house church excavated from the ancient ruins of Dura-Europos in Syria. But is it the Virgin Mary or the Samaritan Woman at the Well?
This debate comes at an interesting time as the current crisis in the Middle East has caused looting and destruction of many Syrian archeological sites, and much artwork and many religious artifacts have been lost, especially at the historically rich Dura-Europos site.
“So much early Christian art has been lost,” said Meriden iconographer and teacher Marek Czarnecki of Seraphic Restorations. “Iconoclasts have been very thorough. So this piece is another crumb that we have.”
Labeled by the gallery as the “Woman at the Well” in its Dura-Europos Collection, the art was originally thought to be the Samaritan woman in John 4:4-26 who gave Jesus a drink of water. A Fordham University associate professor of religion and author of The World’s Oldest Church: Bible, Art, and Ritual at Dura-Europos, Syria, however, recently raised the question of whether the woman in the mural is actually Mary. If he’s right, he said that this 240s A.D. piece would be the earliest dated art of Mary, even older than images in the ancient Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome.
Fordham’s Michael Peppard, a Yale alumnus, contends that the scene in the fresco is the Annunciation, the scene in St. Luke’s Gospel about the angel Gabriel’s coming to the Virgin Mary to announce that she would bear the Son of God. The faded and simple painted piece shows a woman drawing water over what appears to be a well. Dr. Peppard said that although the art lacks an angel speaking to Mary, as described in the Annunciation, the angel panel from the original piece might’ve been removed or destroyed. While the biblical account doesn’t put Mary at a well at the time of the Annunciation, the Protoevangelicum, St. James’s account of her early life, chronicles her drawing water from the well during this event.
To make his determination, Dr. Peppard said he studied more than 200 archival images of the art from the excavation site to get further clues. In one of the sketches, he said, a starburst is painted on the woman’s torso, providing more evidence of the Incarnation and Annunciation. “The sketch was the turning point for me,” he said.
“What I argue in the book is that this is not an open-and-shut case. It’s not 100-percent certainty. It’s a compounding of probabilities and one possibility is that the starburst itself indicates the Incarnation and Annunciation.”
Unlike most Renaissance art depictions of Mary at the Annunciation, which are more elaborate and regal, the scene in the Dura-Europos piece is much simpler.
In Dr. Peppard’s Jan. 30 New York Times opinion piece, “Is This the Oldest Image of the Virgin Mary?” which first sparked the question, he wrote: “Most people, when they imagine the annunciation, have in mind some western Renaissance masterpiece: a studious, cloistered Mary welcoming the angel from the comfort of home. But Byzantine images of the scene, though coming centuries later than the figure from Dura-Europos, bear an arresting formal resemblance to it.”
Harold Attridge, Sterling professor of Divinity at the Yale School of Divinity, said that this interpretation shouldn’t be surprising. In the Dura-Europos artwork, he said, Mary is in a more likely situation, doing some work such as drawing water when the angel speaks. “It says something about the unexpected ways that God intervenes in human life.”
Dr. Attridge, who taught Dr. Peppard as the latter worked toward his doctorate, said, “Michael [Peppard] made a good case of the image of the Woman at the Well at a house church in Dura-Europos matching images in late antiquity that represent the Annunciation.”
He added that the discoverers of the art probably had “a knee-jerk reaction when they discovered it and thought it was the Samaritan Woman at the Well. This woman could be Mary at the Annunciation.”
Iconographer Czarnecki is doubtful, though. “I don’t think it’s possible to know who it is. The image is ambiguous,” he said.
While he agrees that it could be Mary, he’s OK with the uncertainty. “I’m the type of person that it doesn’t bother me if there’s blank space rather than projection.”
Mr. Czarnecki, who teaches iconography around the country, said that there are several problems with making a clear determination of who the woman is, mostly because of the absence of the angel in the artwork, and the fact that the subject isn’t looking up at an angel, but down at the well. He also says that her lack of a veil in the art would be a unique depiction of her.
“Adding to the confusion, that figure in that pose could be a part of many Christian narratives; it could be a servant from the wedding at Cana filling up water jugs,” he said. Or perhaps, he said, since the art is from a baptistry, the piece is decorative of a woman drawing water for a baptism. Either way, Mr. Czarnecki said it’s OK to be uncertain. “I would rather articulate the confusion and possibilities rather than a premature declaration. I could come up with multiple meanings.”
Whatever the meaning, Mr. Czarnecki said that this piece is worth seeing. “It shows how far back our Christian roots go and it shows how dedicated we are to Mary from the earliest church. It shows the continuity of the church and how it has used images throughout the ages.”
The church has always had a strong interest in Mary, according to Dr. Attridge. “This is significant, because I think it shows the continuity of the tradition in a significant way and it’s something that shouldn’t surprise us.”
Dr. Peppard agreed. “I’m trying to highlight the distinctive tradition of Christianity, especially in Syria. We don’t think much about the distinct traditions since so many came out of Rome. Syrian Christianity is the oldest and most distinctive form of the Christian tradition and I wanted to shine a spotlight on a tradition that’s in peril.”
He added, “We have both satellite evidence and on-the-ground reporting of Dura-Europos being looted.” It is thought that ISIS uses proceeds from sales of the artifacts. Looting is so widespread, according to Dr. Peppard, that “they’ve stopped counting looting pits.”
He has also questioned the setting of another fresco in the same Dura-Europos Collection. A mural showing a procession of women wearing white and carrying torches was originally thought to be women at the tomb of Jesus on Easter morning. His suggestion that it’s more likely a wedding procession has everyone thinking.