THE Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the most revered woman in the Christian tradition. In the history of art, she appears almost as frequently as Jesus himself. But for the past 80 years, one of the oldest paintings of her may have been hiding in plain sight.
At the Yale University Art Gallery hang wall paintings from one of the world’s oldest churches. Buried by the middle of the third century, this house-church from eastern Syria had images of Jesus, Peter and David. The gallery showcases a well-preserved procession of veiled women that once surrounded its baptistery, a room for Christian initiation.
Off to the side, seldom noticed among the likes of Jesus and Peter, stands a different wall fragment, faded but still discernible: a woman bent over a well. Holding the rope of her vessel, she looks out at the viewer or perhaps over her shoulder, seemingly startled in the act of drawing water.
Who is she? The museum’s identification is certainly plausible: “The painting most likely depicts a scene from the encounter between Christ (not shown) and a woman from Samaria,” as recorded in the Gospel of John. But historians also know that the Samaritan Woman, a repentant sinner who conversed at length with Jesus, was usually depicted in dialogue with him. This woman appears to be alone.
Is it possible that a painting from a building excavated in 1932 and publicized around the world has not been correctly identified? These murals come from the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire, a military outpost variously called “Dura” or “Europos” in antiquity.
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