Sunday, Fordham theology professor Michael Peppard published a fascinating essay in The New York Times, taking a closer look at an image from Syria that he believes may have rich historical meaning:
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?
He makes a compelling argument that the figure is, in fact, the Virgin Mary:
…While the Samaritan Woman at the Well was a respected biblical figure for early Christians, there was actually a more prominent “woman at the well” in Syria: the Virgin Mary during the Annunciation, when an angelic visitor informed her of her miraculous pregnancy. Where does this episode take place? The setting of the canonical account, in the Gospel of Luke, is not specified. But the second-century biography of Mary’s early life, usually called the Protevangelium of James, describes how one day, during a break from her work, “she took the pitcher and went forth to draw water, and behold, a voice said: ‘Hail, you are highly favored, the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women.’ And she looked around on the right and on the left to see from where this voice could have come.” During this first encounter, at a well or spring, the angel was heard but not seen. Mary appeared to be alone.
Archival photographs and drawings made by the archaeologists on site show that the supposed absence behind the female figure is not totally silent — it speaks a couple of lines. That is to say, a field sketch of the wall done “to show additional details” depicts two painted lines touching the woman’s back, along with a kind of starburst on the front of her torso, features described as “unexplained” in the archaeological report. But with the new interpretation of the figure, in connection with the Eastern iconography that came later, the lines invite a rather evident meaning. They 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.
If correct, this woman at a well is the oldest securely datable image of the Virgin Mary.
Read more at The New York Times.