A security guard flags me down and, with a sly smile, gestures toward a tomato red wall. “Have you read the article?” he asks. I shake my head, and he guides me over to a wall of cracked plaster paintings. Pointing up at a faded panel, he tells me, “That’s Mary.”
In the image he gestures at, a woman stands alone in front of a cylindrical bowl. Her dress hangs around her sloped body like a brown paper bag; her arms reach forward nonchalantly. The “Woman at the Well,” a wall painting at the Yale University Art Gallery, features the outline of a woman against a splotchy background of puckered ancient plaster. It’s a fairly unremarkable rendering, not technically elaborate. Even though I work at the gallery and go there often, I had never really noticed this third century painting in the Dura Europos Collection of ancient objects until a few weeks ago.
It turns out that the article the guard was talking about is Michael Peppard’s bold New York Timesop-ed from Jan. 30 entitled, “Is This the Oldest Image of the Virgin Mary?” In it, Dr. Peppard, DIV ’03, GRD ’09, an Associate Professor of New Testament, Early Christian Studies, Religion and Public Life at Fordham University, asserts that this painted “Woman at a Well,” long thought to be a Samaritan woman (from the Gospel of John), is actually the earliest dateable image of the Virgin Mary. Basing his evidence on photographs from the 1932 archaeological excavation and visual traditions from early Christianity, Peppard ventures that this image from the 240s AD has been hiding in plain sight for years.
This discovery is generating public interest in the museum. “We had a lot of people coming in asking about it,” says Will Doggett, another security guard at the museum. “And that was just from one article saying it might be her.” Will Nixon, PC ’19, who works part-time at the visitor’s services desk, tells me that a lot of people, maybe five to seven every day for the past month, have come in asking about the image. “One woman even came in with a copy of the newspaper,” he explained from the front desk on Thursday afternoon.
Doggett is impressed with the theory that this woman is the oldest datable image of Mary, but he has some questions. “If they could prove it, that’s absolutely outrageous…I want them to prove it,” he told me excitedly, standing in front of the painting. Doggett isn’t the only one who wants proof. Dr. Stefan Simon, the Director of Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage hesitates to back Peppard’s theory. “I think that is very difficult to scientifically prove,” he states. From an art historical perspective, too, it’s tough to know whether Peppard’s bold claim can be trusted. Lisa Brody, the Associate Curator of Ancient Art at the YUAG conceded that, although she thinks Peppard’s idea is interesting and possibly true, “It seems like the kind of image where we’ll never know definitively what it is because there’s no label or inscription on the work.” Scholars can only dig in to the history of this site and speculate. When I spoke with Dr. Stephen Davis, GRD ’98, Professor of Religious Studies, History, and Near Eastern Language and Civilization, and I referred to this new “discovery,” he quickly corrected, “I don’t think this is a discovery, I think this is a reinterpretation.”
Whatever you want to call it—discovery, reinterpretation, theory—Peppard thinks his idea could have serious implications, not only for understanding this image within the gallery space, but also for framing Syria’s cultural heritage, especially in light of the current conflict there. It’s key for him that this painting is from Dura Europos, a site in what we now call Syria, and he wanted his op-ed in the New York Times to include a “reflection about Syrian Christianity as a community in peril, and the role of cultural heritage and cultural artifacts in the maintenance of identity.” Diana Kleiner, Yale’s Dunham Professor of History of Art and Classics, told me via email that she thinks Yale’s collection of material from Dura is “as important now as it has ever been, since it comes from a recently heavily damaged area in Syria now controlled by the Islamic State.”
Of course, ancient Syria looked quite different from Syria today. Located at a trading crossroads, and fortified by the Euphrates and natural valleys, Dura Europos thrived in first half of the third century AD. People in Dura Europos spoke various different languages during this time, and practiced many different faiths—including Christianity, Judaism, and pagan religions. But after the Sasanians invaded in the middle of the third century, much of the civilization was buried in dirt. In his Times op-ed, Peppard writes how Michael Rostovtzeff, then a Yale professor and the director of Yale’s excavations at the site, called Dura Europos the “Pompeii of the Syrian desert.” But this house containing a small baptistery, “The Christian Building,” was fortified with dirt before the attacks, which protected the art inside.
Fortunately, the paintings were photographed meticulously at the excavation site in 1932. These photos, in addition to detailed sketches of the original paintings, provided excellent on-site records before the paintings were shipped off to Yale, where they met a series of semi-disastrous conservation attempts.
Carol Snow, Deputy Chief Conservator and the Alan J. Dworsky Senior Conservator of Objects at the YUAG, recalls that the first “restorer” of the objects was a French man who was a member of the excavation team. “He would work on his own and wouldn’t let anyone know what he was doing,” Snow said. He likely used the unstable, flammable compound cellulose nitrate.
When the baptistery paintings came to Yale, they had already started to flake and had unbalanced salt levels. So, in the 1940s and 1950s, the Yale conservation team decided to spray the paintings repeatedly with Polyvinyl Acetate, despite the fact that using this treatment went against the advice of conservation experts from Harvard. “Rather than really dealing with the source of the problems, they kept putting band-aids over them and sealing [the salt] in,” Snow said. In the 1970s, the conservators took drastic measures, using an Italian technique called “strappo” and re-mounting the paintings on fiberglass backings. In the end, a lot of the paint was lost, and the paintings were put into storage.
Recalling her 2010 research trip to Syria, Snow describes seeing other wall paintings from the synagogue in Dura Europos that the Yale team excavated. “They were sort of lying in neglect, and they were in better condition than ours,” she said. Despite the Yale conservators’ best intentions over the years, they in fact promoted the deterioration of these ancient images.
Still, Dr. Snow has a positive attitude about the ordeal, good-naturedly laugh-grimacing when she speaks about the years of efforts gone awry. She focuses on the work her team has done in the past five to ten years.
Dr. Simon is also hesitant to condemn Yale’s early conservators. “They were leading conservation people,” he said. “They were not just people from the street doing something. They really aimed high and they wanted to do something good.” Today, he praises the strong in-house conservation team working on these paintings. When the paintings were brought out of storage, Snow tinkered with several options for restoring the baptistery paintings. Working with another conservator and Brody, Snow wanted to strike a balance between intervening on the canvases as little as possible and reintegrating the images as much as possible. Snow pushed for projecting the field photographs onto the canvases in order to avoid touching the originals at all.
She and her team compromised, deciding to use removable watercolor paints to layer on top of the original canvas. Snow is pleased that she and her team could “use a traditional technique like watercolors and make sure that it’s really distinguishable from the original painting.”
I wondered whether this augmentation on the canvas could have misled Peppard in his research. But Snow emphasizes that the “Woman at the Well” received little watercolor over-painting. Regardless, Peppard worked off of photographs from the original excavation site, not the faded canvases on the YUAG’s walls.
Peppard, after seeing the wall paintings during graduate school at Yale, then intimately accessed these paintings through copied images during his first teaching job. “It was really through the process of teaching about this building in my undergraduate courses that I came to first start to disagree with the received interpretations of the paintings,” Peppard told me over the phone.
After researching other paintings from this Christian baptistery, and, in the case of at least one, challenging the common interpretation, Peppard wandered in baby steps to thinking about the “Woman at the Well.” Unconvinced by the inherited view that this was a Samaritan woman from the book of John, he slowly began researching other options. “I certainly didn’t go looking for it,” he said, “and it took me a while to persuade myself, because it seemed kind of too big for others to have missed.” Working more with the photographs and sketches from the excavation site rather than with the actual, faded object, Peppard pieced together evidence.
According to Peppard, “the Samaritan woman argument has pretty significant iconographic problems” that the original excavators missed. They were largely archaeologists or biblical scholars, not art historians. So when one of their team members asserted that this woman was the Samaritan woman, everyone accepted it. But the Samaritan woman was almost always depicted next to Jesus, while the woman in the YUAG’s painting is alone.
Dissatisfied with the assumption about the Samaritan Woman, Peppard started raking through piles of images of contemporary ancient annunciation scenes. He began to notice a pattern: Mary was regularly depicted near a water source in annunciation images. Of the eight or so annunciation motifs Peppard identified as common in the ancient Middle East, Mary at a well was a common one. So he began to wonder if this painting might be an annunciation, too.
Then, when he looked at the original sketches and photographs from the excavation, he identified what appeared to be a starburst at the Virgin’s chest, and asserted that “there is a presence of the angel in the starburst.” Although the starburst is not visible in the faded wall painting at the YUAG today, Peppard explains that in “the sketching [from the 1932 excavation] it is very, very clear that they’re seeing these lines.” He started tentatively crafting a theory that this woman is in fact Mary, being visited by Gabriel heralding the coming of Christ.
In Christian church art, though, the angel Gabriel is typically, if not always, present in annunciation scenes with the Virgin Mary. There’s no Gabriel here with this solitary woman. “The angel-less annunciation is the main problem for my argument,” Peppard admits. But Peppard thinks it’s plausible that the angel might be in a missing top panel. Peppard recognizes that this argument makes a lot of assumptions without iconographic evidence here. “I’m arguing from silence in the second case, from a part of the wall we don’t have,” he acknowledged. But since several other pieces of Medieval Christian art also feature Mary at a well with the angel Gabriel very far above her, Peppard says it’s plausible that the part of the painting featuring Gabriel was simply lost along with most of the original baptistery building.
Even those who accept that this woman could be Mary are having trouble with the assertion that YUAG’s “Woman at the Well” features the oldest image of Mary. Many rally behind the idea that Mary in the Catacombs of Priscilla on the Via Salaria in Rome is the earliest. It was previously accepted as common knowledge that Marian images in these catacombs were the earliest depictions of the Virgin. Simon, too, says, “here we come back to my reluctance to accept that this is the first and earliest depiction of the Virgin Mary. Academic discourse is good; go to the catacombs in Rome and check on the paintings there.”
Peppard addresses this line of criticism in his Times op-ed. He writes that images of Mary in the Catacombs “are challenging to date with certainty, and many scholars argue that the proposed examples have insufficiently specific iconographic signifiers.” So he argues that the “Woman at the Well” is the oldest securely dateable Virgin Mary, since it is dated specifically to the 240s AD.
“It’s a cumulative article,” Peppard explains. “There isn’t a smoking gun. There isn’t any one thing. But it’s a compounding of probabilities.”
And some people are convinced. Peppard says he has found the reaction to his claim overwhelmingly positive. He first took his theories about the baptistery paintings to scholarly conferences, where other academics welcomed his work with open arms. Then, when he published his op-ed in the Times, he started hearing rom strangers through email and social media. He received responses from random readers, but also from art historians from places like Russia, Israel, Greece, and France. People wrote and had questions, but, he says, they seemed more persuaded than not.
Peppard sees his interpretation as working on multiple levels. As he explains it, he wanted to join two narrative strands in his op-ed: “the art history and theological detective story” of discovery and re-identification, woven together with a reflection about how heritage and artifacts contribute to maintained cultural identity in Syria.
As a professor and a biblical scholar, Peppard wanted to assert a new academic interpretation of this painting. Peppard recognizes that, in academia, “most of the time you’re pushing around the same categories, you’re kind of tinkering or doing little baby steps on things. And that’s fine. That’s what it means to study the past. You’re emphasizing a narrative and de-emphasizing another.”
The YUAG may also take steps to make Peppard’s theory more accessible to the general populace. Lawrence Kanter, Chief Curator at the YUAG, explains, “My concern is that we the gallery responsibly represent not just the latest in scholarship but the latest in our judgment of serious scholarship. If the curator feels that this scholarship is serious, then I think we have an obligation to share it.”
The biggest step by which the gallery would show public interest in this discovery is to change the label card. “This particular discovery is of such interest to a large segment of the public I would think that we would want immediately to change the label to reflect that this is a current idea, and may well be true,” Kanter muses.
So the label may be edited, so visitors can come to the space to learn about this potential representation of the Virgin Mary. Peppard recognizes the significance of the museum label, too. “The long effect of giving something a title and an identification is very powerful when you’re curating,” he said, “whether it’s an encyclopedia or a museum.”
Peppard feels that recognizing the religious pluralism of ancient Dura Europos is critical for rebuilding in Syria after the current conflict. He ends a recent op-ed, published in
America: The National Catholic Review this January, by saying “Here in our own time, after 2,000 years of unbroken Christian tradition in Syria, both its people and cultural property are in dire need of salvation.” Forging a link between his own recent scholarship and the ancient world, Peppard paints a picture of a long lost pluralistic Syria. This Syria, as he argues in America, “includes perhaps the most distinctive Christian culture from the ancient world.” Identifying this Christian strand in Syria’s past, Peppard, from his office in New York, advocates for revisiting ancient Dura.
But Dr. Davis is less willing to idealize ancient Syria as a peacefully pluralistic place. He reflects that this view ignores the complexities of how these communities intersected in antiquity. “It wasn’t always a pretty picture,” he said. “They wouldn’t have always been in agreement.”
Davis also hesitates to draw clean connections between ancient Dura Europos and modern day Syria, saying that the geographic coincidence of these cultures is “not the same thing as saying that there’s a cultural, historical linkage.” Acknowledging that he has not yet read Peppard’s book (although there is a copy sitting on his desk in Pierson College), Davis ponders generally on how space relates to historical analysis, especially as Peppard writes from New York, not Damascus or Palmyra. Davis notes that there is a massive difference between what is at stake for a North American audience engaging with that question as opposed to a Syrian audience.
Reflecting on the project of going so public with a claim like Peppard’s, Davis tells me that, “One of the very fine lines that historians of these earlier periods tread is how do you make this work on historical materials that are very far removed from our own experience—chronologically, culturally—seem relevant and in the moment for readers today.” So while Davis acknowledges the cultural timeliness of Peppard’s assertion, he reinforces that, “the question I would ask is what are the lines of continuity.”
Peppard, in interrogating the superlative oldness of this painting of Mary, also implies that if this image is the oldest, it is therefore quite important to history. But Dr. Dale Martin, GRD ’88, the Woolsey Professor of Religious Studies and a specialist in New Testament and Christian origins, says, “From a Christian historical perspective, I don’t think it’s super important.” Especially since scholars have long acknowledged that the YUAG houses the oldest known baptistery with some of the oldest images of Jesus, knowing one more identification in the frame may not shift much about understanding this site.
While they are very old artifacts that we happen to house at Yale, these paintings were not necessarily immensely prominent in their own time. The paintings’ main attribute is that they are old and they were saved, not that they have exceptional artistic merit. Martin and Simon agree that, even compared to contemporary art from other religious sites, these wall paintings are less masterfully rendered. “The paintings in the house church, when you compare them to the synagogue paintings, they’re vastly inferior,” said Martin. So why should Peppard highlight them as important today, or as significant in the future as Syria rebuilds after ISIS? Why select them as critical pieces of cultural heritage? Simply because this image could be the oldest depiction of Mary?
While Peppard’s book title proudly proclaims its subject as The World’s Oldest Church, and his Times headline provocatively asks, “Is This the Oldest Image of the Virgin Mary?” Simon also wonders at the necessity of using such superlatives to describe a new interpretation. He told me in his office in the Yale Collections Center that he is suspicious of anything stated as being the “first,” “earliest” or “best.” “It may be helpful to sell a book,” he said, but beyond that it does not help advance the field.
Despite disagreements between these scholars about the role of these particular images in the broad scope of Syrian cultural heritage, one thing that most everyone can agree on is the importance of cultural heritage for building cultural identity after crises. Simon defines the term for me eloquently: “Cultural heritage is what people try to look for when their rhythm of everyday life is shattered. We actually do need our cultural heritage to rebuild.”Simon and Peppard are in agreement that amid conflict, cultural preservation should be prioritized. “You need to deal with the people’s safety and health first, there’s no doubt,” Simon says, “but the moment when you save the people and start to recover, you have to check on what cultural heritage is left.” Peppard echoes this sentiment with, “The fact that [ISIS] would be undertaking systematic looting operations in these places is a parallel story to the destruction of human lives.”
On the question of what role the museum can play in maintaining cultural heritage, Kanter is direct, saying, “The preservation of cultural heritage is the core mission of every art museum.” He recognizes that, of course, “It’s not that cultural heritage is always under dramatic attack as it is in Syria. But every object, just by the natural process of existing and aging in time, is at risk. Museums take it as their task not only to share them with the public but also to take care of them and preserve them for future generations. We’re motivated by legacy.”
The figure in the “Woman at the Well” is probably Mary, and she may well be the oldest dateable Mary. But what matters more to me as I stand in front of the cracked plaster woman, is that these images are safe, and here, and that the burnt orange border around the woman’s body seeps into the tomato red wall.