Is the Earliest Image of the Virgin Mary in the Dura-Europos Church?

Dura-Europos church is the oldest Christian church in the world


Is this wall painting of a woman at a well from the third-century Dura-Europos church the earliest image of the Virgin Mary? Photo: Yale University Art Gallery.

In the oldest known Christian church, located at the site of Dura-Europos in eastern Syria, a wall painting depicts a woman leaning over a well. Who is she? Some believe this is the Biblical scene of the Samaritan woman who speaks with Jesus beside Jacob’s well (John 4:1–42). In “Earliest Depictions of the Virgin Mary” in the March/April 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Biblical scholar Mary Joan Winn Leith discusses another possibility.

The third-century C.E. Dura-Europos church was discovered in excavations conducted before World War II. Only recently, however, has a new light been shone on the portrait of the woman at the well, which is located in the small baptistery of the church. Leith reviews scholar Michael Peppard’s argument that the portrait depicts not the Samaritan woman but the Virgin Mary at the moment of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel announces to her that she will bear the Son of God, Jesus:

As Peppard explains, the third-century Dura Annunciation is based not on the Biblical Annunciation in Luke 1:26–38 but on the Gospel of James (a.k.a. the Protevangelium of James), a second-century apocryphal (i.e., not considered authoritative) gospel that narrates the life of Mary up to and including the birth of Jesus. According to the Gospel of James, Mary “took the pitcher and went forth to fill it with water and lo! a voice saying, ‘Hail thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women.’ And she looked around on the right and on the left to see from where this voice could have come.”

If Peppard’s interpretation is correct, this would make the portrait at the Dura-Europos church the earliest image of the Virgin Mary.

Our free eBook Ten Top Biblical Archaeology Discoveries brings together the exciting worlds of archaeology and the Bible! Learn the fascinating insights gained from artifacts and ruins, like the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, where the Gospel of John says Jesus miraculously restored the sight of the blind man, and the Tel Dan inscription—the first historical evidence of King David outside the Bible.

According to Leith, other early images of the Virgin Mary can shed light on Christian beliefs in the first centuries of the Common Era.

“Among the puzzles is how Christians viewed Jesus’ mother Mary in the earliest centuries of Christianity,” writes Leith. “Mary’s status in Christianity only became official in 431 when the Council of Ephesus awarded her the title Theotokos, ‘the one who gives birth to God.’ Information about Mary’s significance before then, whether visual or textual, is surprisingly sparse, but archaeology has supplied some helpful clues.”

Get an in-depth look at the portrait of the woman at the well from the Dura-Europos church and explore other early images of the Virgin Mary by reading the full article “Earliest Depictions of the Virgin Mary” by Mary Joan Winn Leith in the March/April 2017 issue of BAR.


BAS Library Members: Read the full article “Earliest Depictions of the Virgin Mary” by Mary Joan Winn Leith in the March/April 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The Origins of “The Cherry Tree Carol” by Mary Joan Winn Leith

The Virgin Mary and the Prophet Muhammad by Mary Joan Winn Leith

Were Mary and Joseph Married or Engaged at Jesus’ Birth? by Mark Wilson

The Archaeological Quest for the Earliest Christians: Part 1 and Part 2 by Douglas Boin

Mary’s Many Sides

Mary, Simeon or Anna: Who First Recognized Jesus as Messiah?


Posted in Biblical Archaeology Sites.

Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Add Your Comments

4 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. Jonathan says

    While it is easy to come up with a theory, it is much harder to prove one. There is nothing in the Gospel of James that could shed more light on this and we are only looking at a corner of a painting. I personally would rather have more evidence and less theory.

  2. Mark says

    I agree with Jonathan. The woman is up in the corner, and the appearance and dress are very different than what you typically see concerning Mary. Based on what we see here, the woman is more likely to be Photinai.

  3. Raj says

    Let us belive that mother mary is highly favoured by almighty.As For portrait is concern we should not give much importance.

  4. donald says

    It does not matter because in the third century the painter would not have known what the woman at the well looked like or knew who the woman was.

Some HTML is OK

or, reply to this post via trackback.

Send this to friend

Hello! You friend thought you might be interested in reading this post from
Is the Earliest Image of the Virgin Mary in the Dura-Europos Church?!
Here is the link:
Enter Your Log In Credentials

Change Password