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


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.

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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.


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This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on March 16, 2017.

5 Responses

  1. Jordan says:

    The canon of the New Testament (as we now know it) did not exist in 200s, and Christians in Syria used a number of different writings and stories in their liturgies, including the Protevangelium, which was just as widely known (if not more-so) than any of the individual Gospels that were later given the names “Luke” and “John” and “Matthew” and “Mark”. In fact, the Syrians used a harmony of the Gospels in liturgy –the Diatesseron.

    The likelihood of this scene of a woman at a well being Mary at the Annunciation makes more sense from an iconographic standpoint than it does being the Samaritan woman. This woman is to the left of the painting, which tells you that any accompanying figure is obviously to her right. But the Gospel story of the Samaritan woman clearly indicates that Jesus was already seated at the well Himself when the Samaritan woman arrived and directly encountered HIM sitting on the actual well. He asked her for a drink before she began to sue the well. She didn’t have to look around after the fact to discover Him. However, in the Protoevangelion account of the Annunciation, Mary is at the well, already using it, and hears a voice announcing the angelic greeting. And she must look up from her work, startled. Presumably (if this indeed a scene from the Annunciation) the angel is the figure to her right, away from the well, calling to her –and thus the central figure in the scene.

    It makes more sense, given what we know about ancient Syrian Christianity and iconographic style, for this to be one portion of a very ancient Annunciation scene. But it’s only a possibility. Not possible to know for sure. And it is hardly the oldest depiction of Mary; there are paintings of Mary and the Child Jesus in the Roman catacombs that are also from the mid-200s.

  2. 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.

  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. 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.

  5. 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.

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