In the protective recesses of Yale’s museum is an ancient fresco fragment. To the average eye it is humble in appearance: the outline of a woman, bending down to what seems like a well. The long-held belief, logically, is that the fresco depicts the Samaritan woman at the Well, from the Gospel of John, Chapter 4.
This simple fragment has been at Yale for decades, but is having a renewed moment in the spotlight because researcher Michael Peppard is proposing a new interpretation of this work of art: the fresco is not the Samaritan woman, but Mary at the Annunciation!
If you are at all familiar with the Lukan version of the Annunciation, you are already saying to me, “but Melissa, there is no well in the story. This guy is off his rocker!”
And you would be correct, if Mr. Peppard was not basing his theory off of another ancient text: the Protoevangelium of James. The Protoevangelium of James is a popular work testifying to Mary’s holy beginnings, upbringing, and early time with Joseph. It is a bold move on Mr. Peppard’s part to use this text since it is apocryphal, but not completely out of turn. The Protoevangelium of James is alluded to by Ss. Jerome and Justin Martyr, among other early Church luminaries, and continues to leave an impression on Catholic tradition and Her liturgical calendar. It may not be far off to say that the only reason the text remains apocryphal is because despite it’s lack of heretical over-or-undertones it never gained the universal traction and approbation that the canonical books did.
But you know one place where the Protoevangelium of James would have been very popular? In Syria, where James the Lesser (as far as scholars can tell) is believed to have preached after Pentecost! And this fresco fragment happens to be an artifact from Dura-Europos, a border settlement on the Euphrates River in modern-day Syria.
Aleteia featured the endangered site of Dura-Europos and Peppard’s fresco interpretation, and besides being a sucker for all things archaeology and Church history, I was struck by a bit of background information that the article offered:
The wall painting was taken from the small baptistery of the 3rd-century house church. Christians had met for liturgical celebrations there before Constantine allowed Christianity to be practiced openly, said a 2014 article at Vatican Insider:
The church in Dura-Europos kept its function as a private house on the top floor; but on the ground floor, around 230 A.D., a small room containing no more than 60 people became a Christian place of worship. The frescoes on the walls prove this; there are the first known representations of the Good Shepherd, the healing of the paralytic and Jesus walking on the waters with Peter. It is worth remembering that the very idea of a church separate from private houses could exist only after the 313 A.D. edict, through which the Emperor Constantine recognized Christians’ freedom of religion.
“It is worth remembering that the very idea of a church separate from private houses could only exist after the 313 A.D. edict…” Wait, what? In the early Church, churches were…domestic? Who would have ever thought of a domestic Church?
Sadly, the reality we often forget about the early Church is that it did not have the luxury of material ability to put the boundless love of God on radiant display as in later centuries. In fact, the treasury of stone, marble, stained glass, art, and ornamentation that many of us take for granted, or take as the epitome of faithful expression, is really just the Catholic version of Solomon’s Second Temple. And that is okay!
But the reminder that the Church began, survived, grew, and conquered within the home is much-needed today. Saint John Paul II re-proposed the Domestic Church to the world, and started a frenzy. The simple Well-woman fresco, having yet another moment to evangelize to those who have the courage to hear, is also re-proposing the domestic Church but in a very specific and simple way: bring back the practice of sacred spaces in the home!
I know many people who already do this, but I know many more who don’t. I’ve wanted to set up a sacred space in our home for a while, but it just hasn’t happened yet. When we move to O’ahu in June, planning what wall gets to be our sacred space is #1 on my list.
A sacred space (a Holy Hot-Spot? called it!) is a single location in your home that you designate as a center for prayer, meditation, and a frequent visual reminder to keep Christ front and center in your life (and the life of your family). Like the home-Church in Duro-Europa, pictures and icons that speak to you and your family should decorate the area. A crucifix is a must, as is Scripture and a selection of prayers and other devotionals. Statues are always good, especially to hold your rosaries. Candles, smells, and bells are at your pleasure; add a holy water bottle and you are set! Really, just take an afternoon to browse Monastery Icons and go nuts.
Most importantly, gather your family around your Holy Hot-Spot daily. Pray, read, or just talk about your day, but do it at that sacred place in your home. Invite your parish priest over for dinner and ask him to bless the area. Use it well, and share it with others. A time is coming, as it was in the beginning, where the Church may only be allowed behind the doors of our homes. And that is okay too. It worked the first time, didn’t it?