“The Mona Lisa of Galilee” discovered in Sepphora, Israel
Mona Lisa of the Galilee
Modern archeologists have uncovered an enigmatic and beautiful mosaic in the Lower Galilee region of northern Israel, on a site believed to have once been the ancient city of Sepphora. In the banquet room of a Roman villa perched above a fertile valley midway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee, a third century artist juxtaposed scenes of Dionysian legend with the face of a beautiful woman. Her head held high, seemingly steady and erect, is encircled by what appears to be a laurel wreath. Her coiffed long hair and sizable earrings contribute to an impression of wealth and quiet elegance. Her visage and coloring, even as they appear so many centuries later in somewhat roughly chiseled ancient tesserae, are delicate and fair. But it is the steady gaze of her eyes and the mystery surrounding her true identity that prompted observers centuries later to compare her to perhaps the most enduring portrait of a woman ever created, when her likeness was dubbed the Mona Lisa of Galilee.
Luke 8:1-3: “Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.”
This forgotten woman inspires comparison to St. Joanna, another enigmatic, all but forgotten woman of the same general era of antiquity. We can surmise that St. Joanna was also a woman of wealth and privilege, as one of the only two documented Scriptural references to her identifies St. Joanna as the wife of Chuza, who was the steward of Herod Antipas at the time when Antipas served the Roman Empire in Galilee as Tetrarch. Knowing this, it is only a short leap to assume that Chuza and Joanna would have been financially well off if he served Herod Antipas in such an important capacity. That assumption would dovetail nicely with St Luke’s statement that Joanna was one of the women who “provided for them [Christ and his disciples] out of their means”, meaning St. Joanna was either wealthy in her own right, or shared her wealth with her husband.
The Mosaic as a reminder of St. Joanna
First – the obvious. What better way to represent this site’s attempt to piece together a picture of St. Joanna’s life from the few quickly wrought, well placed, but scattered New Testament references we have available to us – as if we moderns are creating a mosaic? Fittingly, as we search Scriptures to try to identify the circumstances and persons St. Joanna may have encountered, we are piecing together her life and discipleship to form a whole based on imagination and perhaps artistic predilection, and while that whole may resemble reality, may even enhance it, it should be assumed to evoke an image but perhaps miss the mark in terms of true authenticity. A mosaic is a work of imagination, not a photographic portrait. As are the musings and meditations about St. Joanna on this website.
The subject of the mosaic herself is also a fitting evocation of the modern quest to understand St. Joanna. She is unknown in the modern era, although archeologists suspect that she may have been a woman of some renown in the era during which the mosaic was created (3rd century). Likewise St. Joanna, unknown to modern minds, can be assumed to have been a notable personage during the New Testament era. That St Joanna is mentioned only twice in the Gospels by name, with brevity, leads to the very reasonable speculation that St. Luke did not elaborate on who she was precisely because she was very well known to the Christians of their day. Yet, like the Mona Lisa of the Galilee, and Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, certainty with regard to her true identity escapes us in the modern age.
The significance of Sepphora as the site where the mosaic was discovered
Sepphora (also known as Zippori, Tzippori, Autocratoris, Diocaesarea, Eirenopolis Neronias, Le Sephorie, Saffouriya, Safuriyah, Safuriyye, Seffarieh, Sephoris, Sippori) is a city of historic significance. The existing ancient city of Sepphora was rebuilt and fortified when Galilee came under the rule of Herod Antipas, acting as tetrarch of the Roman provincialate. Antipas established Sepphoris as his capital in 4 B.C., renamed it Autocratoris, and used it as his administrative center until he built the city of Tiberias in 19 A.D.
References around the web indicate that some scholars believe that St. Joseph and Jesus may have labored in Antipas’ reconstruction of Sepphoris, which began shortly after Jesus’ birth. Sepphoris was about an hour’s walk from Nazareth. Further, since Herod Antipas rebuilt the city, and since St. Joanna’s husband was Herod’s steward and a member of his court, it is highly probable that St. Joanna visited there many times – or perhaps lived there from time to time once she was married, at the discretion of the court.
Sepphora is believed by some to have been a home of St. Mary, the mother of Jesus, as it has been cited as the village where her parents, Saints Joachim and Anna, resided.