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Distinctly absent from the four Gospels or any book of the New Testament are descriptions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in any detail. Nevertheless, Catholic tradition has depicted Our Lady in many forms throughout history. Here are some of the oldest surviving images of Mary.
Annunciation at the Dura-Europos Church – 2nd Century
Discovered in the earliest known Christian house-church in the ancient city of Dura-Europos located in present day Syria on the Euphrates river. It shows the Virgin Mary drawing water from a well: a common theme of second century Incarnation biographies tell the scene of the Archangel Gabriel reaching the Blessed Mother as she is filling a pitcher. Thus it might well be the first ever portrait of Our Lady.
Virgin and Child with Balaam the Prophet – 2nd Century
This fresco was discovered in the Catacomb of Priscilla, a form Roman quarry used for Christian burials from the mid second century through the fourth century. Dated to around 150 A.D., it’s the one of the earliest surviving images of Mary depicting her nursing the Infant Jesus on her lap. It also features the prophet Balaam and the star from Numbers 24:17.
Adoration of the Magi – 3rd century
Found incised on a sarcophagus slab within the catacombs of Rome, this depiction of the Magi adoring the Christ Child on the lap of Mary dates back to the early third century. Today it resides in the Vatican Museum in Rome.
Protectress of the Roman People – 5th century
The traditional Byzantine icon depicting the Blessed Mother as the Salus Populi Romani, meaning health of the Roman people in Latin. According to pious legend, it is one of the icon’s painted by Saint Luke and discovered by Saint Helena in the 4th century. It is kept in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome.
Virgin (Theotokos) and Child between Saints Theodore and George
This encaustic on wood painting comes from Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, the world’s oldest continuously inhabited monastery. It depicts Mary with the Christ Child surrounded by Saints Theodore and George along with two angels and the Hand of God.