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The Face of God

Updated: Apr 12, 2023


Central image of Christ
Hinton St Mary Mosaic

It was on the 17th of September, 1963 when my father found himself staring at the face of God.


The blacksmith in a little village in North Dorset, my father had always enjoyed keeping a few cattle in the field adjoining the house and workshop. He had served in the Royal Air Force during the war and had sent his pay home to his mother from his various postings, including Malta and North Africa. My grandmother frugally saved every penny and handed it all back to him on his return home. My father used the cash to build a more modern workshop on the field next to his home and resumed his trade. He had set his two apprentices about digging footings for a cattle shed in the field, when they reported an obstacle. They had found that they could not dig past a certain point as they repeatedly hit a layer of stone. Further excavation revealed that the obstruction was part of a mosaic floor.


The pavement was a beautifully preserved specimen dating from the period just after the Romans left these shores - approximately 375 AD. Not only was it in great condition, but the central image was the bust of a beardless man, wearing a simple laurel wreath on his brow and a plain, unadorned toga. Behind the man’s head was portrayed the chi-rho monogram - the juxtaposed X and P characters from the Greek alphabet - adopted as shorthand in the ancient world for Christos, or Christ. In the storm of media publicity that followed the find academics put forward theories as to the identity of this mysterious figure. He wore none of the regalia or imperial symbols associated with a Roman emperor, yet the wreath spoke of victory in battle. He bore no resemblance to later artistic representations of Jesus Christ such as those seen in religious iconography, yet the Chi-Rho seemed to point strongly to the Christ. The rest of the mosaic, which had been the floor to quite a large room with a smaller antechamber, featured beautifully detailed hunting scenes and the classical theme of Belepheron slaying the chimera. Borders resembling ropes, decorations of pomegranates, and representations of the four winds; or, as some thought, Evangelists; made this a truly spectacular find.


In a letter to the Daily Telegraph, Professor J.M.C Toynbee, the then leading expert in Roman artistic studies, argued strongly that the evidence was much more in favour of the central portrait being that of Christ than Constantine. This view has since prevailed, thus making the Hinton st Mary Mosaic the oldest pictorial representation of Jesus Christ to ever have been found, anywhere in the world.


Yet.


This momentous unearthing was almost an unresolvable mystery. The matriarch of the family home, Rachel, had a recurring problem - her clean washing repeatedly ended up in the mud, as the pole to which the washing line was secured refused to remain vertical. In due course the ingenious young John, who would become my father, decided to fix the problem. He took an iron bar - of which there were plenty in his father Walter’s forge - and extended the hole far deeper than had previously been possible. He punched through the rock which had limited the depth to which the pole could be inserted, until it was snugly in place and perfectly solid. His mother was delighted. John, whilst proud of his problem solving abilities, remained puzzled by the small cubes of stone that he noticed in the spoil from his excavation. As the children from the nearby Sturminster Newton Secondary Modern School, led by the County Archaeologist from Dorchester Museum undertook the initial official excavation, an ugly hole in the floor could be clearly seen, not very far from the all important central portrait. The tesserae or small cubes of coloured stone had been removed from that spot and added to the general soil of the surrounding area. Had the inventive young John made his washing post hole 18 inches in a different direction, the now iconic image of the face of Jesus may have been lost forever before seeing the light of day.


This modest, yet calm, dignified countenance surveyed our sitting room from a framed artist’s impression on the wall throughout my childhood. The patient eyes that followed you and cleft chin painted in simple earth colours formed an imprint in my mind that is with me today.


My dad had found Jesus, lying buried in the ground for nearly 1600 years. This was big! Suddenly he was being interviewed by newspapers and was on the radio. However, the bigger find had happened some years before, when on his return from the war his life was transformed by finding the Jesus who had only been buried for less than three days. It happened that the risen Jesus found him! From being a nominal Christian, he was to become a lifelong devoted disciple of Jesus Christ.


Growing up as one of his children, my life was indeed influenced by his archaeological find, but so much more by my dad's discovery of the Jesus who just would not stay dead!

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