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The depiction of Christ in pictorial form was controversial in the early church. The depiction of Jesus in art took several centuries to reach a conventional standardized form for his physical appearance, which has subsequently remained largely stable since that time. Most images of Jesus have in common a number of traits which are now almost universally associated with Jesus, although variants are seen.
The conventional image of a fully bearded Jesus with long hair did not become established until the 6th century in Eastern Christianity, and much later in the West. Earlier images were much more varied. Images of Jesus tend to show ethnic characteristics similar to those of the culture in which the image has been created. Beliefs that certain images are historically authentic, or have acquired an authoritative status from Church tradition, remain powerful among some of the faithful, in Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and Roman Catholicism. The Shroud of Turin is now the best-known example, though the Image of Edessa and the Veil of Veronica were better known in medieval times.
No physical description of Jesus is contained in any of the canonical Gospels. In the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus is said to have manifested as a "light from heaven" that temporarily blinded the Apostle Paul. The Book of Revelation makes a reference to a vision the author had of Jesus: "among the lampstands was someone like a Son of Man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance." (Revelation 1:12–16, NIV). Use in art of the Revelation description of Jesus has generally been restricted to illustrations of the book itself.
Exodus 20:4-6 "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image" is one of the Ten Commandments and except for minor exceptions made Jewish depictions of first century individuals a scarcity. But attitudes towards the interpretation of this Commandment changed through the centuries, in that while first century Rabbis in Judea objected violently to the depiction of human figures and placement of statues in Temples, third century Babylonian Jews had different views; and while no figural art from first century Roman Judea exists, the art on the Dura synagogue walls developed with no objection from the Rabbis early in the third century.
During the persecution of Christians under the Roman Empire, Christian art was necessarily furtive and ambiguous, and there was hostility to idols in a group still with a large component of members with Jewish origins, surrounded by, and polemicising against, sophisticated pagan images of gods. Irenaeus (d. c.202), Clement of Alexandria (d. 215), Lactantius (ca. 240 – ca. 320) and Eusebius of Caesarea (d. ca. 339) disapproved of portrayals in images of Jesus. The 36th canon of the Synod of Elvira in 306 A.D. reads, 'It has been decreed that no pictures be had in the churches, and that which is worshipped or adored be not painted on the walls', which has been interpreted by Calvin and other Protestants as an interdiction of the making of images of Christ. The issue remained the subject of controversy until the end of the 4th century.
The earliest surviving Christian art comes from the late 2nd to early 4th centuries on the walls of tombs belonging, most likely, to wealthy Christians in the catacombs of Rome, although from literary evidence there may well have been panel icons which, like almost all classical painting, have disappeared.
Initially Jesus was represented indirectly by pictogram symbols such as the Ichthys (fish), the peacock, or an anchor (the Labarum or Chi-Rho was a later development). Later personified symbols were used, including Jonah, whose three days in the belly of the whale pre-figured the interval between Christ's death and Resurrection; Daniel in the lion's den; or Orpheus charming the animals. The Tomb of the Julii has a famous but unique mosaic of Christ as Sol Invictus, a sun-god. The image of "The Good Shepherd", a beardless youth in pastoral scenes collecting sheep, was the most common of these images, and was probably not understood as a portrait of the historical Jesus at this period. It continues the classical Kriophoros, and in some cases may also represent the Shepherd of Hermas, a popular Christian literary work of the 2nd century.
Among the earliest depictions clearly intended to directly represent Jesus himself are many showing him as a baby, usually held by his mother, especially in the Adoration of the Magi, seen as the first theophany, or display of the incarnate Christ to the world at large. The oldest known portrait of Jesus, found in Syria and dated to about 235, shows him as a beardless young man of authoritative and dignified bearing. He is depicted dressed in the style of a young philosopher, with close-cropped hair and wearing a tunic and pallium – signs of good breeding in Greco-Roman society. From this, it is evident that some early Christians paid no heed to the historical context of Jesus being a Jew and visualised him solely in terms of their own social context, as a quasi-heroic figure, without supernatural attributes such as a halo (a fourth-century innovation).
The appearance of Jesus had some theological implications. While some Christians thought Jesus should have the beautiful appearance of a young classical hero, and the Gnostics tended to think he could change his appearance at will, for which they cited the Meeting at Emmaus as evidence, others including the Church Fathers Justin (d.165) and Tertullian (d.220) believed, following Isaiah:53:2, that Christ's appearance was unremarkable: "he had no form nor comeliness, that we should look upon him, nor beauty that we should delight in him." But when the pagan Celsus ridiculed the Christian religion for having an ugly God in about 180, Origen (d. 248) cited Psalm 45:3: "Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, mighty one, with thy beauty and fairness" Later the emphasis of leading Christian thinkers changed; Jerome (d.420) and Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) argued that Jesus must have been ideally beautiful in face and body. For Augustine he was "beautiful as a child, beautiful on earth, beautiful in heaven."
From the 3rd century onwards, the first narrative scenes from the Life of Christ to be clearly seen are the Baptism of Christ, painted in a catacomb in about 200, and the miracle of the Raising of Lazarus, both of which can be clearly identified by the inclusion of the dove of the Holy Spirit in Baptisms, and the vertical, shroud-wrapped body of Lazarus. Other scenes remain ambiguous – an agape feast may be intended as a Last Supper, but before the development of a recognised physical appearance for Christ, and attributes such as the halo, it is impossible to tell, as tituli or captions are rarely used. There are some surviving scenes from Christ's Works of about 235 from the Dura Europos church on the Persian frontier of the Empire. During the 4th century a much greater number of scenes came to be depicted, usually showing Christ as youthful, beardless and with short hair that does not reach his shoulders, although there is considerable variation. Jesus is sometimes shown performing miracles by means of a wand, as on the doors of Santa Sabina in Rome (430–32). He uses the wand to change water to wine, multiply the bread and fishes, and raise Lazarus. When pictured healing, he only lays on hands. The wand is thought to be a symbol of power. The bare-faced youth with the wand may indicate that Jesus was thought of as a user of magic or wonder worker by some of the early Christians. No art has been found picturing Jesus with a wand before the 2nd century. Some scholars suggest that the Gospel of Mark, The Secret Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John, (the so-called Signs Gospel), portray such a wonder worker, user of magic, a magician or a Divine man. Only the Apostle Peter is also depicted in ancient art with a wand.
Another depiction, seen from the late 3rd century or early 4th century onwards, showed Jesus with a beard, and within a few decades can be very close to the conventional type that later emerged. This depiction has been said to draw variously on Imperial imagery, the type of the classical philosopher, and that of Zeus, leader of the Greek gods, or Jupiter, his Roman equivalent, and the protector of Rome. According to art historian Paul Zanker, the bearded type has long hair from the start, and a relatively long beard (contrasting with the short "classical" beard and hair always given to St Peter, and most other apostles); this depiction is specifically associated with "Charismatic" philosophers like Euphrates the Stoic, Dio of Prusa and Apollonius of Tyana, some of whom were claimed to perform miracles. After the very earliest examples of c. 300, this depiction is mostly used for hieratic images of Jesus, and scenes from his life are more likely to use a beardless, youthful type. The tendency of older scholars such as Talbot Rice to see the beardless Jesus as associated with a "classical" artistic style and the bearded one as representing an "Eastern" one drawing from ancient Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia seems impossible to sustain, and does not feature in more recent analyses. Equally attempts to relate on a consistent basis the explanation for the type chosen in a particular work to the differing theological views of the time have been unsuccessful. From the 3rd century on, some Christian leaders, such as Clement of Alexandria had recommended the wearing of beards by Christian men. The centre parting was also seen from early on, and was also associated with long-haired philosophers.
From the middle of the 4th century, after Christianity was legalized by the Edict of Milan in 313, and gained Imperial favour, there was a new range of images of Christ the King, using either of the two physical types described above, but adopting the costume and often the poses of Imperial iconography. These developed into the various forms of Christ in Majesty. Some scholars reject the connection between the political events and developments in iconography, seeing the change as a purely theological one, resulting from the shift of the concept and title of Pantocrator ("Ruler of all") from God the Father (still not portrayed in art) to Christ, which was a development of the same period, perhaps led by Athanasius of Alexandria (d. 373).
Another depiction drew from classical images of philosophers, often shown as a youthful "intellectual wunderkind" in Roman sarcophagii; the Traditio Legis image initially uses this type. Gradually Jesus became shown as older, and during the 5th century the image with a beard and long hair, now with a cruciform halo, came to dominate, especially in the Eastern Empire. In the earliest large New Testament mosaic cycle, in Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna (ca. 520), Jesus is beardless though the period of his ministry until the scenes of the Passion, after which he is shown with a beard.
The Good Shepherd, now clearly identified as Christ, with halo and often rich robes, is still depicted, as on the apse mosaic in the church of Santi Cosma e Damiano in Rome, where the twelve apostles are depicted as twelve sheep below the imperial Jesus, or in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia at Ravenna.
Once the bearded, long-haired Jesus became the conventional representation of Jesus, his facial features slowly began to be standardised, although this process took until at least the 6th century in the Eastern Church, and much longer in the West, where clean-shaven Jesuses are common until the 12th century, despite the influence of Byzantine art. But by the late Middle Ages the beard became almost universal and when Michelangelo showed a clean-shaven Apollo-like Christ in his Last Judgment fresco in the Sistine Chapel (1534–41) he came under persistent attack in the Counter-Reformation climate of Rome for this, as well as other things.
French scholar Paul Vignon has listed fifteen similarities ("marks", like tilaka) between most of the icons of Jesus after this point, particularly in the icons of "Christ Pantocrator" ("The all-powerful Messiah"). He claims that these are due to the availability of the Image of Edessa (which he claims to be identical to the Shroud of Turin, via Constantinople) to the artists. Certainly images believed to have miraculous origins, or the Hodegetria, believed to be a portrait of Mary from the life by Saint Luke, were widely regarded as authoritative by the Early Medieval period and greatly influenced depictions. In Eastern Orthodoxy the form of images was, and largely is, regarded as revealed truth, with a status almost equal to scripture, and the aim of artists is to copy earlier images without originality, although the style and content of images does in fact change slightly over time.
As to the historical appearance of Jesus, in one possible translation of the apostle Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul urges Christian men of first-century Corinth not to have long hair. An early commentary by Pelagius (ca. AD 354 – ca. AD 420/440) says, "Paul was complaining because men were fussing about their hair and women were flaunting their locks in church. Not only was this dishonoring to them, but it was also an incitement to fornication." Some[who?] have speculated that Paul was a Nazirite who kept his hair long.
Jesus was a practicing Jew so presumably had a beard.
A very early image which is believed to be an early anti-Christian graffito is the Alexamenos graffito, a unique piece of wall graffiti near the Palatine hill in Rome. The inscription has been ascribed dates ranging from the 1st to the 3rd centuries AD. It was apparently drawn by a Roman soldier to mock another soldier who was a Christian. The caption reads, in Greek, "Alexamenos worships [his] God", while the image shows a man raising his hand toward a crucified figure with a donkey's head. This seems to refer to a Roman misconception that the Jews worshipped a god with the form of a donkey, so that the image would be at once antisemitic and anti-Christian. A small minority of scholars dispute whether this image depicts Jesus, proposing that this image may be a reference to another deity.
Conventional depictions of Christ developed in medieval art include the narrative scenes of the Life of Christ, and many other conventional depictions:
Narrative scenes from the Life of Christ include:
Devotional images include:
Certain local traditions have maintained different depictions, sometimes reflecting local racial characteristics, as do the Catholic and Orthodox depictions. The Coptic Church of Egypt separated in the 5th century, and has a distinctive depiction of Jesus, consistent with Coptic art. The Ethiopian Church, also Coptic, developed on Coptic traditions, but shows Jesus and all Biblical figures with the Ethiopian appearance of its members. Other traditions in Asia and elsewhere also show the race of Jesus as that of the local population (see Chinese picture in the gallery below). In modern times such variation has become more common, but images following the traditional depiction in both physical appearance and clothing are still dominant, perhaps surprisingly so. In Europe, local ethnic tendencies in depictions of Jesus can be seen, for example in Spanish, German, or Early Netherlandish painting, but almost always surrounding figures are still more strongly characterised. For example, the Virgin Mary, after the vision reported by Bridget of Sweden, was often shown with blonde hair, but Christ's is very rarely paler than a light brown.
In 2001, the television series Son of God used one of three first-century Jewish skulls from a leading department of forensic science in Israel to depict Jesus in a new way. A face was constructed using forensic anthropology by Richard Neave, a retired medical artist from the Unit of Art in Medicine at the University of Manchester. The face that Neave constructed suggested that Jesus would have had a broad face and large nose, and differed significantly from the traditional depictions of Jesus in renaissance art. Additional information about Jesus' skin color and hair was provided by Mark Goodacre, a New Testament scholar and professor at Duke University. Using third-century images from a synagogue—the earliest pictures of Jewish people—Goodacre proposed that Jesus' skin color would have been darker and swarthier than his traditional Western image. He also suggested that he would have had short, curly hair and a short cropped beard. This is also confirmed in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, where Paul the Apostle states that it is "disgraceful" for a man to have long hair. As Paul knew many of the disciples and members of Jesus' family, it is unlikely that he would have written such a thing had Jesus had long hair. Although not literally the face of Jesus, the result of the study determined that Jesus' skin would have been more olive-colored than white, and that he would have looked like a typical Galilean Semite. Among the points made was that the Bible records that Jesus's disciple Judas had to point him out to those arresting him in Gethsemane. The implied argument is that if Jesus's physical appearance had differed markedly from his disciples, then he would have been relatively easy to identify.
There are, however, some images which have been claimed to realistically show how Jesus looked. One early tradition, recorded by Eusebius of Caesarea, says that Jesus once washed his face with water and then dried it with a cloth, leaving an image of his face imprinted on the cloth. This was sent by him to King Abgarus of Edessa, who had sent a messenger asking Jesus to come and heal him of his disease. This image, called the Mandylion or Image of Edessa, appears in history in around 525. Numerous replicas of this "image not made by human hands" remain in circulation. There are also icon compositions of Jesus and Mary that are traditionally believed by many Orthodox to have originated in paintings by Luke the Evangelist.
A currently familiar depiction is that on the Shroud of Turin, whose records go back to 1353. Controversy surrounds the shroud and its exact origin remains subject to debate. One of the Catholic devotions approved by the Holy See, that to the Holy Face of Jesus, now uses the image of the face on the shroud as it appeared in the negative of the photograph taken by amateur photographer Secondo Pia in 1898. The image cannot be clearly seen on the shroud itself with the naked eye, and it surprised Pia to the extent that he said he almost dropped and broke the photographic plate when he first saw the developed negative image on it in the evening of 28 May 1898.
Before 1898, devotion to the Holy Face of Jesus used an image based on the Veil of Veronica, where legend recounts that Veronica from Jerusalem encountered Jesus along the Via Dolorosa on the way to Calvary. When she paused to wipe the sweat from Jesus's face with her veil, the image was imprinted on the cloth.
The establishment of these images as Catholic devotions traces back to Sister Marie of St Peter and the Venerable Leo Dupont who started and promoted them from 1844 to 1874 in Tours France, and Sister Maria Pierina De Micheli who associated the image from the Shroud of Turin with the devotion in 1936 in Milan Italy.
A very popular 20th century depiction among Roman Catholics is the Divine Mercy image, following its approval by Pope John Paul II in April 2000. The Divine Mercy depiction is formally used in celebrations of Divine Mercy Sunday and is venerated by over 100 million Catholics who follow the devotion. The image is not part of Acheiropoieta in that it has been depicted by modern artists, but the pattern of the image is said to have been miraculously shown to Saint Faustina Kowalska in a vision of Jesus in 1931 in Płock, Poland.
Faustina wrote in her diary that that Jesus appeared to her and asked her to "Paint an image according to the pattern you see". Faustina eventually found an artist (Eugene Kazimierowski) to depict the Divine Mercy image of Jesus with his right hand raised in a sign of blessing and the left hand touching the garment near his breast, with two large rays, one red, the other white emanating from near his heart. After Faustina's death, a number of other artists painted the image, with the depiction by Adolf Hyla being among the most reproduced.
The Good Shepherd, A historical portrait of Jesus. Ceiling of S. Callisto catacomb, mid 3rd century.
Mural painting from the catacomb of Commodilla. One of the first bearded images of Jesus, late 4th century.
Jesus depicted on an early 8th-century Byzantine coin. After the Byzantine iconoclasm all coins had Christ on them.
Christ Carrying the Cross, 1580, by El Greco
An traditional Ethiopian depiction of Jesus and Mary with distinctively "Ethiopian" features.
Head of Jesus (1890) by Enrique Simonet.
Cristo del Otero, above Palencia, Spain
Statue at Santuario di Oropa, Italy
4 ton bronze statue of Jesus placed high in the Andes mountains, on a road between Chile and Argentina.
Infant Jesus of Prague, one of several miniature statues of an infant Christ that are much venerated by the faithful.
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