The Face of Christ
What did Jesus look like?
We all know that.
He had blue eyes, long brown hair, a beard, a white complexion and a long, thin face. Except is that accurate?
Paintings of Jesus
The way that Jesus was painted seems to have become standardised by the 6th century AD, when the image on the right hand side of this collage was painted.
- earliest known example of Christ Pantocrator in St Catherine on Mount Sinai, Egypt
- Christ, the Redeemer, designed by Paul Landowski
- Head of Christ by Warner Sallman
- Christ Pantocrator (detail) in Hagia Sophia Cathedral, Istanbul
- Orthodox icon (detail)
- sculptor of Christ
- after Divine Mercy by St Faustina
Jesus Around the World
After school and before going to university, I taught for a year in a school in Murang'a District, Kenya. Going into the Anglican church in Murang'a I was struck by the stunning murals of the life of Jesus, painted by Elimo Njau. The landscapes were of the local countryside, the buildings looked familiar and Jesus was black.
Having grown up in England with images similar to the first collage, I was taken aback. But then I realised that the paintings of my childhood, had European landscapes with a white Jesus. Our artists had done the same thing as Njau.
Jesus belongs to the world, not to just one culture. All Christians identify with him and follow him as their Lord and saviour. So why not depict him in different ways?
What is your reaction to these images from around the world?
Top right hand corner -
- Murals by Elimo Njau in ACK St James All Martyrs Memorial Church, Murang'a, Kenya.
(Read more about the Murang'a Murals in this excellent article by Manyibe Ezra.)
- The Korean Christ by Robert Lentz
- Byzantine mosaic (detail)
- The Baptism of Christ - unknown artist
- detail of Christ washing the disciples' feet in the Ethiopic bible,
- Arab Jesus - unknown artist
- Jesus of the People by Janet McKenzie
- Chinese Jesus - unknown artist
To explore this topic I sketched the face of Jesus many, many times. I changed his features incrementally and considered the result. I drew him as a young man and then when he was older. Sometimes with long hair and a beard. Sometimes without.
The Gospels didn't describe what Jesus, or anyone else looked like. However, all the gospels tell of how Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss.
While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and elders of the people.
Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them:
'The one I kiss is the man. Arrest him.'
Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, 'Greetings, Rabbi!' and kissed him.
Matthew 26 v 47 - 49
If Jesus had been much taller than the disciples, with striking blue eyes, blond hair or he looked distinctive in some way, Judas wouldn't have needed to arrange this signal. It was Passover and so the moon would have been bright. The soldiers could have recognised him easily.
Jesus didn't float about, have a halo or a shining aura.
He was ordinary looking. He looked just like his disciples.
So, if we can find out what the average Jewish man looked like in the first century AD, we can be fairly sure that was what Jesus Christ looked like.
He would have worn similar clothes and kept to the current fashion when it came to the length of his hair, or style of beard. Assuming this, I've answered my own questions about his appearance.
Did Jesus have a pale skin, blond hair and blue eyes?
No, he didn't.
We can be certain about this.
He had swarthy skin, dark brown or black hair and probably brown eyes.
Did Jesus have long hair?
No, he had short, not long hair, and it was probably wavy.
At the time only women had long hair. Recent DNA testing of ancient skeletons have shown that most people of this era in Palestine had wavy hair.
Did Jesus have a beard?
Both of these last two answers follow the fashion of the times.
The custom for men was to have beards, but long hair was considered shameful for men and the crowning glory for women.
Was Jesus physically weak?
No, he wasn't.
From his early teens he had worked as a carpenter or a builder.
( I will discuss the work Jesus & Joseph did during Advent, when we will look at Joseph.)
Recently forensic scientists, archeologists and DNA specialists have produced increasingly realistic reconstructions of faces from the past. Teams have looked at ancient skeletons and DNA from the first century in Israel, to attempt to discover what Jesus Christ looked like.
Is this the face of Christ?
In the first reconstruction, the features may be more accurate, but I cannot recognise this as a depiction of the Price of Peace. He looks so anxious!
This alternative reconstructions seems closer to the truth, because of the expression.
In reality we cannot be sure what Jesus looks like until we meet him, but we can be fairly sure about what he doesn't look like.
Is it time to change the pictures in our children's bibles and Sunday School books?
Let's finish with a clip from a film called Jesus of Nazareth, to see how Robert Powell and the film industry attempted to depict Jesus of Nazareth.