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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Depictions of Jesus

No one really knows what Jesus looked like, of course, but it's interesting to look at the various paintings of him and consider their implications.

Here is the earliest known depiction, from the catacombs of Comodilla, dating from the fourth century:

Here is an eleventh century painting:

Neither of these is shocking, or seems sacrilegious in any way. Both show a somber-looking man.

Early medieval depictions of Jesus tend to put him in royal garb. This isn't all that surprising, as royalty was looked at back in those days with almost holy reverence. Those artists might have considered it insulting to show him in anything less:

Later medieval artists tended to put more of their own personal stamp on their work. Here is Christ as a Man of Sorrows, by Andrea Mantegna, who seemed to want to depict Christ as a man who hit the gym regularly and had a farmer's tan:

And here is The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca, from 1449, a depiction with homoerotic overtones:

As Christianity spread, local artists tended to depict Christ in their own ethnicity, understandably enough. Here is a Chinese painting, Christ and the Rich Man:

And here is a Haitian painting of the Baptism of Christ:

Westerners may laugh at these Chinese and black Jesuses, but western portrayals showing an Anglo-Saxon Christ are also misleading:

More recently, the efforts of artists to depict him with an almost otherworldly saintliness have led in some weird directions. The artist who produced this painting seemed to envision Jesus as a beautiful woman wearing eyeliner and a beard:

Of course, all artists are faced with a certain quandary. Should they depict Jesus as careful coifed, with a neatly trimmed beard and hair that looks as if he's fresh from the salon, which might indicate vanity? Or should they depict him as looking more like a homeless guy, which might be viewed as disrespectful? This artist opted for the former look:

Jesus has evidently just walked on water here, but his freshly scrubbed face looks more as if he has just bathed in it. Cleanliness evidently is next to godliness.

Here's a Jesus who looks a little like a goody two shoes:

Here's a hipster Jesus-as-party-animal from the anti-Christian 1999 film Dogma:

 And here's a triptych of the Mormon Jesus:

On the left, Jesus dressed by Bed, Bath, and Beyond; in the middle, Jesus-as-action-hero; and on the right, Jesus-with-a-sense-of-humor.

I'm not trying to be sacrilegious; these are all comments on the artists, not Jesus himself. But what did Jesus look like? He was, after all, a Jew, so probably looked Semitic. He was intelligent -- had a high IQ, in modern parlance. He had to have been charismatic, to attract so many followers. And as a natural leader of men, it's not unlikely that he was tall.

So perhaps he looked like this intelligent, 6' 5" Jew:

Or, perhaps he had a swarthier cast to his features. Here's another 6' 5" Semite who attracted many followers:

(Surprisingly, bin Laden often wore a strangely beatific expression.)

Okay, now I'm being sacrilegious. But the fact is, Jesus probably did bear more resemblance to Howard Stern or Osama bin laden than he did to the blue-eyed blond so frequently depicted in the past century.

Either way, the larger point here is that Christians are a tolerant people. They will not attack you no matter how you depict their leader -- unlike members of another religion. Christians even bend over backward to accommodate other religions. And it's that tolerance of others' intolerance that will be their downfall.


Anonymous said...

I love this post. Jesus is someone whom I look up to (believing that He exists, in heaven), a leader/teacher who was a confident, secure, HUMBLE man. He told his disciples that he came to earth to do his Father's will, that was his purpose. When we learn about Jesus, we see and/or witness the true essence of God (my opinion). Thanks for the post.

- Susan

John Craig said...

Susan --
I come from a vaguely Christian background, though I can't claim to be religious now. But I'm glad you reacted that way.

Mark Caplan said...

The Jesus of Christianity isn't analogous to the Muhammad of Islam. Jesus is god; Muhammad, god's prophet. However, Christians and Muslims are expected to regard Jesus and Muhammad as exemplary, even perfect, human beings, though the two are as different as the sun and moon.

Anonymous said...

great post....brought back memories of picking the holy cards for my fathers funeral , my mother chose a Black Jesus because my Father had black nephews and nieces (my cousins) and my father was close to them. When my father died my cousin told me it felt like he lost his best friend.

interesting that our Catholic Parish was 100% white , I never saw a Black person in our Church until my Fathers Funeral. So I was surprised the Funeral home even had the Black Jesus option for the mass cards.

Anonymous said...

I believe in the Trinity - Jesus is/was God (in human form). If I had to follow anyone, I would choose Jesus over Muhammad, in a heart beat. There is no comparison between the two men. Jesus is/was someone that you could follow because He was a good example of how to operate in life, Muhammad not so much. Just my two cents.

- Susan

Anonymous said...

If every Christian lived like Jesus, the world would be a better place. If every Muslim looks like Muhammad, a quarter of the world's population woild be in prison.

Anonymous said...

Howard Stern is a contemporary Ashkenazi Jew. These have mostly European blood. Their maternal ancestry is probably Italian, from about 2K years ago. I've no idea how tall Jews in those days were but they were certainly dark and Semitic looking although I think not as dark as Osama. Osama is Yemeni, or half, and they have a strain of Negro blood.

I saw Stern on the street once and he was surprisingly good looking, with piercing blue eyes. He really is tall!


John Craig said...

Plootark --
I thought I read in Stern's book that all of his grandparents were Russian Jews, which is a different strain than the often German-looking types we normally think of as Ashkenazi.

Osama looks as if he could have a touch of black blood, but just a touch, and that's not uncommon among Arabs (especially in Egypt). He still manages to look primarily Semitic, though.