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Can We Picture Jesus?
What can we know about the face and figure of Jesus?

When a group of strangers came up to the disciples, they expressed a desire that would be felt by millions upon millions of people ever since. Speaking to Philip they asked: "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." Of course they wanted to meet him personally, but as their queston suggests, I suspect they would have liked to picture him in their mind's eye as well.

From that point forward, nearly everyone has been trying to picture Jesus.

The same effort has preoccupied Christians for more than 2000 years. It has inspired artists from Michelangelo to Dali; it has been the driving force behind works of scholarship and literature; it touches us as we reflect upon the importance of Jesus Christ for our lives.

Can we picture Jesus? Do we have a clear idea of his appearance. What did Jesus look like?

There's something in us that will not rest until we have a clearer picture of the one Christians revere as the Son of God. Biblical affirmations, theological statements, creeds and sermons, however effective, still leave us with that elementary desire. We'd like to have a sharper image and a closer knowledge of this man whom so many call the Savior of the world.

As there were no cameras at the time of Christ, as there were no Polaroids, no Nikons, and certainly no digital video recorders, we'll have to rely upon the imagination of the artists to render an image of what he must have looked like. Fortunately, today, on the Internet, there is a profusion of images and artwork that provide us with plenty of material to look at.

Given the tremendous variety of such images, the question arises, is any one of these pictures of Jesus any more true to life than another?

The question is made all the more difficult because the New Testament contains no physical description of Jesus; the gospel narratives don't even tell us much about his personality. During the first several hundred years of church history, people did not even try to render Jesus visually.

The earliest Christian images were of things like ships, fish, sea shells, and other symbolic objects.

The first efforts to picture Jesus directly seem to have been Byzantine, meaning that they were done within that branch of the early Christian movement that centered around the city of Byzantia, the Turkish Capital, once Constantinople, but now known as Istanbul. Many of them were mosaics completed in the third or fourth centuries, well after all the people who had known Jesus personally were long deceased.

These Byzantine mosaics and later paintings depict a more severe view of Jesus than we are used to; the dark eyes and stern expression, reveal a Christ seated triumphantly upon a throne, not the sort of person most American Christians are likely to warm up to.

Although the Bible contains no description of Jesus, the figure of the suffering servant in Isaiah, has been taken to refer to the Messiah: "He grew up like a young plant and like a root out of the dry ground; he had no form or comeliness that we should look upon him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by all, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised, and we esteemed him not." Clearly, this was not one of the verses that Mel Gibson relied upon when he chose the beautiful, blue-eyed James Caviezel to portray Jesus in "The Passion of Christ."

But many of the earliest artists formed their image of Jesus from this passage.

An early church historian who lived in the year 200 said of him: "There was nothing outstanding about Christ's flesh. And it was just this contrast with his personality that struck everyone. Far from emanating divine radiance, his body had not even a simple human beauty. The passion and humility he suffered left their mark and he was deprived of charm by suffering."

Thus it is a long way from this earliest tradition in which Jesus was said to possess little physical beauty to contemporary images of Christ which are intended to appeal to the eye. And as the Christian movement spread from its origins in the Greco-Roman world, artists around the world have always painted the image of Christ as they saw him in their imaginations. To people of the Far East, he was oriental. To the Indians, Indian. To the Africans, he was black.

Still, in the west, much Christian art is based upon a single description of Jesus universally recognized as fiction.

A powerful legend.

Legend holds that it was written by a public official in Jerusalem during Christ's lifetime: "There has appeared in our city a man of great power named Jesus. The people call him a prophet and his disciples the Son of God. He is in stature a man of middle height and well proportioned, with a venerable face. His hair is the color of ripe chestnuts smooth almost to the ears, but above them wavy and curly with a slight bluish radiancy. And it flows over his shoulders. It is parted in the middle after of fashion of the people of Nazareth. His brow is smooth and very calm with a face without a wrinkle or a blemish lightly tinged with red. His nose and mouth are faultless. His beard is luxuriant of the same color as his hair. His countenance is full of simplicity and love. His eyes are expressive and brilliant. He is terrible in reproof, sweet and gentle in admonition. His figure is slender and erect; His hands and arms are beautiful to see. He is the fairest of the children of men."

My personal favorite among all the paintings of Jesus I've seen is the one by Rembrandt. Yet, of course, no better case can be made for the historical accuracy of this one than any other.

Perhaps that is why the artist, Salvador Dali rendered the body of Christ with the head turned away. The lonely disciple stands at his feet, gazing upwards, into his eyes, but the artist allows the viewer to project whatever image of his face that may arise from the deeps of personal conviction and imagination.

This may have been a profound way of dealing with the question of how we can gain a clearer sense of who Jesus truly was. For certainly the spirit of Jesus surpasses this or any human rendering, either in words or on canvas.

"In him we find ourselves." Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg expressed it when he said. "The head of Christ, the face of Christ. Who will ever paint, chisel or carve it? When finished it would float and gleam, cry and laugh with every face born human." And how, the poet asked, "how can you crowd all the tragic and comic faces of humankind into this one face." And that hits the nail on the head; for as Christ was divine, in him we find the very best of all that we aspire to for ourselves.

In the Russian Orthodox Church people use a greeting which expresses in the most simple and powerful way possible an answer to our question about how we can capture a clearer image of Jesus.

As the service of worship ends in a Moscow church, the members greet each other and any visitors warmly, embracing. As they do, they look into each others eyes and say: "In your eyes I see the face of Christ." You can imagine how powerfully that exchange might affect a visitor who has come to Russia from as far away as America. To worship with a group of total strangers and at the end of the service to have one or more people come up to you and say: "In your eyes I see the face of Jesus Christ."

As Christians we find the Christ figure in each other, for Christianity is not a solitary experience, it is something we find in community. Wherever two or three are gathered, there is the Christ. And there, more truthfully than any artist can render it, is the face of Jesus.

In the end we can locate the Christ figure most meaningfully in each other's eyes.

To gallery of Jesus images, ancient and modern

From Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: Suppose Jesus should appear before us now ...


Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
  CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.