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
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.
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
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."
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 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
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.
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
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
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,
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.