What did Jesus look like?

What did Jesus look like?

Hello, Amanda Smith with you on RN, this is The Body Sphere.

There's a sort of novelty book out that's called Finding Jesus. It's the same kind of thing as Where's Wally, you know, where you have to spot him in various crowd scenes. And it entirely relies on there being a standardised, immediately recognisable image of Jesus: the slender chap with long, light-brown hair, pale-ish skin and a beard. That isn't always how he's been portrayed though. So how did Jesus come to look the way we're so familiar with? Later in The Body Sphere, I'll be speaking with Michele Bacci, the author of a book called The Many Faces of Christ.

First though, let's concentrate on the body of Christ, the crucified body.

Felicity Harley-McGowan is an art historian at Yale University, her special subject is early Christian art. And Felicity, the execution of Jesus is…well, it's utterly central to Christian faith, isn't it. When, as far as we know, do images regularly start to appear that depict the crucifixion?

Felicity Harley-McGowan: They appear quite late. Christian art itself as a definable thing doesn't emerge until the 3rd century. That's when the Christians began to commission images taken from the New Testament. But the crucifixion is not one of the subjects at that early date. This is something that people find quite confounding, because of course the crucifixion becomes the central image, the defining image of Christianity. So it's rather perplexing to people that it's not among the first images that Christians commissioned for themselves and it doesn't appear regularly until after the 5th century…really into the 6th century.

Amanda Smith: Any thoughts on why the crucifixion doesn't appear in early Christian art?

Felicity Harley-McGowan: Well, let me take the standard answer first, and then offer something alternative. Generally you will find that this absence is explained by the fact that Christians were too ashamed to represent the death of their saviour in this way…

Amanda Smith: Because a crucifixion is a shameful death.

Felicity Harley-McGowan: Absolutely, that's right. It was an incredibly violent death, used particularly for slaves and for criminals. So it was a form of execution that was particularly repulsive, and not much talked about at all by Roman writers. So that's the standard approach, that it was a horrendous form of death associated with criminals and so therefore Christians were too ashamed and didn't want to represent their saviour in that way. But amidst all of that actually the absence of images is a little more complex. So while I said that crucifixions or depictions of Jesus crucified didn't begin to emerge with any regularity until after the 5th century, in actual fact we do have evidence from before that date that there were attempts to represent the crucifixion, and indeed represent crucifixion per se, because generally you will not find any representations from the surviving body of Roman art of crucifixions at all in the Roman empire. But we do have two pieces of graffiti that survive from the Roman world…

Amanda Smith: So it survives in street art.

Felicity Harley-McGowan: Essentially that's right. And one of them is sort of poking fun at Christianity. The other is not a representation of Jesus but it's quite graphic and gives us a sense of the violence. So the record from graffiti is very important. But also prior to the 4th century there are several small engraved gemstones that preserve images of crucifixion and they indicate some experimentation with the subject.

Amanda Smith: Well, one of the rare, pre-6th century crucifixion images that's not street art and that's not a small gem comes as part of a series of four ivory panels that depict the Passion of Christ. It's early 5th century, probably from Rome. How is Jesus shown on the cross in this?

Felicity Harley-McGowan: Jesus is shown alive on the cross. He's muscly, he's not showing any signs of being affected by the nails, which the artist has shown very clearly in his palms, and not shown as being affected by the spear that the Roman soldier is plunging into his side. This is a very different depiction of the event in ways that we are not accustomed to seeing it. So it's represented in the guise of a triumph. That's the thrust of the story of the crucifixion for the early Christians, that it's almost inseparable from the resurrection. It's not really until after the 4th and 5th centuries that liturgically we begin to get Good Friday and Easter Day as quite separate, distinct celebrations. In the early Christian world those events are very much one event. So this 5th century representation is a window onto that understanding, that here's this crucified Son of God, on the cross, he's nailed to it, but there's already in his open eyes and his defiant, strong, vigorous stance, that he's already showing the path to overcoming that, to resurrection.

Amanda Smith: Yes, as you say, his eyes are wide open, he's not at all slumped on the cross. And his nakedness, or near nakedness is not a sign of his abjection. It's triumphant.

Felicity Harley-McGowan: Absolutely. The naked form does continue into the medieval period, but as the suffering body. But for early Christians there's a different understanding of nudity. The naked form, when it's shown as vigorous and athletic, is associated with the qualities that a divinity would have. Even for representations of the emperor, for example…

Amanda Smith: Well, you mentioned the term 'triumph', and that does bring to mind the idea of imperial Rome.

Felicity Harley-McGowan: Yes. These early representations are drawing on those associations across the Greco-Roman world. In this case for the ivory relief that you mentioned, nudity is very much, in the way that it's used on that relief, associated with that sense of triumph, whether it be the emperor or divine beings, Apollo, for instance. Christ is often shown in the 4th and 5th centuries looking very much like Apollo, not just in terms of his nudity but also his hair, these long golden locks lapping around his neck gracefully. This is indicating to the viewer that Christ, yes he has a human side but he's also divine.

Amanda Smith: Here in The Body Sphere the focus is on the body of Jesus Christ, and early images of the crucifixion, including a very early one, an ivory carving from the 5th century. It's in the British Museum and there's a link to an image of it on The Body Sphere website. I'm Amanda Smith, and I'm speaking with art historian Felicity Harley-McGowan.

Well, the body of Christ in this early 5th century carving is also stockier and a little bit chubbier than in later art, you know, certainly say in Renaissance crucifixion paintings and sculpture his body is very long and lean. Any thoughts on why?

Felicity Harley-McGowan: It's a very simple thing really, that was the fashion. The long, lean bodies that became more popular into the Renaissance, they're not the fashion.

Amanda Smith: Also the figure is very upright on the cross. I'm again thinking of later paintings, particularly Renaissance paintings, where you get that sort of S-shaped body, slumped, S-shaped body.

Felicity Harley-McGowan: Yes. There are a couple of factors involved there. One of them I think speaks to the models that were already existing for the depiction of mythical figures, for instance, who are tortured. One example is Marsyas, who challenges the god Apollo in a musical context and is flayed alive and strung up on a tree. His body is always shown very upright as he hangs from the tree. Other figures from Greco-Roman mythology; Ixion or even Prometheus, figures who are tortured by the gods, often with their arms outstretched either side of them. In the case of Ixion he's tied to a wheel and is going to be rolling around on that wheel for eternity, his body is also very upright.

So I think that there is some overlap here in terms of… It's not a situation where we have Christians who go to a workshop that might have above the door, you know, 'Christian Artists Come Here'. It's more a situation where you want the best ivory relief so you go to the best ivory workshop, and that workshop is probably taking commissions from Jewish customers as well as other Roman customers who might worship ten different gods.

So those artisans, it's possible that they may have had something akin to a copy or pattern book where you might go in and say, 'Hi, I'm Amanda, I'd like a representation of Jesus.' The artisan might say, 'Jesus, yeah, we've heard of him. Remind us again what happened.' And you would say, 'Well, he was crucified.' And they would say, 'Oh, yes, that's right.' And at the 5th century it's clear that there were not…going back to what we said before about the rarity of images, there were not a lot of models circulating it seems for Jesus on a cross. So I think it's more likely that they would have gone to other models that they knew, then they could say, 'Oh yeah, we've got a couple of examples like this, let's adapt those models.'

And over time, with some experimentation, obviously with Christ on the cross, by the 6th century when there's increasing interest in the story of his crucifixion, increasing numbers of people are making pilgrimages to Jerusalem and visiting the holy sites where Jesus died and was resurrected, so there's more interest in what he experienced. And liturgically things begin to change. As I mentioned before, the Passion narrative itself becoming broken up across Holy Week, and Good Friday and the day of Resurrection as separate liturgical entities. This means that there's more scope for the artist to begin to explore different aspects of the story, and so there becomes more interest in what Jesus experienced as a human on Earth.

Amanda Smith: And as a human on the cross.

Felicity Harley-McGowan: Absolutely, that's right. So you begin to get, after the 6th century, blood at the site of the nails in the palms and the feet…

Amanda Smith: Yes, there's no blood, sweat and tears on this very early image, is there?

Felicity Harley-McGowan: No, that's right. And at the same time, moving through into the 8th, 9th and into the 10th centuries, there begins to be a shift theologically as well, in terms of more pointed concentration on that human suffering. So when the body begins to be shown more realistically, I guess, hanging from the cross, perhaps twisting in pain, this occurs at a time both of shifting focus in private devotion as well on the human suffering of Jesus and also artistic developments. Artists become a little bit more experimental in how they might position the body on the cross and how they might demonstrate that, okay, so if the hands are nailed on this cross bar and Jesus is beginning to die, then the body's becoming heavier, that pulls the body down on the cross. There's sort of like a chain reaction from head to toe in terms of how the limbs and so forth respond.

So it's really not until the 12th and 13th centuries that we begin to get a more profound S-curve, if you like, in the body, which is not just about artistic or technical proficiency in articulating a reality of what happens to a human body on the cross, but also a profound interest, theologically and at the level of private devotion in the pain and agony of Christ. And that's when the change is really quite profound, the crucifixion becoming this symbol of God sending his only son to share in our own pain. That's when the story, in a sense, becomes what we know it today, as a symbol of human suffering. Which is actually not at all what early Christians were interested in when they first came to represent the crucifixion.

Amanda Smith: And Felicity Harley-McGowan is a historian of early Christian art at the Yale Divinity School; an Aussie at Yale!

And, as I mentioned, if you want to have a look at that very early crucifixion, the ivory carving that's in the British Museum, there's a link to an image of it on The Body Sphere website.

So we've talked about the body of Christ on the cross, but what about his face in portraiture? After all, Jesus is surely the most portrayed man in the whole history of western art. But what did he look like? The standard image, yes, is he had long hair and a beard, and pale-ish skin. But that's not the way he's always been portrayed. So when and why did the Jesus who looks as we're most familiar with become the accepted iconography?

Michele Bacci is professor of Medieval Art History at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, and the author of The Many Faces of Christ. Michele, does the Bible, the New Testament, give any description of Jesus, of what he looks like?

Michele Bacci: It says almost nothing, actually.

Amanda Smith: So there's no clue as to his actual features.

Michele Bacci: No, not at all.

Amanda Smith: So when do the earliest known images of Christ date from, and what does he look like in those?

Michele Bacci: Well, the first images we know of Christ date from the 3rd and 4th centuries. Basically we have different images circulating in that period, one showing him with long hair and beard, one showing him with short, curly hair and short beard.

Amanda Smith: And does Jesus ever appear in these images, in these early images, without a beard?

Michele Bacci: Yes. Normally the absence of beards was a way to hint at his young age. It was also characteristic of beauty since we have to think that a beard in the Greco-Roman culture was considered to be an attribute of barbarous peoples or persons living in the margins of Greco-Roman society, such as mendicants or philosophers.

Amanda Smith: Yes. Now there's also a tradition of more mystical images as well. The Shroud of Turin is a late example of a tradition of images not made by human hands. Even more recently, there was a bloke in Manchester last year who put some bread in his toaster and the toast popped up with Jesus' face on it! Now, perhaps not in the case of the toast, but generally, these images are supposed to be 'the real' Jesus Christ, yeah?

Michele Bacci: Yeah. Actually they're paradoxical images. They are not considered to be portraits in the sense of recording the actual features of Christ's face. They were rather considered to be imprints which bore traces of the bodily substance of Jesus.

Amanda Smith: So they don't really assist in determining what Jesus looks like, how he's to be portrayed. What were the debates in the early church about how to portray Jesus Christ?

Michele Bacci: Well, there was a big debate between theologians about the visibility of Jesus during his terrestrial passage. Some of them said that he changed his outward appearance almost continuously. He was a kind of chameleon.

Amanda Smith: Shape-shifter, almost.

Michele Bacci: Yeah, looking always like something else. And he looked ugly to ugly and bad people and he looked beautiful to those who were able to understand that he was the Son of God. So this was more or less an idea that circulated widely in the first centuries. But the problem of early theologians with Christ's visibility stemmed from their interpretation of the few clues in the Old Testament about the outward appearance of the Messiah. So on one side, Psalm 45 stated that the Messiah had to be the most handsome of all men, whereas the Prophet Isaiah spoke of a man who was deprived of all possible beauty.

Amanda Smith: It's not very clear, is it?

Michele Bacci: So theologians had to find a solution, and they tried to make a compromise between these different authorities in the Bible. And finally, the most accepted idea was that he had a kind of ordinary, not especially appealing appearance during his passage on Earth, during his public life, whereas he manifested his divine beauty during this episode of the revelation on Mount Tabor. The same outward appearance describing him as a very handsome, luminous person was also manifested after the resurrection in the appearances with his disciples.

Amanda Smith: The debate really is around his contradictory nature, you know, he's a man but he's also divine, so to what extent does Jesus look like an ordinary human being.

Michele Bacci: Yeah, that's a problem. It proved very difficult to attribute a specific iconography to Christ. The problem was if you provide Jesus with a too-human appearance, you will immediately and implicitly deny that he has a divine nature. If you represent him in a very divinised way, you will communicate the message that he was rather a god than a man, so they had to find a visual compromise between these two instances.

Amanda Smith: So when does the image of Jesus, the sort of standardised appearance as we are familiar with, when does that get established?

Michele Bacci: You mean the image of Christ with long hair and beard? Well, it's a kind of long process. The first representations are already known in the 4th century but, as I said before, they circulated along with many other possible representations, they were just a variant. But we can say that by the 6th century the type with long hair and beard had become the most important image of Christ used in the Byzantine Empire.

Amanda Smith: So this is in the eastern church.

Michele Bacci: In the eastern church. Whereas the Latin church still preferred the type without beard, the youngish type.

Amanda Smith: Now, in the development of that standardised image that we've now come to know, it's actually quite odd, isn't it, that Jesus has long hair?

Michele Bacci: Yes, actually this is very odd. We know that St Paul condemns this look.

Amanda Smith: Yes, he says that men should keep their hair short.

Michele Bacci: Yes. There are different possibilities. In a way we know that this peculiar look was a characteristic of people who in the Greco-Roman world describe themselves as philosophers or as miracle workers. But in the Jewish tradition of late antiquity, this look was associated with people who consecrated themselves to God since their birth. This was known as Nazirite condition. We have a source which clearly states that images representing Christ with long hair were made by people who considered Christ a lifelong Nazirite.

Amanda Smith: The interesting thing, though, following on from St Paul and his view about hair for men, is that Christian men down the centuries, in their hair, don't follow the hairstyle associated with Jesus, the long hair.

Michele Bacci: Yes, in general terms we can say that this look was regarded, especially in western Christianity as something subversive, if you want, something which could be tolerated for Christ, since he is Christ and therefore somebody…

Amanda Smith: Exceptional. It sort of marks out his exceptionalism, I suppose. As far as choosing a hairstyle for Jesus and choosing his beard and his skin colour, what are the factors? If not necessarily historically based, is it simply that people made Jesus in their own image and one came to dominate?

Michele Bacci: Obviously we have to understand these developments on the background of contemporary conceptions of human beauty. But also we have to take into account that facial features, and especially hair, were considered to be symbolic manifestations of moral qualities. So, for example, in physiognomic treatises of late antiquity, curly hair came to be regarded as a symptom of greed, for example. So it is probable that the type with curly hair did not succeed in the Greco-Roman world because it was associated with this negative aspect of an individual's personality.

Amanda Smith: So what's the skin symbolism that's operating in the dominant image of Christ? From the 6th century his complexion, as I read in your book, is often described as 'corn-coloured'. What does that mean?

Michele Bacci: Corn-coloured means actually a kind of intermediary colour between white and black. Ancient physiognomers considered a purely white skin or a purely black skin as something negative, something connected with people living in the far north or in the far south. So the Greeks and Latins who lived in an intermediary zone of the world, considered themselves obviously to be the best population. But the corn-coloured complexion was also associated with other symbolisms. For example, corn colour was used in some church fathers to describe the consecrated bread of the mass. So one could easily establish a parallelism between the Eucharist and Christ's body.

Amanda Smith: Yeah, 'this is my body'…

Michele Bacci: Exactly, that's the point.

Amanda Smith: So, look, what are the chances of Jesus actually having looked just as we've imagined him to look for centuries, with the long wavy hair, parted in the middle, short beard, pale-ish skin?

Michele Bacci: Well, it's very difficult to answer this question. We have to confess that we don't know and we'll never know how he really looked like.

Amanda Smith: Michele Bacci is professor of Medieval Art History at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, and speaking to us there from Geneva. He's the author of The Many Faces of Christ, and there are details for that book on The Body Sphere website. And that's of course where you can also post a comment if you'd care to. I'm Amanda Smith.

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