We all have Jesus’ image in our mind, but what did Jesus look like? The real Jesus’ face, his images, could be totally different from what we have in our mind
Discovery | By Talal Al-Khatib
Face to Face
This dark skinned, coarse, vacant-eyed, curly-haired man is the closest possible likeness of the historical Jesus, according to the latest forensic techniques.
A far cry from the fair-skinned, blue-eyed and blond-haired man widely shown in sacred art, the image first appeared in a 2001 Discovery Channel/BBC co-production called “Jesus: The Complete Story.”
The reconstruction, created with a 2,000-year-old Jewish skull, ancient documents, advanced software and forensic techniques, simply shows a 1st-century Jewish man who would have lived in the harsh conditions of the time.
“Jesus certainly looked far more like that person than me and other males who live in the West,” James Charlesworth, professor of New Testament languages at Princeton Theological Seminary, one of the experts consulted in the documentary, said at that time.
“We in the West have for about 2000 years been wrongly influenced by an Aryan Jesus., who looks like us. Nothing is more unfaithful to Jesus,” he added.
Jesus Depictions Through the Ages
Given the profound effect Jesus Christ has had on human history, it’s understandable that there would be so much curiosity around the face of the man who has billions of followers worldwide.
So what did Jesus Christ look like?
While the Bible leaves any physical description of Jesus vague, artistic portrayals of Jesus have seemingly come to a consensus, though the image of Jesus has changed over the centuries.
Earliest Glimpse of Jesus
Tracing back to 235, this fresco found in the walls of a synagogue in the Syrian city of Dura Europos is among the earliest depictions of Jesus ever discovered.
In this piece, known as the “Healing of the Paralytic,” Jesus is too young to grow a beard, and instead sports short, curly hair and wears a tunic and sandals. He is shown healing the physical and spiritual affliction of a once-paralyzed man.
Jesus Grows a Beard
Portrayals of a bearded and long-haired Jesus began to emerge in the early 4th century, such as in this work from the Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter. Inspired by depictions of the gods of the Greek and Roman pantheon, the bearded version would become the most commonly recreated adult Jesus.
The Good Shepherd
Dating back to the 5th century, this mosaic found in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia shows a young, once-again-beardless, but now-haloed Jesus, wearing the royal colors of purple and gold, tending to his flock.
Appropriately named “The Good Shepherd,” pulled from the Gospel of John, here Jesus bears the appearance of an ancient Roman both in his face and his dress.
The Apostles Appear
The earliest images of Jesus alongside his apostles were discovered in 2010 at the catacombs of St. Tecla near St. Paul’s Basilica in Rome. The frescoes show the faces of both Jesus, now bearded, and all 12 of his original Apostles, as well as St. Paul.
As Reuters reported, the portraits of the Apostles would show early features that would carry over to later depictions, “such as St Paul’s rugged, wrinkled and elongated forehead and balding head and pointy beard.” This suggests the frescoes and others like it set an early standard for how Jesus and his Apostles would be painted.
The baby Jesus has appeared in artistic portrayals since at least the fourth century. This mosaic at Hagia Sophia dates to the sixth century and shows the Virgin Mary cradling the infant Jesus as Byzantine emperors present them with the city of Istanbul.
On the Cross
Starting in the fifth century, artistic portrayals of Jesus on the cross began to emerge. The Rabbula Gospels, a sixth-century holy book full of illustrations, shows one of the earliest images of Jesus crucified, depicted alongside two convicted thieves as told in the Bible.
For many Christians around the world, the Shroud of Turin depicts not a representation of Jesus, but the very image of his face, imprinted on the cloth in which he was buried following his crucifixion.
A radiocarbon test conducted in 1988 showed the Shroud to be manufactured during the Middle Ages, when it first resurfaced in recorded history. Skeptics, however, have cast doubt on the shroud’s dating, suggesting the small patch tested in 1988 was from a more contemporary repair rather than an original part of the material.
Early theologians long debated how Jesus looked. On the one hand, many believed that Jesus’ appearance was plain and unremarkable, as suggested in the Bible. Others, such as St. Augustine, believed that their savior could only be beautiful.
By the Renaissance, that debate was over, with the taller, more muscular, more aesthetically pleasing Jesus proved the more popular artistic choice.
Jesus Goes Global
As Christianity went global, just as local cultures adapted Christian customs to their own traditions, so too did they project themselves onto the image of Jesus.
Christ the Redeemer is arguably the most iconic symbol of New World Christianity. Standing at 40 meters (130 feet tall), including the platform the figure is standing upon, this giant Jesus sits atop Corcovado Hill in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and took nine years to construct. Built out of concrete and soapstone, the long, exaggerated features of Jesus give him an otherworldly look.
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