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We have no idea what Christ looked like


By the time you are reading this I shall have spent Passiontide and Palm Sunday in Rome and Assisi. What a treasure-house Ro449688459b7d6cae828mme is for contemplation of the events of this Holy Week as depicted by the brushes of the great Italian masters like Michaelangelo and Raphael. In the catacombs one feels as close as it is possible to be to those early Christians who under Roman persecution overflowed with such joy and assurance that they willingly surrendered their lives for their Lord.

Then in Assisi centuries later St. Francis brought a new simplicity and freedom to a faith which had become stuffy and institutional, with his closeness to nature and dedication to the poor, a story that is again depicted in glorious art by Giotto.

No face has ever been reproduced so often as the face of Christ. Yet curiously there is no description of Christ at all in the Bible. Not a word. We do not know if he was fat or thin, bearded or bald, handsome or ugly. No one who knew him, no apostle or evangelist or Jewish historian, has left us an inkling.

Yet even in this secular age nine out of ten of us would recognise him immediately if we saw him in the street. We think we know exactly what Jesus looked like. Art has given him a face - and Italian art is mainly responsible for this. That moment when Christ crowned with thorns stares sadly down at us from the cross through rivulets of blood, can probably claim to be the single most iconic likeness of our Western civilisation. It is the most successful identikit picture ever built up.

Why was it so important for Christianity to make up a likeness of Jesus? It is an implication of the central doctrine that Jesus Christ was God and that he was man, and that he was always both at once. This was settled in credal form by the bishops of the whole church at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, and what a challenge that set us, to find a likeness that is fully human and fully divine. No wonder that in the first 500 years everything was confused, and there were many different portrayals. It took 600 years for the Crucifixion to emerge as an effective representation of Christ and it was not the predominant one before the first millennium.

We can dismiss as fantasy the idea that the familiar face of Jesus with the long, dark hair, parted in the middle, the straggly beard, the piercing brown eyes, the kind of Christ whose likeness was faked on the Turin Shroud, represents the true image of Christ, conveyed to the artists by God through divine inspiration.

In fact as we see from the catacombs the earliest Christs are not likenesses at all, but signs (the Fish), mystic amalgams of Greek letters (Chi-Rho), and crosses, which were part of a secret code. The first actual personification of Christ shows him as the Good Shepherd, carrying one of his lambs - one of us - to safety on his shoulders. Later on these shoulders would be stooped below the weight of the cross as he staggered up Calvary. But for their first appearance in religious art they are upright, young and energetic.

The first Christs, imagined and inscribed within the funerary catacombs under Rome, are blond, curly-haired and beardless, owing something to the Roman sun god, Apollo.

Half-pagan they may be, but they are strikingly youthful and optimistic, designed to fill the dying believer with hope about the next life. They do not yet attempt to tap the reserves of human sympathy and guilt, which the later Crucifixion image so successfully exploits. The Christian halo, emerging in the 4th century, also owes much to the rays of the sun round Apollo's pagan head.

The reason why it took so long to come up with a set image of Christ was that he was supposed to look just like the rest of us: he did not have the head of an elephant like the Hindu god. He was not 30 feet tall like Zeus. He was just an ordinary man, a 'regular Joe', as the Americans say.

The famous, stern, bearded Franco Nero type of Christ was a Byzantine invention, modelled on the portraits of emperors. The first Byzantine Christs were triumphalist icons, enthroned and surrounded by ranks of saintly worshippers, holding court, like a super Emperor, though this was later tempered with reproach, and even compassion, in the Pantocrators of Monreale and Cephalu.

Christ has a donkey's head in the earliest known depiction of the crucifixion, a 4th century Roman graffito found in 1856, presumably mocking the Christian belief. What could be sillier to a Roman than the worship of God so inept that he ended up dying a criminal's death? Only when this stigma had worn off could the crucifixion become the pre-eminent symbol of our faith, and seen as a moment of glory. This was when Italian Renaissance art brought new freedom and realism to the earlier Byzantine stiffness.

The Crucifixion triumphed because every single spectator who gazed into the sad face of the crucified Christ was immediately put in touch with their own mortality and their immortality. So this week in our churches we focus on Christ on the Cross. Why not drop in to a church near you and join us?


By courtesey of ED24

michael clarke (Guest) 25/03/2008 15:47
a brief guess as to how jesus looked. isaiah a sapling he grew up in front of us. without beauty.without looks to attract the eye. in other words ordinary like us. in the new testament when they went to take him and stone him he just melted away in the crowd. again nothing special to look at.