What Should Jesus Look Like?

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Today I would like to talk about a question that has vexed theologians and artists alike for almost as long as Christianity has existed. What should Jesus look like? You’ll note that I didn’t say what did Jesus look like. As we’ll see, depicting Jesus in art presents many perplexing problems, since Jesus wasn’t a typical human being. He had a body just like ours, and a soul, too, according to theologians. But our faith insists that he was also fully God at the same time, something the rest of us cannot claim to be. Jesus is two people at once, and that makes him harder to depict in art than usual.  

In our sanctuary, we have an empty cross. This kind of cross can be found in Protestant churches all over the world. However, if you go to a Catholic church, there the crosses have Jesus on them, usually slumped over, dead. Why don’t we have that? The answer has to do with this double nature of Jesus.  

When the Protestant Reformation occurred in the 1500s, Protestant theologians felt that the Catholics had become like idolaters, worshipping things instead of God. * They feared peasants were worshipping statues and saints, instead of the God who created them. So, they tore out the statues. With crosses, they feared that all we can see of Jesus on a cross is his human nature. His invisible God-nature cannot be depicted. So, there was a risk that people were only worshipping one half, the least important half, of his two identities. Protestants decided Jesus needed to come off the cross to prevent confusion. So that’s why we have bare crosses in Protestant churches.  

This gives you an idea of how tricky it can be to represent Jesus in art. Part of the problem comes from the fact that the NT doesn’t give any idea of what Jesus really looked like.  

What did Jesus really look like? The New Testament doesn’t give any clues at all. We know that he was a Jew, so that narrows down some of the possibilities – not much chance he was a blonde or red head. With no clues in the New Testament, theologians turned to the Old Testament. There they found today’s reading from the prophecy of Isaiah.  

In it, we hear a description of the messiah. The prophecy of Isaiah has been called the fifth gospel, because for Christians it contains so much that appears to predict Christ’s life. In the passage Cristina read, we hear of an innocent man being unjustly tried, beaten, and killed. He is killed in the company of the wicked, like Jesus was flanked by thieves on the cross. It speaks of being buried with the rich, just as Jesus was buried in the tomb of a rich man. To Christians, all these details seemed to line up – Christ’s strange mission to win through dying had been foretold. 

 And at the very beginning of this chapter, we are told that this messiah figure would have
"No form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we shoudl desire him." (Isaiah 53:2)

To the Christians that meant Jesus was probably ugly, even before he was beaten.[1] He wasn’t a gorgeous young man whom everyone admired. Instead, he was unsightly, not much to look at.  

That idea may help explain why when images of Jesus first start showing up in art, he doesn’t appear as his historical self at all. He appears symbolically. Here’s one of the earliest images of him: [1] Tertuliian, “The Flesh of Christ,” chapter 9: “His body did not reach even to human beauty, to say nothing of heavenly glory. “Justin Martyr, “Dialogue of Justin philosopher and martyr with Trypho, a Jew,” chapter 36; chapter 85; Clement of Alexandra, “The Instructor,” Book 3, chapter 1. 

 He appears as a shepherd. This was a very common way to show Jesus at first, especially in Christian tombs. In the gospel of John, we are told that Jesus is like the good shepherd who gathers lost sheep.

That was a comforting image for people who had died. Jesus would gather their lost souls and bring them to the safety of the afterlife with God.   That struggle to represent Christ’s full identity in art continued even after Christianity was legalized in the 300s. Suddenly, we see an explosion of images that show Jesus of Nazareth as he may have appeared in his lifetime.   

Here’s one that shows a number of scenes from Christ’s life, from a sarcophagus from Rome. On it, we see a variety of Biblical stories, including a row dedicated to Christ’s life. The stories all blend together, with no frames or separations between them. In the middle we see Jesus using a kind of wand to turn water into wine. A little to the right, we see him with the same stick multiplying the loaves in the baskets, from the fishes and loaves miracle. Christians were quick to point out parallels between Jesus and Old Testament figures like Moses. So, if Moses used a staff to work miracles, Jesus could too. The wand points to Jesus’s dual identity as a man and as God, able to work miracles.    

The fact that Jesus has a more than human identity is presented in another way here, too. In most depictions in the 4th century, Jesus is clean shaven, and he has long shoulder-length hair. That seems natural to us, all our depictions of Jesus show him with long hair. But look at the men around him. Some have beards, others don’t, but they all have short hair. And in this image, we see Jesus standing next to Mary on the day he turns water into wine. She has long hair, which is common for women in these images. So does Jesus. The artist has decided to make Jesus look more feminine than the other men. Jesus has the body of a man, but the head of a woman.  

That gender bending depiction continues in other forms of art too. Here’s a fresco from Ravenna Italy, two hundred years later.    

It shows Christ being baptized. Look at the men on the riverbanks. The one on the right is John the Baptist, who is looking very masculine and muscular. The figure on the other side of the river is a representation of the river spirit. He, too, is really buff. But in the middle, we have Jesus. His body is soft and a bit pudgy, with gentle curves. He has male genitals, but a feminine looking body. This artist knew how to depict masculine-looking men but chose not to when it came to showing Jesus. Jesus looks androgynous, both male and female at the same time.  

Why would Christian artists want to depict Jesus as being male and female at the same time? This takes us back to the challenge of presenting Jesus in the visual arts. Do you show what Jesus probably looked like, or do you show what Jesus means? Early Christians decided against realism and opted for symbolic depictions. Jesus was God and human being at the same time. Saviour of all humanity, not just men. So, these images chose to present Jesus as a universal human, both male and female, a saviour for everyone. If there is a rule about Jesus, it is that he is always more than you think. Jesus is like a gateway beyond normal perception, an entry point into the spiritual dimension of life, and artists have to struggle with how to show that.  

By the 400s, Jesus gets a beard, and starts to look more traditionally male. But that doesn’t mean he is just a normal guy in art. Here’s an image of Jesus as the saviour of the world, known as the pantocrator.   

At first glance, he seems like a normal man of his time. He still has the long hair, but now he has a beard. But look at his eyes. One is larger and darker than the other. Once again, this artist is trying to capture the dual nature of Jesus. This image has been understood to mean that in Christ we are invited to see differently, to see a deeper dimension to life. One that goes beyond the obvious, into the heavenly, and into the depths of the human soul where God and humanity meet.  

How Should Jesus Look, part 2 

I started this sermon with the question, what should Jesus look like? In our time, the question might be better phrased, what did Jesus look like? In our age of science and rationalism, we prefer facts to symbols. Artists were affected by that shift, too, so they became more focused on a Jesus that could be based in facts and empirical proof.  

In the 19th century painters decided to travel to the Holy Land to see the world that Jesus lived in. Artists like William Holman Hunt and James Tissot studied the costumes, homes, and landscape of Palestine as research for their paintings. What emerged was a series of paintings that hoped to show a more accurate portrayal of what Jesus’ life looked like.  

Here’s a famous image that Holman Hunt created showing Jesus as a boy in the temple. The rabbis and scribes are wearing Jewish costumes. This was very different from medieval paintings that often-made Jesus look like he was living in northern Europe.  

The painters were trying to depict what Christ’s world looked like, but of Jesus himself? What did he really look like? European art had long depicted Jesus as a white man who looked like he had grown up in northern France. There was no attempt or desire to portray him as 1st century Jew. Our older Sunday school books are full of blond Jesuses. This may have started out of ignorance, but over time, the world was told that Jesus was a white man, so he was the white man’s God. In churches all over the world, stained glass shows Jesus as white, a key tool in convincing the world that white people should be in charge. Even here in Toronto, in churches like Rosedale United and Bloor, this white Jesus often stands next to white people, while people of colour kneel or are portrayed as savages who need to be civilized. What Jesus looks like in art has been a key tool for white supremacy and colonialism.  

Recently, scientists have entered into the debate of what did Jesus look like. Using measurements of skulls from 1st century Palestine, they have released images of what they think Jesus could have looked like as a Jewish man.

Here’s an example. The face is clearly not European. It looks Jewish, or at least, how Jews may have looked in the 1st century. But does this help? Even if we knew exactly what Jesus looked like, would that really answer any spiritual questions?  

The problem with this very literal approach is that science can only give us access to Christ’s human side, but his divine nature remains out of reach. Christ did not come to save just 1st century Jews, but all of humanity. To show us how to be in closer relationship with God.  

Artists around the world have been pushing back against this narrowing impulse. They have bene painting Jesus in a way that makes him much more universal and relevant for their people.  

 Some have imagined what Jesus would look like if he had lived among an ancient Asian culture. This image of Christ’s baptism was created by He Qi, an artist born in China. 

In Africa, artists have been imagining Jesus as Black, a way to make him relevant to people on that continent. This kind of image is ubiquitous in Ethiopia.

And here in North America, some artists have imagined Jesus as a gay man. This is one of a series of paintings by Douglas Blanchard imagining Jesus as a modern gay man.[1]  

Like the early Christians, these artists are not trying to claim that they know what Jesus really looked like. Instead, they are making the case for depicting the meaning of Jesus. That Christ’s nature is universal, it transcends racial and even sexual definitions. In Jesus we are asked to look beyond mere facts to a new world of possibility, since Jesus is imbued with the power of divine possibility. Jesus is always more than just a man, that is what makes him unique and powerful. The people who met him who had spiritual insight gave up all they had to follow him, knowing that he was much more than just another 1st century man. The fishermen abandoned their nets, the tax man abandoned his booth, women left their homes to follow him. There was something about Jesus that revealed an identity that went far beyond what we usually see in each other. A God-dimension.  

So, what should Jesus look like? There is no fixed answer to that question. How we depict Jesus in art will keep changing as we change, as we discern the boundaries that remain to be crossed, the old rules that need to be broken. What we can be sure of is that Jesus will keep changing, in as many ways as we need him to. And that is a blessing.  



[1] Image from the book :The Passion of Christ: a Gay vision, Kittredge CherryDouglas Blanchard (Illustrator)