What did Jesus look like? You know, don’t you? He has long, straight hair, a full beard, wears sandals and Arabic robes, he never smiles.
In Europe, he is depicted with fair skin and hair. What did he really look like? There are no clues from the Bible.
The first images do not appear until two to three hundred years after his death and then in the catacombs of Rome. There is a statue from 300-350 AD found in the Domitilla Catacomb showing a sturdy, clean-shaven shepherd with curly hair. A picture from the 4th century shows a bearded man with curly hair and by the 6th century, the bearded man is well established.
There was a problem for the early church, ‘thou shalt have no graven image…’ and all that. In the Eastern church, Christ was the Pankrator or All Mighty, or was that God? Portraying God as a mere man was presumptuous. Some images tried to get around this by painting two faces, one representing God as Man and the other as Man representing God.
By the 5th century pictures of the Passion were emerging and a long face with long straight hair was standard. To make sure viewers recognised which one was Jesus, the halo device was developed. Both East and West developed stylised iconographic pictures but the West began to strive for realism.
Lionel Blue, the Rabbi who often spoke on BBC ‘Thought for the Day’ related how, once he got to University and was off the leash, decided to visit a Christian Church. The violence and brutality of the depicted crucifixion scenes shocked him. I was similarly shocked when visiting the Vatican because of its intense focus on death and decay.
On a happier note; nativity scenes made their appearance in the 4th century. No problem with beards and hair in those.
Does it Matter?
It was all a long time ago and does it really matter? I think it does. We should all be clear about what we know and what we do not know and acknowledge when we are pretending. The representation cropped up 2 weeks ago in Sri Lanka.
On Remembrance Sunday we attended Trinity College Chapel, Kandy. It is an architectural gem, dedicated in 1935. We know what churches should look like but Rev John Lewis Gaster, on the staff of the college and a qualified architect had other ideas and built in the vernacular style.
The reredos was painted by David Paynter, son of missionary parents but he studied art in London and travelled widely in Europe. The reredos depicts the crucifixion but, shock, horror at the time, Jesus is a brown man, clean shaven with no halo. What’s more, the crucifixion scene takes place in a mangrove swamp. Paynter (d 1975) executed other murals in the same vein.
Then we had our usual invitation to Hillwood College junior school Christmas Concert, part of which was a nativity scene. In previous years, Brenda, my wife, has helped produce these events. She always insisted that Baby Jesus was represented by a brown dolly. This year he was a white one, what’s more, his parents and attending angels etc were Buddhists, Hindus and Moslems. I think one child was Christian.
I have been invited to be Santa Claus because everybody knows he is an old white man, jolly and avuncular and rotund. I hope I can manage all these qualities but I’m secretly hoping to fail for not being rotund enough.