I’m neither an artist nor an historian, but I’ve been fascinated with the way Jesus has been portrayed by artists throughout history. Over the next few posts I’m planning to take a very selective look at how we have pictured Jesus at different eras and in different cultures.
So, let’s start at the very beginning, with the earliest surviving depictions of Christ.
This is the oldest known etching of Jesus. It was found in Syria and dates from around 235 AD.
That’s Jesus at the top of the image. He’s healing a paralytic who appears firstly on his bed on the right and then carrying his bed and walking away on the left. It’s like a graphic novel that you read backwards. This is likely to be a depiction of an incident that occurred in Capernaum and is recorded in all three synoptic gospels (Mt. 9:1–8, Mk.2:1–12, and Lk. 5:17–26). In the picture Jesus is wearing a Roman style toga and has his arm outstretched towards the paralyzed man. There’s not much more we can tell about how people in the third century imagined Jesus to look, other than that he was a miracle-worker of great power.
There’s more to see in this second image. It is from either the third or fourth centuries and depicts Jesus feeding the multitude.
This picture was discovered in the Via Anapo catacomb underneath Rome. Those objects on the ground are the five loaves and two fishes that Jesus used to feed the multitude, the only miracle—aside from the resurrection—recorded in all four gospels (M. 14:13-21; Mk 6:31-44; Lk 9:12-17; Jn 6:1-14).
Jesus is again wearing a Roman toga and is barefooted. He has short hair and is clean-shaven in the Roman style of the time. There’s no great controversy about a Roman Christian depicting Jesus as a Roman. What else might he or she have imagined Jesus to look like if they’d never met a Galilean or anyone from the Middle East before? But what has interested scholars is that Jesus seems to be performing this miracle with a wand in his hand. And the wand doesn’t only appear in this picture. This door below, dated from around 430 AD in Rome, is decorated with the carvings of three miracles — the raising of Lazarus from the dead (top), the feeding of the five thousand (middle) and the turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana (bottom).
As you can see in all three panels, Jesus is performing his miraculous signs with the use of a staff or a wand. That might conjure (pun intended) images of wizards and magicians. And that might bother you somewhat. Was Jesus seen as a magician? But surely, his miracles aren’t mere magic tricks. They’re meant to be signs of Jesus’ identity as the promised Christ.
In an article titled “Jesus the Magician? Why Jesus Holds a Wand in Early Christian Art” in the Biblical Archeology Review, Lee Jefferson writes, “The implement that Jesus holds (sometimes called a virga or rabdos) is portrayed as either thick and ruddy… or thin and reed-like, such as in catacomb paintings. He uses it in the performance of a miracle, leading several scholars to conclude that early Christians understood Jesus as a magician. The problem with this identification is that early Christians greatly maligned magic. For early Christians, Jesus performing miracles with the staff was not magical. Rather, it was intrinsically biblical (recalling Moses) and innately ecclesial (touting the supremacy of the Church).”
In the gospels, Jesus is regularly alluded to as being like Moses only far greater. And the Old Testament regularly mentions Moses’ use of a rod or staff in performing miracles. He used one to part the Red Sea, and to produce water from a rock. His staff was even transformed into a snake and back at one stage. It would make sense for the early Christians who saw Jesus as a kind of super-Moses to replicate Moses’ use of a staff.
But the Jewish tradition of the staff-wielding miracle worker doesn’t end with Moses. In the first century BC, there was a Jewish scholar named Honi HaMe’agel (the Circle-drawer) after a particularly flashy display of miraculous power. During one unusually dry winter, Israel was teetering on the edge of a catastrophic drought so Honi drew a circle in the dust with his staff and stood within it. He then declared that he wouldn’t leave the circle until it rained. When it began to drizzle, Honi raised his staff and scoffed, demanding more rain from God. When it began to pour, Honi asked God to ease it off to a calm but steady rain and God complied. Or so the story goes.
Whether Jesus used a staff or wand, and whether he was clean-shaven and short-haired, is neither here nor there, really. The point is that when the earliest Christians came to depict Jesus, their favorite posture for him was that of all-powerful miracle worker. They didn’t believe his miraculous power was derived from any magic wand. The miracles were seen as signs of Jesus’ own innate power and authority. They were performed as signs of his kingship and his coming kingdom. As John Dickson writes in A Spectator’s Guide to Jesus:
“Jesus’ deeds are portrayed in our texts as a sign within history of the restoration of all things at the end of history. Jesus’ power over sickness, evil & nature itself are a preview, you might say, of God’s coming kingdom… As the second last chapter of the New Testament envisions: ‘God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’ (Rev 21:4). But what is merely promised in prophecy and vision here in the book of Revelation… was temporarily experienced within history… in the ministry of Jesus: evil was overthrown, frail bodies restored, nature itself was put right. The ‘kingdom of God’ had in miniature come upon them.”
This idea is depicted in this early drawing of Jesus, found in catacombs, and dated around 375 AD.
This Jesus has the more familiar long hair and beard. He looks much more like a Jewish prophet of old. But he is shrouded in the white robe of the Greco-Roman philosophers, indicating the artist saw him as a great teacher. But more than that, Jesus is encircled by a halo, the classic artistic device for indicating the presence of a holy man. And he is flanked by the first and last letter of the Greek alphabet, Α and Ω (alpha and omega).
The artist has loaded a lot into his or her simple drawing: Jesus is a holy Jewish teacher, the First and the Last, God Incarnate.
These same ideas are presented in this famous image from the sixth century:
This painting is the Christ Pantocrator of St. Catherine’s Monastery at Sinai. The monastery has been sacked and desecrated by countless marauding armies, but this ancient Byzantine icon has somehow managed to avoid being vandalized. In fact, it is the longest surviving picture in what is known as the pantocrator style. The term pantocrator just means “Almighty” or “all-powerful,” and is used to describe portrayals of Jesus as God. Like the previous image, Jesus is circumscribed by a halo, although this one is golden no less, as is the jewel-encrusted cover of the Holy Scriptures he holds in his hand.
And yet despite the majestic elements to this picture, Jesus is wearing a simple brown tunic, not unlike a monk’s robe, and he stares at us through soft, almond-shaped brown eyes. He is divine, but there is a gentleness to his demeanor. This Christ is warm and approachable.
And finally, I can’t end without throwing in this early picture from Rome, dated to 530 AD:
Bearded, long-haired, and haloed, this Jesus looks familiar, doesn’t he? But I do find it interesting that this early in the Christian era Jesus was being imagined as a brown-skinned man. As we’ll see in coming posts, European artists very quickly made Jesus’ skin milky white and his eyes a piercing blue. But it didn’t begin that way.
How do you respond to the image of a brown-skinned Messiah?
You can read Part II What Is Jesus Looking At Up There here.
To read a free chapter of my latest book, ReJesus: Remaking the Church in Our Founder’s Image, visit http://rejesusbook.com/