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Depictions of Jesus

Human Instinct

The Judeo-Christian God as depicted by the Old Testament has no face, yet human instinct has always craved an image to worship. Perhaps this is a kind of narcissism: an inability to worship something that does not mimic our own form. Religious art is the most apparent expression of the desire to give human form to God and other religious figures. There is a natural inclination on the part of an artist to use the various media of his or her craft to depict what is most important to him or her.

Depictions of Jesus in art are similar to the imageless God of Judeo-Christian theology in that there is no description of Jesus within scripture on which the artist can draw. For this reason, the majority of artistic renderings of Jesus tend to fall into three categories:

1) Jesus as he would look according to the geographical location of the artist.

2) Jesus as he would look according to the scriptural reference of the messiah as the descendant of King David.

3) Jesus as Middle Eastern/Jewish.

Examples of the first instance abound. Abrecht Durer painted Jesus as an Aryan blond, Velasquez made him look Mediterranean, while artists belonging to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church paint Jesus with African features and black skin. Japanese and Chinese artists give Jesus Asian features. The two thousand year old community of St. Thomas Christians in India depicts Jesus and his family in their own local costume and with physical features common to the region.

No Scriptural References

While there are no scriptural references to Jesus' appearance except for those of his heavenly form as written in Revelations, there are Old Testament references to the appearance of King David. The messiah, according to tradition, comes from the seed of David, hence the many artistic depictions of Jesus as a redhead. The first book of Samuel makes two references to David's coloring:

And he sent, and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and withal of beautiful eyes, and goodly to look upon. – 1 Samuel 16:12

And when the Philistine looked about, and saw David, he disdained him: for he was but a youth, and ruddy, and withal of a fair countenance. – 1 Samuel 17:42

The Hebrew word translated as "ruddy" is "Admoni," the same word that is used to describe Esau as red, though it is unclear from reading the text whether the description refers to the color of David's hair or his skin. According to Jewish biblical commentators, the reference is to David's hair color.

In modern times, the trend has been to depict Jesus as Middle Eastern and Jewish. In the nineteenth century, William Holman Hunt, one of the founders of the Pre-Rafaelite Brotherhood, undertook to travel to the Holy Land several times in order to find local models on which to base his artistic depictions of Jesus, as did his contemporary, Henry Ossawa Tanner. James Tissot and Vassili Vereshchagin were often censured because of their depictions of Jesus as having Jewish features.

Jesus of Nazareth Mary Magdalene: Mariamne Early Christianity
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