Today, we have a guest post from frequent W&T commenter The Pirate Priest:
I was Inspired by Dave B.’s series on the chronology of the New Testament and thought it would be fun to focus some time on what the historical Jesus may have looked like. This has been a source of scholarly speculation and research for centuries. We have innumerable works of art depicting Jesus and his life dating back almost two millennia. Even so, it can be surprisingly difficult to pin down.
Even knowing what Joseph Smith looked like historically has been a challenge, and he is yesterday’s news compared to Jesus. Just last year there were reports of a newly discovered photo of Joseph Smith with some evidence it may be real…it also looks much different than the painting of Smith we’ve used as a reference for the last ~ 180 years.
Sometimes it can feel jarring or disappointing to find that history doesn’t quite line up with the image in our heads. When it comes to Jesus, however, things are a little different; it’s totally fine if we get some things wrong (more on this later).
How we imagine and depict Jesus
In all the visual portrayals of Jesus in art, there is a thread of expected common elements that run through nearly every depiction.
Here’s a little challenge: go to the image search on your favorite search engine and type, “Jesus in a crowd.” Scroll through the images and take note of how effortlessly you can pick out which person is Jesus at just a glance. What attributes and expectations make him so easily identifiable?
Vikings offer a similar example: horned helmets weren’t really a thing, but if you want people to instantly recognize Vikings in a movie, just give them helmets with horns.
To start, let’s take a look at some depictions of Jesus that are famous worldwide and also a common sight in Mormonism:
This famous portrait by Del Parson is complete with a Mona Lisa smile and several myths about it being the definitive Jesus. (Most of these myths are about little girls from atheist families who saw the painting and recognized him as the man who had mysteriously appeared to protect them from danger – the danger varies, but is commonly a car accident or an abusive murderous father.) Myths aside, it’s a very warm, approachable depiction of Jesus that millions of people love and relate to.
Bloch was a devout Lutheran whose masterworks are loved by Christians of all denominations. He has become a mainstay in Mormon iconography. Bloch portrays Christ with a regal, God-like magnetism that effortlessly commands reverence and awe. Bloch is a favorite of mine, as he (rightly) is with so many people.
Harry Anderson is a devout Seventh-day Adventist artist who became Mormon famous when the LDS Church commissioned him to create nearly two dozen works. We see his art everywhere in Mormondom – in massive murals at Temple Square, adorning meetinghouse foyers, and to those little cardboard posters in Sunday School.
Looking at the images above (and any others you like), we can start to piece together a set of common elements and attributes that help make Jesus easily recognizable. Here are a few common ones:
- Anglo-European facial features.
- A tall, physical presence (commonly made taller by being positioned high in a painting…or by being a gigantic marble statue).
- Light(ish) skin (those giant Carrara marble statues help contribute to this one too).
- Long, silky brown hair.
- A nicely trimmed full beard.
- Flowing ankle-length robes, usually white or red.
- Leather sandals.
- Blue eyes (sometimes).
- Smells like a fabric softener commercial…Obviously, I made this up, but that’s sometimes the sort of aesthetic we get.
Small signals like these are what help Jesus stand out in any image and any crowd.
The truth is that these traits have their roots in Byzantine iconography from 1600-1700 years ago in the fourth century. Their influence has lasted centuries and continues to frame our depictions today. The thing about Byzantine religious art is that it was never meant to be historical. Rather, the artists intentionally imbued every element with symbolism and meaning.
Most of the worshipping masses were illiterate, so art was used to convey the essence of Christ and his teachings to worshipers. Another thousand years would pass before Johann Gutenberg and William Tyndale would help make the actual text of the Bible available to the masses, and by that time the Byzantine imagery of Jesus had taken firm root in the collective mind of Christianity.
Byzantine artists began by modeling Christ as a younger Zeus to portray him as a heavenly ruler. Over time this evolved and eventually culminated into our imagery of Christ today.
So what did Jesus really look like?
We do know a few things:
Nothing very notable was mentioned about his physical appearance in the New Testament – either he wasn’t remarkable looking, and/or the Gospel authors were trying to uphold Isaiah’s prophecy that he wouldn’t be remarkable looking. It’s also pretty certain that Jesus wasn’t a flashy dresser. We also know a fair amount about what things were like when & where he was born, grew up, and lived.
All of these clues give us a good place to start, but here I’ll yield to someone much more qualified.
Joan E. Taylor is a professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London. A link to an article she wrote for BBC Magazine is listed below along with her book What Did Jesus Look Like? I’ll summarize her words about what historical Jesus may have looked like:
Hair and beard
The earliest surviving paintings of Christ show him as short-haired and beardless. lt’s also very unlikely he had long hair. However, a beard is possible – a scruffy beard was often thought to differentiate a philosopher from the general population (since they spent their time thinking rather than worrying about their looks).
According to Taylor, “A great mane of luxuriant hair and a beard was a godly feature, not replicated in male fashion. Even a philosopher kept his hair fairly short.” His hair was most likely black or dark brown, and may have been wavy or curly.
Clothing & footwear
Given his words in Mark 12 about how scribes were dressing, long robes are likely out of the question. Robes like this were worn by the wealthy and social elite as a status symbol and for special events.
He probably dressed like this:
- A knee-length undyed woolen tunic (ankle-length ones were generally only worn by women), possibly with a stripe of color running from the shoulder to the hem.
- A mantle called a himation that functioned as a long wrap and was worn many different ways – often it would hang down past the knees, covering the tunic. When it was cold, he probably wore two of them.
- A Jewish prayer shawl called a tallith. These were usually made from creamcolored undyed woolen fabric with an indigo stripe or threading.
- Sandals, like everyone else.
Joan Taylor again, “And what about Jesus’s facial features? They were Jewish. That Jesus was a Jew (or Judaean) is certain in that it is found repeated in diverse literature, including in the letters of Paul…So how do we imagine a Jew at this time, a man ‘about 30 years of age when he began, according to Luke chapter 3?” Something like this:
This is a computer-generated model of a Galilean man created in 2001 by forensic anthropologist Richard Neave based on an actual skull found in the region. To be clear, Neave didn’t claim that this was the face of Jesus – it was just a prompt to help people consider Jesus as a person of his time and place.
Additionally, the average man’s height at the time of Jesus was about 5-feet 5-inches. It’s also highly unlikely that Jesus had blue eyes; they were probably brown.
The best approximation we have about Jesus’ appearance
The digital reconstructions are fascinating, but Taylor suggests that the best approximation of what Jesus probably looked like comes from a depiction of Moses found in a 3rd-century synagogue:
Moses probably didn’t actually look or dress like this – just like Jesus didn’t look like an English nobleman dressed like a statue of Zeus.
The artists were trying to do the same thing with Moses that we do with our portrayals of Jesus. This image shows just how the people of the day imagined a Jewish sage & would look, dress, and be relatable within the context of their culture and time…which is exactly what Jesus was – a Jewish sage in the Greco-Roman world.
Why none of this really matters, spiritually speaking
It’s fascinating to learn what historic Jesus may have looked like. Even so, there is nothing wrong with loving any of the endless variety of ways that Jesus is depicted and imagined. The purpose of art is to evoke feelings and emotions; not to be a perfect historical record of the world.
I’ve seen everything from priceless paintings of Christ in museums, to tattoos of Jesus as a black man, to a papier-mâché statue on a float in a parade – the important thing is that they all make Jesus alive and relatable to people of many diverse backgrounds. An image that may not speak to you or me, may be inspirational to someone of different tastes, culture, and social context.
There is a long tradition of depicting Jesus in whatever context is most relatable to the audience of the art. What matters is how they make us feel and inspire us to live a better life and be a source of good in the world.
What about you?
l’d love to hear your thoughts on all of this.
- Do you find it helpful to read about what Jesus might have looked like historically?
- What depictions of Jesus and his ministry inspire you the most and why? This could be art in any form or medium.
- Which (if any) don’t speak to you? (While being understanding that they may still inspire others, no judgment here)
- Taylor, Joan. “What Did Jesus Really Look Like?” BBC News, 24 Dec. 201 5, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35120965.
- Taylor, Joan E. What Did Jesus Look Like? Bloomsbury, T & T Clark, 2018.
- Toone, Trent. “Does an Image of Joseph Smith Exist? What One Descendant Found in a Forgotten Family Heirloom.” Deseret News, 21 July 2022, http://www.deseret.com/faith/2022/7/21/23271786/does-image-joseph-smith-exist-what-one-descendant-found-forgotten-family-heirloom-lds.
I do not like “portraits” of Jesus — he never sat for a portrait. Instead, I like art that gives life to the stories — art that shows Jesus doing something with someone else in a story from the Gospels.
That’s one of the reasons why I miss the live endowment. Anybody of any race could play the characters. I’ve had sessions with a black Peter, a Hispanic James, and even a Polynesian John. Yeah, the actors were white most of the time, but there were a few surprises every once in awhile.
Imagine if the Church made the endowment films with actors from different races. Think how impactful it would be for Jesus to be depicted as Asian, Native American, African, or any other race. Like you mentioned Pirate Priest, it’s common for artists to depict the Savior with features that they’re culturally familiar with (European artist = Jesus with European features), so expanding that cultural mindset beyond Europe would be a net positive when it comes to the endowment films.
It’s too bad that ultra-conservative members would probably have a stroke if that happened….
Thank you for the background info on the sources for the depictions of Jesus that we are so familiar with. And to answer your question: it’s ok if we get it wrong as long as it’s accidental or because we simply don’t know. But when we modify images to make them more likable (you know, like giving Mary some extra modesty or placing Joseph Smith at the translation table with OC), it’s wrong. And let’s not blame the artists the way we blame the lawyers.
I am surprised that nobody has mentioned the “Prince of Peace” painting by Akiane Kramarik.
“For many years a blurry image of the Prince of Peace appeared to me in my dreams and visions. Only after a mysterious carpenter came knocking on our door one afternoon that I knew it was the right time to paint the story of hope,” says Akiane. In Prince of Peace, painted when she was only 8 years old, Akiane portrays Jesus as the bringer of peace to the world.
Very informative and thought provoking article! Thank you Pirate.
This the picture we have in our sitting room:
There’s a mount, so primarily head and shoulders.
I like it because he isn’t looking directly out, but seems more thoughtful.
Our baptist in-laws eschew all such images, which they consider to be idolatry.
@ji – I can understand not being into portraits of Jesus. There are definitely some I like more than others. A portrait definitely shifts the focus more onto what Jesus looks like in the mind of the artist rather than what he did.
@Southern Saint – I would love to see the church make more diverse interpretations of the endowment films. I think it would be a great addition considering that it’s such a symbolic thing anyway. I for sure get bored with white BYU students dressed in white.
@Josh H – I think I understand what you are saying, but feel free to elaborate if I dont. It seems like you are saying that we shouldn’t be making modifications to imagery purely so they line up better with our imagined reality or preferences. I’d agree if the goal is to try to depict something more historically.
I feel it’s a bit different with Jesus because the divinity of the subject overrides the importance of historicity in most cases. IMO Mary often falls into a similar category with Jesus that because of her importance and holiness, especially within Catholic and Orthodox contexts.
@cachemagic – Akiane Kramarik’s story is fascinating. What’s also astonishing is that she painted that piece at age 8 and is self taught. It’s also interesting to compare the hair and beard to the computer model of a Galilean man by Neave.
Pirate; you are interpreting my thoughts correctly. I don’t expect historically correct images of Jesus since we can’t be sure. And also, we (a Christian church body) wants our membership to worship Jesus so we naturally want to depict an image that facilitates that. But I don’t trust the Church on this or anything else. I suspect that there’s a committee that approves these images and hey, it’s much easier to turn the members on with a white Jesus than a darker one.
Congrats on your first (?) guest post Pirate Priest! Interesting topic – what did Jesus actually look like? As the son of a poor “carpenter” (day laborer), I picture Jesus as showing the physical signs of
malnourishment coupled with years of backbreaking work in the hot sun. Picture those old Depression-era photos of Dust bowl farmers – except he would look Ist century Jewish, of course. Then again, from the scant biblical evidence we have, it seems Jesus did not take well to his father’s occupation, and he was kind of a bookish, awkward, and probably sarcastic kid. So a young Woody Allen with dark hair, is also a possibility. As the OP said, it doesn’t really matter what we think he looked like. I think Josh H is on to something though. It becomes a problem when we modify the image and persona of Jesus to meet our current cultural/political/dogmatic needs or agenda. Do a Google image search of “American Jesus” to see what I mean (and give a listen to the Bad Religion song of the same from the 90s for a still very relevant critique on the topic). Btw, I’m still waiting for Jack to jump into the comments section and tell us exactly what Jesus looks like according to such and such vision given to JS.
I’ve never liked the Del Parson portrait. He looks like a BYU football player with long hair and a beard, the kind who would have bullied me mercilessly in middle school.
I actually quite like that there is such a long tradition of Jesus iconography from ancient art. I love art history, and a realism is only a small portion of the vast scope of what art has conveyed over the centuries. To me, the main problem is lack of art education (possibly mixed with a dash of biblical literalism) that leads people to believe the classic white, long-haired Jesus is meant to be historical.
This isn’t to say I don’t like other depictions of Jesus or that there’s no use in learning what he might have actually looked like. There is room for all sorts of imagery to speak to different people in different ways. But I would hate to limit art by insisting on historical accuracy.
@mat – yes, my first post here; thank you 😊. An ancient “young Woody Allen with dark hair” is an amazing mental picture. Usually Jesus is (understandably) depicted with reverence, but he was really something of a troublemaker in terms of his religious contemporaries. I imagine him going around doing good, of course, but also wicked smart with a razor wit and sense of humor.
Like the first commenter, I cannot abide portraits of Jesus. If a portrait becomes successful, it becomes an idol, as the Del Parson portrait has become. The fact is that He likely was not handsome. OT prophets taught that He would have no beauty that people would desire him. No one followed Him for His looks, or His smile, or His lovely hair, or His buff muscles. I am all in favor of paintings showing Jesus doing something, like healing the sick or teaching, but not portraits. We should follow Jesus for His deeds and teachings, and not for what we think He might have looked like. I do appreciate Byzantine icons for their great beauty.
@pirate. It’s funny, Woody Allen used a lot of hyperbole in his comedy during his standup period in the 6os, so much so that I’ve heard current comedians criticize him for making stuff up. Similarly, Jesus employed hyperbole liberally, in particular to point out hypocrisy. Straining at nats while swallowing camels, logs in your eye, a camel trying to fit through a needle (not a gate), giving pearls to pigs – hilarious stuff. I could also see Jesus using air quotes a subtle wink when called Peter a “rock.” You know, this is the same Peter who denied knowing Jesus three times and like the other apostles, never seemed to understand what Jesus was talking about .
Of course Jesus was white and delightsome. He was also very tall. How do we know this? Because the Lord has revealed the phytiscal traits of some of the 12 tribes of Israel, who were all white. The tribe of Judah, of which Jesus was of, has the unique trait of “towering above his brethren”. This means that he was tall. All memebers of the tribe of Judah are white and tall. If they are 5″5 and brown eyes, then they are a false Jew. You can’t simply become a Jew by embracing their beliefs. It’s a racial thing. Your brown skinned, computer generated version of Jesus is offensive and loathsome.
@hedgehog – I really enjoy Heinrich Hofmann as well.
@Mike Spendlove – Del Parson’s painting of Jesus looks sort of like..well…Del Parson with a beard. I’m not sure if was intentional or not, but the facial structure, pose, half smile etc. are all very similar. https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0052/8665/8141/files/DelParson.jpg
@Occasional Reader – I agree that art and art history should be an integral part of education. Art is a major part of humanity and civilization.