WHAT did Jesus look like? And how do we know? The Gospels give us no clue; so where is the evidence?
In the tenth century, people were confident that they had the answer to these questions. In St Catherine’s Monastery, in Sinai, there is a tenth-century icon showing King Agbar of Edessa (Urfa, in south-west Turkey) holding a cloth which has an image of Christ on it.
A story tells how Jesus and Agbar were in correspondence, and that Agbar received an image of Christ which cured his leprosy. This cloth (the Mandylion) shows Jesus with long brown hair, a full beard, broad nose, and mysterious, scrutinising eyes. The Western counterpart to this is the legend that Veronica wiped the sweat off the face of Jesus when he was on his way to Calvary, and that his imprint was left on the handkerchief .
Also in Sinai is the famous sixth-century icon of Christ, again with long brown hair and full beard, but this time with a narrow nose and eyes wide open, with a totally transparent look.
It is this image, of course, that is the one that is most familiar to us, and that, with minor changes, has lasted until our own times. It is an image that, in essentials, can be traced back to a fourth-century fresco in the catacombs. Yet, if it were not for the halo and the Alpha and Omega sign, it might pass as an image of the chief Roman god, Jupiter.
Imagine the surprise felt by visitors coming to the Vatican, either in the past or today, when they see sarcophagi (stone coffins) dating from the fourth century and showing a very different Jesus. For example, there is one scene, known as Traditio Legis, that shows Jesus handing over the law to Peter and Paul. They are both bearded, but Jesus, sitting on a throne between them, is depicted as a beardless Roman youth with long curling hair. Squashed below the throne, clearly defeated and captured, is old Jupiter.
This scene also reflects a change in the way in which Jesus was under-stood at the time. In the catacombs he is shown, above all, as a wonder-worker, especially as one who can raise us from death.
By the fourth century, Jesus had become an authority figure who had bestowed his authority on the Roman church-leaders — by then among the leading citizens in the capital. They were in the process of replacing the Roman aristocracy with their old gods.
We can understand how Christians in the first centuries might be uncertain how to show Jesus, and could have experimented with different ways. But what is surprising is how long these two very different images of Jesus persisted side by side — with no apparent sense of contradiction for the first viewers.
For example, a large mosaic in Santa Pudenziana, in Rome, dating from about 400, shows a Jupiter-like Christ presiding over a background of the city. Meanwhile, a sixth-century mosaic in Ravenna portrays a beardless Jesus sitting on a rainbow presiding over the whole cosmos.
These images can even appear in the same church, as they do in the mausoleum of Constantine’s daughter Costanza, in Rome, and in the sixth-century mosaics in St Apollinare Nuovo, in Ravenna.
The differences cannot be accounted for in terms of the choice of the individual artists or patron, for images were fraught with theological risk, and were closely watched by the Church’s theological guardians. But, on the other hand, the difference between these two images of Christ does not seem to rest on any fundamental theological divide.
There is the very telling fact that what was originally an Arian baptistery in Ravenna has a beardless Christ, while the Orthodox one has a bearded version — but the Arian one was not altered when it was taken over by the Orthodox.
What is the explanation? Jewish men of the time were bearded, and there was a large Jewish community in Rome; so it would have been natural for Christians to think of Jesus as having a beard.
By the third century, however, Church and Synagogue had split with some acrimony, and there may have been a desire to distance Jesus from his Jewishness. Furthermore, the Emperor Constantine, who did not have a beard, set the fashion for most fourth-century emperors. So, when Constantine became a Christian, there would have been an added incentive to think of Christ the King, from whom the emperor received his authority.
This was a Roman world, and Christians wanted to show Jesus not as a marginal Jewish figure, but as sovereign over that world. Moreover, it was a highly visual world, one that took images with great seriousness.
Finally, we, with our literalistic minds, see contradiction in these two images. It may be, however, that the first Christians — with their greater stress on the symbolic — simply wanted to bring out the two different aspects of Christ’s divinity.
The bearded Christ, having resonances of Jupiter, conveyed Christ’s authority. The other image, with its resonances of youth and beauty — like Apollo or Dionysus — could convey the truth that he is the one who brings freshness and beauty to the drabbest and most worn-out lives.
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth, Gresham Professor of Divinity, is giving two free public lectures at the Museum of London, 150 London Wall, London EC2: “The Resurrection in Art”, 16 February; “Understanding Faith Through the Eyes of Stanley Spencer”, 16 March: both at 1 p.m. For queries, phone (Gresham College) 020 7831 0575.