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What Did Jesus Look Like? by Joan E. Taylor

23 March 2018

There were reasons for picturing Jesus in certain ways, says Nicholas Cranfield

© cathy fisher 2017

Jesus of Nazareth (2017) by Cathy Fisher, commissioned by the author of What Did Jesus Look Like? to reflect the findings of her research. From the book

Jesus of Nazareth (2017) by Cathy Fisher, commissioned by the author of What Did Jesus Look Like? to reflect the findings of her research. From the bo...

JOAN TAYLOR is Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College, London, and has written Jesus and Brian: Exploring the historical Jesus and his times via “Monty Python’s Life of Brian”.

In this well-illustrated compact volume, Taylor discusses how Jesus may have appeared, with an informed chapter on Jewish male dress in the Palestine of his day, and a speculative one on whether he was tall or short, or ugly, like Socrates, and dishonourable in appearance.

How we see Jesus radically challenges how we seek to follow him. Was he the Law Giver, like Moses in the striking images from the catacombs of Rome on the via Anapo and via Salaria, or was he a vagrant, living with the poor and rarely portrayed as such?

The Gospels give us no description of Jesus’s appearance, which is interesting of itself, since we read in the Bible that both Moses and David were good-looking. Was the second Moses, the Son of David, less so? Was he perhaps ill-favoured? Taylor reminds us that Thucydides carefully avoids commenting on the physiognomy of his Athenian hero Pericles; only from Plutarch do we learn that he had a deformed cranium.

The Early Church sought answers, to promote the cult of the man from Nazareth, and readers are offered a succinct account of the veronica, of the face of Christ on the Turin Shroud and the Mandylion, and of numerous acheropitae (images not made by human hand which broadly interpret a famous literary supposed correspondence between Jesus and King Agbar).

She provides a useful survey of some of the historical images of Jesus, some more familiar than others. The notorious Leonardo da Vinci Salvator Mundi, the second- or third-century Greek jasper intaglio in the British Museum, and the more saccharine Caucasian meek and mild pictures of the past two centuries all appear here.

I regret only that she did not pick out two of the images that I find most thought-provoking: the scene of the crucifixion carved on the wooden doors of Santa Sabina in Rome, which is dated to the fifth century, and the virtuosic engraving of the face of Christ crowned with thorns by Claude Mellan. In his print, The Sudarium of St Veronica (1649), Mellan (1598-1688) used a single spiralling line that begins at the tip of the Saviour’s nose to engrave a lively and almost three-dimensional face.

She situates the emerging iconography within the Hellenistic tradition of the day, and discusses Dionysus, Hermes/Apollo, and Hadrian’s lover, Antinous. All of these were standard figures in the sculptors’ repertoire, and, as such, Jesus of Nazareth was just one among many demi-gods: youthful, virile, good-looking, a man of parts, and a head-turner.

Jesus as the Pantocrator of the Byzantine world owes much to the enthroned judgemental Zeus, to the healing god Asclepius, and the Egyptian Serapis, hoary old men with stern countenances. One of the reasons that Christian artists may have re-cycled such existing prototypes was to allow the Christ to triumph over them. For instance, the cult of Serapis claimed that he was both immanent and universal, a cosmocrator. But, in the fourth-century mosaic in the apse of Santa Pudenziana in Rome, it is the seated Christ who has authority over all things, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.

The author commissioned Cathy Fisher to reflect what she has written in paint, but the picture dodges the very issues that we have read about: long or short hair, handsome or not, tall or short. Maybe it really is better to let the mind’s eye see for itself.

Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.

What Did Jesus Look Like?
Joan E. Taylor
Bloomsbury £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.20

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