Have you ever noticed that none of the people who wrote the Gospel ever takes the time to describe what Jesus looked like? In Mark’s account of the Gospel, Jesus comes onstage nine verses in, ready for a dunk in the river. The text says simply: “In those days Jesus came up from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” The next verse could read: Jesus, a strapping fellow, a shade over six feet with a ruddy complexion, a nest of a beard, and dark hazel eyes, was coming up out of the water when he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. The next verse could read like this. But it doesn’t. The Evangelists (one term for the authors of the Gospel) seem singularly uninterested in offering up any details of Jesus’ physical appearance.
This, of course, has not stopped people throughout history drawing, painting, and sculpting images of Jesus. The earliest paintings we still have around come from ancient catacombs where worship services were held in secret. These pictures usually portrayed Jesus as the good shepherd, and they appear to modern eyes as cartoonish – obviously, the artists were not trying to go for physical accuracy. As the centuries progressed and Christianity became first tolerated, then acceptable, then (in some cases) compulsory, images of Jesus appeared in mosaics, frescoes, statues, illuminated manuscripts, and stained-glass windows. Artists depicted him as a king and a judge (and sometimes still as a shepherd). During the Renaissance, Jesus often wore period costume, making him look more like a gentleman of Verona than a first century Jew. At some point, it became fashionable for Jesus to wear a beard; at another point, a serene, starry-eyed expression.
Enter Warner Sallman, who in 1941 painted arguably the most famous portrait of Jesus ever: amber background fading into brown; Jesus in three-quarter profile shown from the shoulder up; the flowing locks, the beard, the serenity, the multiple light sources. For many people, especially American baby boomers, this is what Jesus looked like. The portrait was so ubiquitous for so long that it almost took on canonical significance, as if it were the authorized image of Jesus agreed upon at the Council of Nicaea. People have been cast to play Jesus in films based on this image – just look at Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ. Honestly, what self-respecting casting director would hire an actor who couldn’t grow such a nice dark brown beard?
I know this sounds like I have a vendetta against Warner Sallman. I don’t…truly, I don’t. I think his painting is quite nice, though I personally think Jesus looks a bit dull, like he’s waiting for a traffic light to change. My opinion aside, the point is this: we, as a culture, have developed such a clear picture in our minds of how Jesus of Nazareth appeared. This clarity comes from centuries and centuries of images; from all the nauseatingly banal Tiffany stained glass in the windows of our churches; from a single authoritative, iconic portrait painted nearly seventy years ago. But this clarity, this consensus, is completely and utterly baseless. Our “clear picture” of Jesus was created ex nihilo, out of nothing.
More than anything else, aggregate historical imagination has contributed to the development of our enduring image of Jesus of Nazareth. This imagination has fed off of the racial and cultural markers of myriad societies, the political and economic status of the Christian religion during various periods, the value of visual art for disparate sects of Christianity, and the technology, proficiency, and goal of the artist or craftsman.
In one image Jesus may wear pantaloons and a feathered hat; in another, he may wear a jewel-encrusted tunic and crown; in a third, he may wear the ever-popular toga/sash/sandals combination. In the majority of images, there’s a high probability that Jesus “looks like me” – both “me” in the sense of the artist’s race and culture and “me” in the sense that the person writing this is white, male, of Anglo-Saxon heritage, with brown hair, who could probably grow a nice beard if he could get past the “itchy stage.”
Our penchant for recasting Jesus in our own images and for relying on the aggregate historical imagination should give us pause. There’s obviously no way a first century Jew looked like a guy whose ancestors hail from Kent, England. Nor does the simple fact that something is both aggregated and historical infuse it with validity.
I’m not saying that we need to throw away all our pictures of Jesus and smash all our stained glass. I’m far from an iconoclast. What I am saying is that we develop awareness of where we come from, not to discount or disconnect that past, but to integrate it fully into our interpretive arsenal. When we discover that no words in the Gospel ever describe what Jesus looked like, we can begin to ask why our images of him look the way they do. Then we can ask: What else have we taken for granted?
* I take the title for this post from the film Talladega Nights, which has a wonderful scene about a dinner table prayer. That one scene alone gets at what I talked about above. It’s worth the price of admission for the whole movie.