New research calls for a re-framing of the most famous icon in Western history.
Think of Jesus Christ and the image of a European-looking bearded man with light skin and a long robe probably comes to mind. That’s partly because for the past two thousand years Western artists—from Byzantine mosaic-makers to Renaissance painters and Hollywood directors—have constantly drawn from that particular set of features to immortalize the Messiah in mosaics, canvas or on the big screen.
But according to new research by Joan Taylor, a Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London, that image is a far cry from an historically accurate depiction of Jesus.
As she notes in the introduction of her recently published book What Did Jesus Look Like? (T&T Clark, 2018), the Bible and the New Testament provide few sparse details about Jesus’s clothing but no description at all about his physical features.
In the holy texts Jesus “walks, talks, heals, touches, drinks, eats, performs miracles, gets seized, spat on, beaten, whipped and crucified, but we do not have him visually described,” Taylor writes.
So where did that bearded, robe-wearing, European-looking Jesus came from? “That image can probably be traced back to the Byzantine period when artists had to make choices on how to represent the ‘son of God,’” the scholar says. “And they were probably inspired by existing godly figures like Zeus and Apollo.” That would explain why Jesus got a Zeus-like haircut—long-hair and a beard—and Apollo-like features—a slim body and delicate lineaments. The Byzantine era is also when Jesus starts to be depicted with a royal robe, as opposed to the simple tunic that he most likely used to wear.
In chapter five of her book, titled “Christ Almighty, The Byzantine Cosmocrator,” Taylor deconstructs such Byzantine era image-making techniques by looking at a lavish apse mosaic from Santa Pudenziana, the oldest surviving Catholic church in Rome, built between 384 and 398.