The earliest accounts of his life were written a generation or more after his death, and none of the Gospel writers ever knew him. His face was essentially a blank.
In the early centuries, when Christianity was a small, occasionally persecuted cult, its adherents didn’t even try to depict Christ visually. The earliest portraits only date from the third century, and explode in number from the fourth century, when Christianity became an official religion of the Roman empire.
What does Jesus look like in these early portraits? Nothing like our modern image, that’s for sure. He normally appears youthful and beardless, a kind of idealised, Apollo-esque hero. And for good measure he sometimes carries a magic wand. Less Christ Pantocrator, and more Harry Potter (except without glasses).
Take a look at this late fourth-century ivory panel from Rome. It depicts the two Maries discovering Christ outside his open tomb after the Resurrection. No wand in this image – but if you look closely at Christ in the lower left, you can see he’s clutching a scroll in his left hand. A Roman looking at this image would instantly understand the scroll as a standard symbol of literacy and education. (Statues of Roman emperors and aristocrats often show them holding scrolls.)
Likewise the two-finger gesture comes from Roman oratorical tradition, and was adopted into Christian art as a symbol of blessing.
In fact almost everything about this ivory panel makes Christ look right at home in fourth-century Rome. The upper frame shows his tomb as a grand circular mausoleum, not unlike those of Augustus, Hadrian and Constantine’s daughter Constantina. The dozing soldiers are wearing the tunics and distinctive box-hats (pillei) of the late Roman military. On the lower frame the doors of the tomb are carved with images from the Gospels, just like the famous fifth-century doors of Santa Sabina.
The only obvious Christian symbols are the winged ox and man at the top of the upper panel, representing the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Otherwise this particular Christ is sitting quite happily in the late Roman world, a long way from first-century Palestine. He looks almost as content as he does in this fourth-century villa mosaic from Hinton St Mary (Dorset).
A magic wand is a curious addition to early iconography of Jesus. In depictions of the wedding feast of Cana, for example, Christ is shown touching the jars of water with his wand to turn them into wine. This ‘Christ the Magician’ appears especially on sarcophagi and catacomb paintings, but is also carved on the doors of Saint Sabina and on the ivory Andrews Dipytch (click on links for images).
Of course, none of the Gospels describe Jesus wandering about with a magic wand. Fourth- and fifth-century Romans, though, clearly thought he needed one. They effectively turned him into the sort of magician they associated with eastern mystery religions.
After his stints as Apollo and Harry Potter, Jesus settled down as Emperor of the Universe.
Christ probably looks more familiar to modern eyes in this mosaic from the apse of Santa Pudenziana. It dates from between 401 and 417, a period which saw savage suppression of paganism and the final triumph of Christianity as the sole Roman state religion. The Church now identified itself powerfully with the Roman state; as a result, religious images were swamped with imperial symbolism.
He holds a book displaying the words ‘Lord Protector of the Church of Pudentia’. Behind him are depicted drapes of Tyrian purple and gold thread, as one would see in the audience hall of a Roman emperor.
The imperial iconography continues around him. The Apostles are seated to either side in the tunics and togas of Roman noblemen, looking for all the world like the members of a heavenly Senate.
Saint Peter and Saint Paul, meanwhile, are being crowned by female religious figures inspired by the traditional goddess of Victory depicted on Roman coins. Even the architecture, intended to represent the Heavenly City, looks suspiciously like Rome, with its marble arcades and gilded roof tiles.
Even if the imperial pomp has been put to one side and Jesus has been given a more compassionate, ‘human’ face, he’s still wearing the toga, and he still has that two-finger gesture of benediction. The essential elements put in place during the fourth and fifth centuries have clearly stuck. Sadly the wand never caught on.
I think Jesus has been wrapped in that toga for so many centuries, it would be hard to depict him wearing anything else. But his hand gestures? No reason we can't update them...
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- Image of ivory panel from John Beckwith, Early Christian and Byzantine Art (1979), fig. 36