Jesus Christ: as soon as you hear those words, assuming they’re not being used exclamatorily, you see a face. In almost all cases, that face is bearded and framed by long brown hair. Usually it has strong, somewhat sharp features and an expression of benevolence, patience, faint expectancy, or (depending on the relevant Christian tradition) complete agony. Whatever the details of his appearance, even the least religious among us has a personal Jesus in our imagination, a composite of the many depictions we’ve seen throughout our lives. But where, exactly, did those depictions come from?
The UsefulCharts video above assembles the ten earliest known images of Jesus in art, organizing them in a countdown that works its way back from the sixth century. Remarkably, these examples remain immediately recognizable even a millennium and a half back, though beyond that point the son of God becomes rather more clean-cut.
“Originally, Jesus was always depicted without a beard,” explains UsefulCarts creator Matt Baker, “and as we’re about to see, he usually just looks like a typical Roman from the time of the Roman Empire.” Ancient-Rome enthusiasts will recognize his manner of dress, although they might be surprised to see him using a magic wand, in one late-third-century image, to raise Lazarus from the dead.
The holiday season is an especially appropriate time to consider where our cultural conception of Jesus comes from, given that he is — at least as some Christians put it — the very “reason for the season.” And indeed, among these ten earliest artworks featuring Jesus is a sarcophagus lid inscribed with a classic Christmas tableau, which depicts him as a “baby being held by his mother, Mary. Standing behind them is, presumably, Joseph, and in front of them are the three wise men and the star of Bethlehem.” That’s certainly a depiction of Jesus for all time. As for what depiction of Jesus reflects our own time, we can hardly stop a certain “restored” nineteen-thirties Spanish fresco turned internet phenomenon from coming to mind.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.