The Ten Earliest Depictions of Jesus: How Art Visualized Jesus in the First Centuries After His Death

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

What Makes Caravaggio’s The Tak­ing of Christ a Time­less, Great Paint­ing?

Behold! The Very First Christ­mas Card (1843)

Did Psy­che­del­ic Mush­rooms Appear in Medieval Chris­t­ian Art?: A Video Essay

Sal­vador Dalí’s Avant-Garde Christ­mas Cards

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.

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