What Did Jesus Look Like?

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Jesus, 1648

Today, popular prints of Jesus show a tall, Caucasian man with long dark hair, a neatly trimmed beard and soulful brown eyes. It’s the archetype established by the artists of the High Renaissance, particularly Leonardo da Vinci. But is this the face of the historical Jesus?

It’s a question that has vexed artists for the last two-thousand years. The problem is that we don’t really know what Jesus looked like. With the exception of those who worshipped foreign idols such as Baal or Moloch, most Jews of ancient Israel remained faithful to the Mosaic edict against “graven images.” Jewish Law forbade the depiction of living people.

This prohibition was even respected by King Herod, who reveled in pagan luxury himself. Throughout his reign, he made sure that his coins avoided the usual portrait of the Roman emperor or any other representation of humans (such as himself) that could offend the Jewish commandment against the representation of living beings.

This is the reason why no contemporary image of Jesus has survived. Jesus lived and ministered in a devoutly observant environment, where the precepts of the Torah were scrupulously adhered to.

Things were very different in Asia Minor (today’s Turkey) and elsewhere in the Roman Empire. There, the depiction of human beings was widely practiced. Greek and Roman gods were invariably glorified in human form because the sheer perfection of their physical beauty identified them as divine. This was bound to lead to a conflict with Jewish beliefs when early Christianity moved out of Roman Palestine and into Asia Minor, where large numbers of Gentile Christians asked be baptized.

Statue of Apollo, a 2nd century copy of a Greek original. Many Christian Gentiles in the Roman Empire envisioned Jesus in the form of this young god.

Gentiles, raised in a polytheistic world, harbored no compunction about depicting human beings in art. And whereas Jews were content to contemplate the divine in transcendent and intangible terms, Gentiles yearned for a physical manifestation of the God they wished to worship. As Europeans, they demanded an Andachtsbild, a devotional image of the god they prayed to, for this was the form of worship they had practiced all their lives.

That is why the very first representations of Jesus and the Apostles appear, in fresco, on the damp walls of 4th century catacombs in Rome. For lack of a precedent, Jesus is sometimes depicted as a toga-clad philosopher, or as a young Apollo. In the Via Latina catacomb, for example, discovered only in 1955, archaeologists found a number of colorful frescoes that depict Jesus delivering his Sermon on the Mount to a large group of followers. The breathless brushwork of these paintings is entirely in line with Roman first-century portraiture.

Jesus Healing the Bleeding Woman — a 4th century fresco from the Catacombs in Priscilla in Rome. Jesus is portrayed as a toga-clad philosopher.

From these humble beginnings, a formal iconography of Christ would emerge in the centuries to come. Byzantine art emphasized the transcendental nature of Jesus by depicting him in the two-dimensional medium of the mosaic. From this Byzantine paradigm, the Eastern Orthodox Church developed the image of the Pantokrator or “Ruler of All” — a frontal view of the bearded Christ with stern features and a hand raised in blessing. In Northern Europe, the most popular image was the Jesus of the Passion, crucified on the cross.

Jesus as depicted in this 12th century mosaic in the Hagia Sophia, the “Church of Holy Wisdom” in Istanbul. The church was built by Emperor Justinian, then converted to a mosque in the 15th century. Today it is a museum.

Despite their popularity, none of these portraits comes close to the probable Jesus of history. Jesus was likely a strong, muscular man, about five feet two to four inches in height — average size for Galilean peasants — with rough, chafed hands; tanned, olive-tinged skin; and dark brown eyes. He would have worn a beard, like most pious Jews. In 2002, British medical artist Richard Neave created a facial reconstruction using a skull from Jerusalem dated to the 1st century C.E., which press accounts proclaimed as “a new face of Jesus.” In fact, the use of a skull from Jerusalem, capital of Judea and known for its multi-ethnic population, was a poor choice. An experiment on a skull from Galilee would have been more appropriate.

Richard Neave, Reconstruction of a 1st century man from Judea, 2002.

In a sense, each age projects its own idea of the face of Jesus. That is why medieval depictions of Jesus, particularly in Northern Europe, emphasize the pathos of Jesus’ suffering, whereas modern Western images show a serene white male of Anglo-Saxon origin. Perhaps the only artist who came close to capturing the essential features of Jesus was the Dutch 17th century artist Rembrandt van Rijn.

In 1648, he made an in-depth study of the subject, exploiting the fact that Amsterdam had become an international metropolis and center of the global trade. He scrupulously studied young Sephardic Jewish men, particularly those who hailed from the Near East — which was then still largely terra incognita. The results of this project are truly astonishing. They capture what we, today, imagine when we think of Jesus: a warm, deeply compassionate man, who stirred us to love and devotion to others.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Jesus, 1648