- Jesus’s physical appearance wasn’t described in the four Gospels
- Today’s mental image of Jesus was developed from art found in the 4th century
- The Veil of Veronica and the Turin Shroud claim to give an insight into his looks
- Joan E. Taylor searches older sources to uncover what he truly looked like
WHAT DID JESUS LOOK LIKE?
by Joan E. Taylor (Bloomsbury £17.99)
We all know what Jesus looked like, don’t we? The answer to the question posed in the title of Joan E. Taylor’s book is surely obvious. Jesus is one of the most easily recognisable figures in world history.
In the art of the Eastern Orthodox churches, he is literally iconic. In Western art, he is the subject of millions of images. He is so familiar that he can even be spotted when his face makes unexpected appearances in cloud formations, on pieces of toast or on Californian pancakes.
We all have a mental picture of what Jesus looks like. Most often he is a tall, European-looking man, with long hair and a beard, dressed in an ankle-length, flowing robe with baggy sleeves.
Yet none of the four Gospels includes any description of Jesus’s physical appearance. There is nothing about his hair and beard. And very little about how he dressed. The urge to put a face to the holy name has nonetheless been a powerful one for believers throughout the centuries.
Joan E. Taylor delves deep into history to uncover how Jesus Christ would really have looked
Taylor cites the so-called ‘letter of Lentulus’ which was once assumed to have been written by a Roman official who was Jesus’s contemporary.
Lentulus had apparently seen him and been impressed. Jesus was ‘tall in stature and admirable’. He ‘has hair the colour of an unripe hazelnut and it falls smoothly about to his ears’. Unfortunately, the letter of Lentulus is a product of the Middle Ages, not the Roman era.
There have long been church relics which allegedly provide direct evidence of what Jesus looked like. There is the story of St Veronica, who is so moved by his suffering on the way to his crucifixion that she wipes his sweat and blood-stained brow with her handkerchief. His image is miraculously transferred to it.
The Veil of Veronica was on display in the medieval period. It may still survive. The most famous of these relics is, of course, the Turin Shroud. People persist in the belief that this is the Shroud in which Jesus was wrapped in his tomb, despite scientific evidence to the contrary.
Radiocarbon dating undertaken in 1988 shows the cloth goes back to the Middle Ages. The Shroud was first exhibited in north-east France at the end of the 14th century. Even then it was denounced by the local bishop as a ‘skilfully painted’ forgery.
Advocates of its authenticity still claim that the body outlined on the cloth is that of Jesus.
Taylor is more interested in delving further into the past. Do the literature and art of the centuries immediately after his death preserve any real traces of what Jesus actually looked like?
Unfortunately, the first-ever depiction of him isn’t much help: the second-century graffito unearthed near Rome’s Palatine Hill shows him with the head of a donkey, and is obviously intended to deride the new religion. The scene is accompanied by a Greek inscription which translates as ‘Alexamenos says, Worship God!’.
WHAT DID JESUS LOOK LIKE? by Joan E. Taylor (Bloomsbury £17.99)
Taylor provides a scholarly analysis of the various forms in which Jesus was shown in the early centuries after his death. The long-haired and bearded Jesus we recognise today can be found in art from the fourth century onwards, but he can also appear as a youthful, beardless, good-looking figure, not unlike Classical sculptures of Roman gods.
Other images have him in the guise of a philosopher, unkempt with tousled hair, as if his mind was so taken up with spiritual matters he had no time to care about how he looked.
One anti-Christian writer of the second century went so far as to claim that he was ‘little and ugly and undistinguished’. Even some Christians were prepared to accept this; there was all the more contrast with his spiritual glory.
In truth, the best way to get a picture of the historic Jesus is to examine archaeological evidence of the people living in first-century Judaea and to look at people in the region today.
In all likelihood, as Taylor concludes in this wide-ranging, richly illustrated study, he was probably around 5ft 5in tall, somewhat slim and reasonably muscular. He had olive-brown skin, dark brown to black hair, and brown eyes. He was likely bearded (but not heavily, or with a long beard), with shortish hair.
It turns out that we don’t really know what Jesus looked like after all.