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Constructing Christ’s Image: An Analysis of Early Christian Depictions of Jesus

It took several centuries for Christianity to establish a conventional, standardised image of Jesus Christ. This is partly due to the categorical rejection of images practiced by the early Christians, who sought to distance themselves from the material world and image-heavy nature of Graeco-Roman religion through this stance. [1] It is also because details on Jesus’ actual appearance are few and far between. He is described as wearing a tzitzit in the gospels, but the only account of his physical appearance comes from Revelations, which states:


“The hairs on his head were white like wool, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like burnt bronze glowing in a furnace (...) His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.” [2]  


The problem of finding evidence for this early canonical image is further compounded by the violence of Byzantine Iconoclasm, two periods of theological debate between the Church and State on the validity of Christian icons which brought about the destruction of many early Byzantine images. [3]



manuscript showing jesus on the cross with two attendants
Figure 1. Manuscript Leaf with the Crucifixion, from a Missal. French, Ca. 1270–80. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 1981.322. Credit Line: Purchase, Bequest of Thomas. W. Lamont, by exchange, 1981.


Therefore, with Easter fast approaching, we will be looking at the development of Jesus’ image in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine world, focussing on developments from the 3rd to 8th Centuries AD to try and ascertain how we arrived at the widely celebrated persona we see today.


Jesus Christ in The Roman Empire

 

Christian art in the 2nd-3rd Century AD needs to be seen within the broader context of the Roman Empire in order to be understood. As a fringe and often persecuted group, there existed many factions of Christianity living under Roman rule that had competing ideas about imagery and Christ’s appearance. The Gnostics believed that Christ simply looked different for everyone, whilst other factions never even spoke of the possibility of constructing Jesus’ appearance, given their anti-image stance. [4]



roman marble sarcophagus showing christ and saint peter
Figure 2. Sarcophagus with Scenes from the Lives of Saint Peter and Christ. Roman, Early 300's AD. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 1991.366. Credit Line: Gift of Josef and Marsy Mittlemann, 1991.

Any attempts to construct an image of Jesus were therefore influenced by pre-existing Greco-Roman artistic traditions. This can be seen with the 3rd century AD “Good Shepherd” fresco located in the catacombs of Rome. Though not explicitly depicting Jesus, Stewart believes that the popularity of this simple, pastoral figure during this time suggests that the Good Shepherd motif had transformed into a visual metaphor for Christ. [5]


It is only in the later 3rd Century AD that we find explicit imagery of Christ, depicted as an intellectual, teacher figure in a manner heavily influenced by the Graeco-Roman visual language of authority. He is typically shown frontal and seated, in a pose reminiscent of artistic depictions of Roman magistrates, and surrounded by disciples. [6] He is bearded, wears the Greek pallium and holds a book scroll, a clear link to the appearance of Greek philosophers. [7] The familiarity of these visual markers of power perhaps presents Jesus as an appealing figure to non-Christians, marking him out as the next step in a time-honoured, intellectual tradition. [8]





Depictions in The Post-Constantinian Era


Constantine I legalised Christianity in AD 313 under the Edict of Milan, allowing scope for Christians to explore the image of Jesus without fear of persecution. Sarcophagi form the best evidence for the stylistic developments, depicting Christ performing miracles and suffering through the Passion. [9]




 

In terms of appearance, the intellectual teacher imagery persisted but a new form of Jesus was created that coexisted with the previous. This was the image of Christ as a radiant, youthful, clean-shaven figure that was likely modelled on the imagery of Graeco-Roman heroes. [10] Both of these portrait types were popular in the period, appearing even on the same monuments at times. In tandem with these depictions, certain attributes of Imperial iconography were transferred to the image of Jesus. For example, the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (AD 359) depicts Christ as youthful, but enthroned and attended by Peter and Paul, who wait to receive the law from him. [11] Similarly, a mosaic from the Church of St Peter in Rome depicts him bearded and seated on a bejewelled throne, imbued with the majestic imagery of the emperor. [12]



christ giving out the law on marble sarcophagus, head missing
Figure 5. Fragment of a Marble Tomb Relief with Christ Giving the Law. Roman, Late 300's AD. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 48.76.2. Credit Line: Gift of Mrs. Joseph Brummer and Ernest Brummer, in memory of Joseph Brummer, 1948.

 

The mid-4th Century AD also saw the image of Jesus Christ as theos aner proliferate on sarcophagi and catacomb paintings. This portrait type, which is eventually widely adopted as the conventional image of Jesus in Eastern Christian Art, depicts him frontally with long hair, a lush beard, and perfectly draped robes. [13]


Jesus' Image in The 6th Century AD and Beyond


Many of the aforementioned portrait types stay in use until the 6th Century AD. For example, the mosaics in the Church of St. Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (Ca. AD 520) depict Christ preaching in this youthful guise, but also as bearded in the scene of the Passion, perhaps interchanging the types to demonstrate the progression of his life. [14] It is during this period, however, that the established image of Christ in the Byzantine Empire crystallises.



gold pendant featuring christ pantokrator, holding a bookscroll anf raised hand
Figure 6. Double-Sided Pendant Icon with the Virgin and Christ Pantokrator. Byzantine, Ca. AD 1100. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 1994.403. Credit Line: Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1994.


The earliest imagery of Christ Pantocrator “all-powerful”, a central icon of the contemporary Eastern Orthodox Church and prominent portrait type utilised in the Byzantine Empire, is located on Mt. Sinai. One of the few icons to survive the Iconoclast period, the figure is frontal, haloed, and bearded with a thick, luscious crop of long hair. He bears a youthful, serene expression and holds a large gospel book in his left hand while making a gesture of prayer with the right. [15]


This portrait type also appears on coins at the end of the 7th Century AD, for example, the solidi of Justinian II (AD 685–695). Even during this time the image of Christ is not completely set in stone, as coins of Justinian II’s next reign (AD 705-711) depict Jesus as a youthful man with closely curled hair. [16]





Conclusion


The image of Christ was therefore initially constructed by the early Christians from the artistic vocabulary that was available to them, utilising the Graeco-Roman visual markers of power to glorify and explain Jesus to the world around them. Christ was rendered in a myriad of different ways, a trend that accelerated as icon worship became more acceptable in the Post-Constantinian world. First as a teacher, then a radiant youth, then as a divine figure imbued with the attributes of imperial magnificence, Christ’s image was fluid and interchangeable until around the 6th Century AD. During this time his portrait type more or less crystallised, a fact that we have wonderful yet precious little evidence for due to the iconoclasm of the 8th and 9th Century Byzantine emperors.



Written by Ella Wakefield

 

Looking for more on Byzantine culture? Explore our range of exquisite antiquities to find out more.



 

 

Bibliography

 

Brooks, S., 2000, “Icons and Iconoclasm in Byzantium.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/icon/hd_icon.htm

 

Kitzinger, E., 1954. “The Cult of Images in the Age before Iconoclasm.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 8, 83–150. https://doi.org/10.2307/1291064


Stolyarik, E., 2021, “The Changing Iconography of Byzantine Gold Coinage” American Numismatics Society. Accessed 18th March 2024, https://numismatics.org/pocketchange/byzantine-iconography/\

 

Syndicus, E., 1962, Early Christian art / by Eduard Syndicus. Burns & Oates.

 

Weitzmann K. & Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979, Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art Third to Seventh Century: Catalogue of The Exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art November 19 1977 Through February 12 1978. Metropolitan Museum of Arts.


Zanker, P., 1995, The Mask of Socrates: The Image of the Intellectual in Antiquity. Berkeley. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft3f59n8b0/


Notes


[1] Kitzinger 1954, 85-89; Exodus 20:4–6; Council of Elvira, Canon 36.

[2] Matthew 14:36; Luke 8:43–44; Revelations 1:12–16

[3] Brooks 2000.

[4] Syndicus 1962, 91

[5] Stewart 2004.

[6] Zanker 1995, 292.

[7] Zanker 1995, 289.

[8] Zanker 1995, 293.

[9] Syndicus 1962, 95.

[10] Syndicus 1962, 93; Zanker 1996, 298; Stewart 2004.

[11] Syndicus 1962, 96; Zanker 1995, 305.

[12] Stewart 2004.

[13] Zanker 1995, 304.

[14] Zanker 1995, n. 48.

[15] Weitzmann 1979, 527-8.

[16] Stolyarik 2011.

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