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josie's avatar

Why do images of Jesus Christ look like they do?

Asked by josie (28900points) June 7th, 2010

The images of Jesus Christ that most Westerners are familiar with come from traditions that began in Europe with the Reformation and carried through the Renaissance. Fair haired, sleek, strangely androgynous. Fair enough. That style was all over the Western world for 500 years. But this is the 21st century. Jesus was clearly a Semitic Middle Easterner, unlikely to have blood relations that were Roman or Greek, the only realistically possible source of fair haired genes available at the time. It is likely he looked a little bit like Khalid Sheik Mohammed. So why not repaint or redraw Jesus Christ as he probably looked?

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36 Answers

chyna's avatar

Good question. And in the pictures I have seen, he always has blue eyes or sometimes a very light brown eyes. In reality, he should look mid-eastern. Maybe “they” think he would be more acceptable and look kinder and more angelic in how he is portrayed as fair haired and as you said, androgynous.

WestRiverrat's avatar

Some people have portrayed him as they believe he actually looked like.

The reason most people still use the Renaissance portraits is tradition.

josie's avatar

@WestRiverrat I can’t count the number of traditions that have been tossed into the ash heap in my lifetime. So why not this one?

Qingu's avatar

Actually, the historical Jesus may have had a Greek ethnicity; a lot of Jews in that area had heavy contact (and, you know, sex) with Greek colonies and Helenism in general.

The beard and long hair thing is, iirc, a late thing. Some of the earliest portraits of Jesus showed him clean-shaven and short-haired, more like a Greek philosopher. Actually, Wikipedia has a (seemingly) decent article on it.

josie's avatar

@Qingu If we are to believe Scripture, and perhaps we cannot, but if we are, Jesus Christ was in a bloodline that included King David. If we assume that Hebrews, and their attendent Jewish religion, would have been reluctant to mix with Pagan Greeks, then I doubt that Jesus Christ was a Greek cousin.

Qingu's avatar

I could be wrong, but I’m not sure Hellenized Jews were all that reluctant to sleep with pagans. They were sort of like Jews in America. But probably more reluctant than Jews today I guess.

In any case, it’s seriously unlikely that he had blond hair and blue eyes.

josie's avatar

We digress. Do you think Jesus was a fair haired pretty boy or not?

rebbel's avatar

Not saying i am him, but in the past some years i have been called Jesus a few times.
A guy, cycling in the city center who yelled it.
Two guys in a car, when we were trapped in a traffic jam, winded their windows down to call it they were stoned, the aroma came to me when the window was down.
And a woman in my apartment building calls me Paul (the apostle) for nine years now already (gets pretty annoying, that one).

josie's avatar

@rebbel So..what the hell do you look like?

rebbel's avatar

I don’t think myself that i resemble the image that we have of Jesus, but apparently, when someone has a beard and long (blondish) hair, like i have, there are people who think that does resemble him…
Beats me.

anartist's avatar

He has usually been portrayed as not unlike the ethnic group that commissioned the illustration. However, with political correctness and concerns about diversity and even such cultural changes as non-traditional casting [casting Othello as white or redoing Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with a female lead] that is no longer the case. More an more frequently, he is portrayed to look similar to the peoples who now inhabit that area of the middle east.

@rebbel you look like Mel Gibson as jesus :-)

ChaosCross's avatar

Because many white people feel uncomfortable worshiping what they consider to be some dirty arab who is exactly like the Jesus they know, but with darker skin and hair. That is why they still do it.

Hypocrisy really is shame nowadays huh?

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

The blond haired blue eyed Jesus:

Another description of Jesus is found in The Archko Volume which contains official court documents from the days of Jesus. This information substantiates that He came from racial lines which had blue eyes and golden hair. In a chapter entitled Gamaliel’s Interview it states concerning Jesus (Yeshua) appearance

“I asked him to describe this person to me, so that I might know him if I should meet him. He said: ‘If you ever meet him [Yeshua] you will know him. While he is nothing but a man, there is something about him that distinguishes him from every other man. He is the picture of his mother, only he has not her smooth, round face. His hair is a little more golden than hers, though it is as much from sunburn as anything else. He is tall, and his shoulders are a little drooped; his visage is thin and of a swarthy complexion, though this is from exposure. His eyes are large and a soft blue, and rather dull and heavy….’ This Jew [Nazarite] is convinced that he is the Messiah of the world. ...this was the same person that was born of the virgin in Bethlehem some twenty-six years before…”

This is a reprinting of a letter from Pontius Pilate to Tiberius Caesar describing the physical appearance of Jesus. Copies are in the Congressional Library in Washington, D.C.


A young man appeared in Galilee preaching with humble unction, a new law in the Name of the God that had sent Him. At first I was apprehensive that His design was to stir up the people against the Romans, but my fears were soon dispelled. Jesus of Nazareth spoke rather as a friend of the Romans than of the Jews. One day I observed in the midst of a group of people a young man who was leaning against a tree, calmly addressing the multitude. I was told it was Jesus. This I could easily have suspected so great was the difference between Him and those who were listening to Him. His golden colored hair and beard gave to his appearance a celestial aspect. He appeared to be about 30 years of age. Never have I seen a sweeter or more serene countenance. What a contrast between Him and His bearers with their black beards and tawny complexions! Unwilling to interrupt Him by my presence, I continued my walk but signified to my secretary to join the group and listen. Later, my secretary reported that never had he seen in the works of all the philosophers anything that compared to the teachings of Jesus. He told me that Jesus was neither seditious nor rebellious, so we extended to Him our protection. He was at liberty to act, to speak, to assemble and to address the people. This unlimited freedom provoked the Jews—not the poor but the rich and powerful.”

The following was taken from a manuscript in the possession of Lord Kelly, and in his library, and was copied from an original letter of Publius Lentullus at Rome. It being the usual custom of Roman Governors to advertise the Senate and people of such material things as happened in their provinces in the days of Tiberius Caesar, Publius Lentullus, President of Judea, wrote the following epistle to the Senate concerning the Nazarene called Jesus.

“There appeared in these our days a man, of the Jewish Nation, of great virtue, named Yeshua [Jesus], who is yet living among us, and of the Gentiles is accepted for a Prophet of truth, but His own disciples call Him the Son of God- He raiseth the dead and cureth all manner of diseases. A man of stature somewhat tall, and comely, with very reverent countenance, such as the beholders may both love and fear, his hair of (the colour of) the chestnut, full ripe, plain to His ears, whence downwards it is more orient and curling and wavering about His shoulders. In the midst of His head is a seam or partition in His hair, after the manner of the Nazarenes. His forehead plain and very delicate; His face without spot or wrinkle, beautified with a lovely red; His nose and mouth so formed as nothing can be reprehended; His beard thickish, in colour like His hair, not very long, but forked; His look innocent and mature; His eyes grey, clear, and quick- In reproving hypocrisy He is terrible; in admonishing, courteous and fair spoken; pleasant in conversation, mixed with gravity. It cannot be remembered that any have seen Him Laugh, but many have seen Him Weep. In proportion of body, most excellent; His hands and arms delicate to behold. In speaking, very temperate, modest, and wise. A man, for His singular beauty, surpassing the children of men”

However, all of these descriptions contradict the Old Testament description of what the coming Messiah would actually look like.

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him, nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him.
Isaiah 53:2

eden2eve's avatar

Thank you, those references are very interesting. And those could very well have influenced the artists over the generations.

Assuming that the illustrator believes the claims made by Christians about the genesis of Christ, then the picture they would create could portray a man who had additional genetic material in His makeup besides that of His mother, and no one could have an idea of what those genes would contribute to His appearance.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Yes it’s not out of line. I’m not promoting it either way. But there does seem to be some foundation behind the typical western depictions.

anartist's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies those references were very interesting. However I suspect that they are not what they seem, if for no other reason than the language alone. They seem more likely mediƦval or later fakes.Just like so many saintly relics [probably including Veronica’s veil and the shroud of Turin] are turning out to be. MediƦval fakes once intended to draw the pilgrims to a particular place of worship.
However they may have at least coexisted with early Renaissance depictions of Jesus and had some effect upon them. Interesting.

SeventhSense's avatar

The depiction of beauty is mostly I think to display the reverence of his followers. No one wants to look at an ugly depiction of your hero.

As Realeyes pointed out, the prophecy concerning the messiah was in no way flattering. The entire passage written centuries before Jesus of Nazareth appeared bears repeating:

Isaiah 53:2–12 (New International Version)

2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

3 He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

4 Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.

5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

7 He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.

8 By oppression [a] and judgment he was taken away.
And who can speak of his descendants?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was stricken. [b]

9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the LORD makes [c] his life a guilt offering,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.

11 After the suffering of his soul,
he will see the light of life [d] and be satisfied [e] ;
by his knowledge [f] my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.

12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, [g]
and he will divide the spoils with the strong, [h]
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

@anartist Yes I don’t doubt that at all.

Pandora's avatar

Honestly because the caucasian world would throw a fit. There is still a lot of racism in religion and people just don’t want to think they are possibly praying to an ethnic Jesus. Many believe Adam and Eve where caucasian as well so why would they believe Jesus was possibly ethnic at all.
Not trying to pick a fight with anyone. Simply you asked why haven’t we changed things an I don’t think there is a legit reason why we haven’t except for the racism that is still a large part of this world.

anartist's avatar

@Pandora for a more reasonable reason for a certain ethnic portrayal of Jesus, as I said in my post above, just consider who pays for the art.
Ethiopian Jesus
Chinese Jesus

rebbel's avatar

I can live with that :-)

Pandora's avatar

@anartist, I’ve known a lot of ethnic people who have a picture of a white Jesus that looks nothing like them at all. Part of the reason it sells is because it is what the public has been sold on. I have an aunt I have tried to tell her that Jesus was probably not white at all and she insist that we are wrong.
There is no way the church would be wrong. They have paintings of him being white, painted all through their churches. Never considering that most art work of Jesus where portrayals of what was common in the city where they where drawn. If the artist was an Italian than Jesus looked Italian only skinnier because he didn’t eat much.
Like her, so many would refuse to even consider that he was not white with blond hair and blue eyes.

ucme's avatar

It’s astonishing how he is the absolute spitting image of Jim Cavi…Cavez….Cazi…..oh forget it. A related but entirely useless piece of information.Where I live “Jesus on a bike” is a well worn saying meaning someone is frustrated or annoyed.Have no idea why just is.

breedmitch's avatar

Don’t forget, his dad is white. ~

OpryLeigh's avatar

@ucme The first time I heard somone say “Jesus Christ on a bike” I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever heard. I think it was someone from Manchester that said it, you don’t here it so much here in Somerset!

ucme's avatar

@Leanne1986 Oh it can still be heard hear up North along with by gum & fly me whippet.Well maybe slightly overplaying it, I mean makes it sound like I live in a Hovis advert.

OpryLeigh's avatar

@ucme Haha…“By gum” I think I have only ever heard that on TV!!! Although us Southeners have our own phrases…I still hear “gert lush” regularly!

SeventhSense's avatar

Makes you consider seriously the Muslim idea of never depicting the prophet Mohamed. It would certainly lend greater import to his message than his image.

Pandora's avatar

@SeventhSense There are christians who don’t believe in having any pictures or figures of any kind portraying Christ. Most of them believe its paying homage to an idol which is against the 10 commandments. The most they will do is have a bare cross to symbolize Christ. I agree that it does take aways from the message.

anartist's avatar

@ucme my parents used a not to dissimilar sounding phrase to express the same—
Jesus H. Christ.
I always wondered what the “H” stood for.

anartist's avatar

@Pandora well, I’ll be damned! so easy.

SeventhSense's avatar

I think so and when one gets into the realm of relics it’s readily apparent.

Bubbe5000's avatar

Actually, the liklihood of Jesus being descended from the Davidic line is nearly impossible: about 150 years before he was born Israel conquered Idumea & Galilee and the High Priest John Hyrcanus ordered the residents to be forcibly converted to Judaism. The odds that Mary and Joseph were descended from those pagans so converted is very high, casting serious doubt on Jesus’ lineage.

anartist's avatar

Jesus may have been a Persian who gathered a following with teaching similar to those of Zarathustra who lived maybe 5 centuries earlier. Many religious philosophies were evolving in this region and they share many common threads.

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