Young, fresh-faced, boyish…The earliest images of Jesus look nothing like the Jesus we know today. And nothing like the Jesus in the Turin Shroud. Jesus, at first, is a happy, go-lucky character, curly haired and handsome.
He was usually shown waving his wand around, performing remarkable miracles. What you never see in early Christian art is a suffering Jesus, in pain, covered in blood, etc. That Jesus doesn’t turn up in art for another 1,000 years or so. The tortured Jesus is an expression of the Middle Ages.
So, either Jesus deliberately mislead his followers as to what he actually looked like, or the Turin Shroud is a Medieval fake. I know what I think.
The first Christians were not looking for a God that would make them feel guilty, that would have never caught on. They were looking for a God that would save them and fill them with hope. So as their model for the first Jesus, Christian artists selected the youngest and handsomest of the pagan Gods. They chose Apollo, the God of the sun. Blond and un-bearded, youthful and curly-haired. Apollo was a God that made you feel good!
Now here is where it gets even more interesting:
Pagan Gods can be male and female. They can amalgamate sexes and represent both genders at once. As extraordinary as it sounds, the first Jesus’s were made to look feminine on purpose!
The pagans had lots of Goddesses to worship, Venus, Isis, Diana etc. but Christianity had none. Christianity believed in one true God and he was masculine. There was an entire feminine side missing. So the feminisation of Jesus was a deliberate artistic attempt to cater to both sexes.
In Ravenna, in the magnificent Aryan Baptistry, there is an un-bearded Jesus being baptized in the river Jordan. He’s so soft and feminine. A delicate Christ with child-bearing hips. Before this girlish Jesus could become fully masculine, grow a beard and turn into a man, Christianity needed to find a feminine presence of its own.
The borrowing of Christ face from Apollo shouldn’t really surprise us. The early Christian borrowed everything from the pagans. Picasso once said “Good artists borrow, great artists steal!”
You have to remember that for most of the early centuries of Christianity, Christians and pagans lived together in reasonable harmony. Those periods of persecution when the Romans murdered the Christians were rare, they were the exceptions, not the rule.
Later, when Rome became officially Christian, the Christian writers did what victors normally do in war. They rewrote history from their point of view. Dramatized it, exaggerated it.
In most of the Roman empire, particularly in the border towns like Dura-Europos, Pagans lived next door to Christians, Christians lived next door to Jews and all of them muddled along together. The earliest known Christian Church was found in Dura-Europos right next to the earliest synagogue. Around the corner was a temple dedicated to Mithras. All these different religions swapped each others converts, borrowed each others’ Gods and influenced each others’ art.
Take the halos in Christian art. At first, there were no halos. Jesus was the magician with the wand and that was enough to differentiate him. As Christian art grew busier, Jesus needed to look more obviously divine, so Christian artists did what the pagans did, they gave him a halo, burrowed once again from Apollo.
The most significant of these pagan borrowings was a female figure adapted from Egyptian art. She became very popular in Christianity. The Egyptian earth mother, Isis, was one of the most revered pagan Gods. She was the Goddess of fertility, the mother Goddess from which all life originally sprang. Everyone prayed to Isis!
To emphasize her caring nature, Isis was usually portrayed with a baby. The baby is Horus, son of Isis. Horus was the God of the Sky, the Egyptian Apollo and his birthday fell on the Winter Solstice…sometime around December 25th!
Getting weird yet?
When Christian art grew hungry for a distinct female presence to worship a mother Goddess who nurtured you and protected you, Isis, the mother of Horus, was an obvious model. The two of them were eventually transported into Christian art.
Mary, the mother caring for the baby Jesus became one of the most popular of all the Christian images of the dark ages. She first appears in the 2nd century in the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome with glorious results!
This great artistic discovery of the Mother Mary had an important byproduct. It did away with the need to feminize or soften Jesus. His image, was now free to become fully masculine!
Another important thing to note is how churches developed. In the beginning, Christian churches were usually make-shift houses. When Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, everything changed. Now, the Christians were free to build grand basilicas.
With these grandiose basilicas came the need to to enhance the image of Jesus. Little boy Jesus just wouldn’t do inside those magnificent halls.
The early Christians wanted a God they can look up to. A God who was a match for all the other Gods. When the time came for a more imposing Jesus to emerge, Jesus the adult, the Christians turned once again to that reliable source of raw materials that lied all around them: the art of the pagans.
The most powerful and important of all the Roman Gods was Jupiter (Zeus in Greek). Zeus was grand and bearded. In the temple of Zeus in Olympia, the most famous sculptor of the classical age, Phidias, showed the king of the Gods enthroned in majesty. This was an image the Christians were determined to match.
They took it all, the beard, the hair, the throne, the sense of omnipotent power. It was all burrowed from Zeus. The curly haired boy was replaced by the manly and mature Jesus.
The regal nature of this representation prefigures the majestic bearing of Christ as depicted in Byzantine mosaics. Christ sits on a jewel encrusted throne, wearing a golden toga with a purple trim (a sign of imperial authority and emphasizing the authority of Christ and His Church). He poses as a classical Roman teacher with His right Hand extended. This is the Jesus we know today.
Thanks for reading,
The Dark Ages: An Age of Light is a four-part documentary television series written, directed, and presented by art critic Waldemar Januszczak looking at the art and architecture of the Dark Ages that shows the era to be an age of enlightenment. Broadcast by the BBC in November and December 2012