If I asked you to draw a picture of Jesus, where would you start? Maybe you’d place Him on the cross. Perhaps you’d draw Him handing out loaves and fishes? Or maybe you’d depict him at the Last Supper surrounded by the Apostles? The chances are that whichever setting you chose to put Jesus in, you’d automatically go for long brown hair, a beard and a flowing white robe. Because that’s Jesus and that’s all there is to it. Right? This was the subject of debate last night at my RCIA meeting and it’s something that raised far more questions than it answered. Whilst most of us think of God as being an elderly man in the sky with a profusion of white facial hair, the fact is that we can never really know what the Father looks like. At least not here on earth.
But if we believe that God was made man, if we believe that Jesus really was divine, then it’s only natural that we’re going to wonder what He looked like when He walked the earth. At this point of course, it’s worth pointing out that some Christians don’t agree with the notion of making representations of Jesus in the first place. There are denominations which very passionately reject such attempts to depict Jesus as idolatry and if that’s what you believe, I absolutely respect that. But personally I believe that artists throughout the ages have tried to define an image of Jesus not just to show off their skills but to help us come to know Jesus and to fix an image of Him in our minds to help us as we pray or to focus our devotion. Which I don’t see as a bad thing or anything near breaking the first commandment.
One of the oldest (but by no means the first) surviving depictions of Jesus can be found in the icon of Christ Pantocrator painted sometime in the 6th century. It shows the attributes of Christ we’re used to; long brown hair, brown beard and a halo around His head. But without the Bible and the Halo, what makes that image an image of Jesus? By the 6th century, the earliest Christian art (which was almost always painted in secret because of the Roman persecution of our ancestors) had seemingly come to an agreed image of what Christ looked like and even today, we still cling to that perception. Jeffrey Hunter, Robert Powell and Max von Sydow all gave very different performances as Jesus but they all “looked like” Jesus. They all adopted the basics we accept as being Christlike in appearance. But what about depictions of Jesus as being black? Or a woman? Not only do they exist but they’ve become a focal point for certain groups of Christians and as a result, there has been heated debate and very strong negative reaction from those who feel that “their” Jesus is somehow being attacked or diminished in His dignity.
And I can sympathise with that. Personally, my mental image of Jesus is that of the Divine Mercy or the Sacred Heart and seeing Jesus portrayed any other way makes me feel a little uncomfortable. There are some depictions which go out of their way to offend or to cause upset and obviously those are to be condemned. But if an image of a Korean Jesus brought the people of Korea closer to God, is that really such a bad thing? In 2015, a team of forensic experts “reconstructed” the face of Jesus. That is, they studied the remains of humans who lived around the same time and in the same place and came up with an average depiction of what the every day Jewish male around the age of 33 looked like. In all probability, they said, this was the most accurate depiction of Jesus Christ there would ever be and whilst it raised questions about ethnicity (not to mention centuries of depictions which would now be regarded as inaccurate), it did miss the point a little. As perhaps we’re all guilty of doing.
I have a strong devotion to the Divine Mercy. The image which represents the Divine Mercy is an interesting one and it’s probably familiar to you. It depicts Jesus in a long white robe with every other physical attribute you would expect, except that he has two rays of light shining from his heart – one red and one white. The image itself was painted by a Polish artist working from a description given by St Faustina who was commanded to produce the image by Jesus during one of her many visions.
“Paint an image according to the pattern you see, with the signature: “Jesus, I trust in You”. I desire that this image be venerated, first in your chapel, and then throughout the world. I promise that the soul that will venerate this image will not perish”
Notebook 1, Items 47 and 48.
St Faustina was a great visionary and a very holy woman but she wasn’t exactly Van Gogh. She tried to draw the image herself, she even asked some of her sisters at the convent in Poland to help out but none came close to the vision Faustina had been given. The first image that came close enough was painted by Eugeniusz Kazimirowski and is the first recognisable image of the Divine Mercy image we know today. But it isn’t the most popular, nor is it really ever reproduced. That honour fell to Adolf Hyla, another Polish artist, who painted the image in 1943. Since then it has appeared on everything from rosaries to scapulars, t-shirts and even baseball caps. In His instruction to St Faustina, Jesus clearly had a very precise and determined objective. He wanted us to venerate the image He gave Faustina. But the Divine Mercy image can’t possibly be exactly as St Faustina saw the Lord. The artists may have come close but they didn’t experience the vision themselves, however filled with the spirit they may have been, it remains the closest we have to what someone else described.
The mistake we’re making is that we’re only concentrating on one part of the teaching Christ gave to St Faustina. Yes it’s an important teaching but do we know the meaning behind the image? In her diary, St Faustina writes that Jesus told her to; “Proclaim that mercy is the greatest attribute of God”. When we venerate the image of the Divine Mercy therefore, it isn’t that we’re looking directly into the face of Jesus Christ as He really was when He walked the earth in human form – and that’s devotion enough. It isn’t about studying every brush stroke, it isn’t about knowing the colour of His eyes or how He wore His hair. It’s about meditating on that amazing teaching that whatever we have done, whatever we’re yet to do, Christ died to offer salvation for our sins. As we remember from the Gospel of St John; “Yes, God loved the world so much that He gave His only son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not be lost but may have eternal life” (John, 3:16). The most sacred part of the image therefore isn’t the image itself but the words below it: “Jesus, I trust in You!”.
The fact is, until we stand face to face with the Lord, we won’t know what He looks like. And even though the Church has endorsed many images of Jesus or Mary, we’re reliant on artists interpreting to the best of their ability what our visionaries saw. Whatever you think of when you think of Jesus, as long as you’re putting His love, His mercy and His goodness before anything superficial then you’ll be closer to Him. We have devotionals, we have an ingrained representation of what Jesus looks like but I like to think that even if He appeared just as light or as a voice in the midst of silence, we’d still know it was Him. Because nobody else can make us feel the way Jesus makes us feel. Who else would ever love us so much as to give their life for us, to die for our sins and those of the whole world?