The True Face of Jesus?

Rembrandt once painted a brooding version of Christ that differs widely from its more conventional, blond-haired predecessors, seen in a new show in Philadelphia. By Blake Gopnik

09.23.11 11:52 PM ET

Google “Jesus” (you get a few hits) and you know what kind of images you’ll find: Christ will almost always have a high forehead, blond-streaked locks parted in the middle, a straight nose, a hipster beard, and that faraway look. That sameness ought to seem strange: the artists didn’t exactly have the chance to paint him from life. Except Rembrandt, sort of. Somewhere around 1645, he went out into his Jewish neighborhood in Amsterdam, found a young man, dark, Semitic and brooding, and had him pose for some radically new pictures of Christ. Six that survive have been assembled in a big show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where they face off against more conventional Christs by Rembrandt and others. Looking at Rembrandt’s “realistic” Jesus makes you realize how stereotyped other images of him have been, from the Middle Ages right to today. On Sunday, that stereotype, our commitment to it and Rembrandt’s daring revision will be the topic of an interfaith panel hosted by the Philadelphia museum.

“There’s a deep, almost hard-wired interest in a single model of Jesus,” says David Morgan, the panel’s keynote speaker and an expert on how Christ’s image gets used. Once a picture of Christ gets codified in a culture, Morgan explains, believers take it in almost with their mother's milk, until it gets “naturalized” as not just an image of their savior, but the necessary one. Morgan has made an especially close study of our current “necessary” Christ—long-haired, straight-nosed, bearded—in an image painted in 1940 by a Chicago artist named Warner Sallman that has since sold something like 1 billion copies. (It ranks high on Google.) It is so ubiquitous, Morgan says, that “children lock onto the image, and they feel, ‘Yes, that is him. That is The Guy.’” Even when sophisticated Christians know that Sallman’s Christ has no facts backing it up, they find they can’t resist its pull. When Morgan surveyed contemporary Americans about it, one described it as “a true photo of Jesus,” and another said “I always believed that Sallman’s portrait of Jesus was the one that looked most like Jesus really looked when here on earth.” Other Christians, including Sallman himself, have said it matched holy visions they had of their savior.

Amazingly, Morgan might have got similar answers 500 years ago. When an Eastern Orthodox cleric visited Italy in 1438, he complained about how Western artists painted their holy men. Not one of their figures was recognizable to his Eastern-trained eyes, he said, except of course Jesus Christ … with his regulation pale hair, parted in the middle over a long face, high forehead, straight nose, and tidy beard. Even Leonardo da Vinci, who could never bear to stick with a received idea, went conservative when it came time to paint a portrait of his savior, sometime around 1500. After a recent cleaning, an old version of his painting has been garnering headlines as the long-lost original, but there’s nothing newsworthy about what it shows: the portrait is a model of standard Christliness, with all the features that Sallman’s painting still has. (It even has the same delicacy that some sterner Christians have attacked in Sallman’s “girlish” Christ.)  

Leonardo, like many other artists of his era, may have been relying on a document to guide him. Around 1300, someone forged a letter that pretended to be by either Pontius Pilate or a fictional Roman dubbed Lentulus and that offered a supposedly eyewitness account of Jesus’s face, with the same features seen in both Leonardo and Sallman. But the Lentulus Letter gives only pseudo-factual backing for how Jesus had already been pictured for hundreds of years. From 1216 on, the great “Veronica” relic in Rome, said to be an actual rag that Jesus wiped his face with, had been given “Lentuline” features whenever it was copied. (You could get tens of thousands of years knocked off your time in purgatory just for praying in front of such copies. No wonder you needed a license to paint them.) Even frescoes and icons from the early Middle Ages already have the basic look down pat.

Christianity may be the world’s most embodied religion, built around the idea that God could become man and that a man—one, specific, historical being—could have Godhead in him. “There’s this huge emphasis on Christ as the unanticipated revelation of the hidden God,” says David Hart, an expert on the history of Christian thought. In theological terms, says Hart, Christ can be described as “God’s own depiction of himself,” so it’s no surprise Christianity went on to breed great realist artists. One of their big jobs has always been to help Christians spot God in the man Jesus by getting at what Jesus himself would have looked like. “Lead us, wonderful image, to our true homeland, that we may see the face of Christ himself,” said the official prayer to the Veronica image in Rome. “It’s not just that [Christ] existed in history—but his having existed in history is one of the main planks in the argument justifying the use of images in Christian art,” explains art historian Alexander Nagel, a professor at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. The Christian incarnation, he says, has been described as “the font of Western realism.” The influence may have gone the other way, too: as artists perfected their realist techniques, the whole culture had to commit to a more detailed idea of what their incarnate god looked like. Ambiguity and vagueness were no longer an option. Realist painting may even have triggered the Lentulus forgery: art that looks documentary calls for similar precision on paper.

Which brings us back to Rembrandt, the most ambitious of realists. By the 1640s, after more than 500 years of use, the classic image of Christ no longer felt that “real” because it looked so much like artistic conventions. To revive it, Rembrandt had to play a balancing act: he had to keep just enough of its elements (the long, midparted hair, the faraway look) to make his Jesus recognizable, while adding enough new ones to make it a credible image of a living man, such as you might meet on an Amsterdam street. In a weird way, Rembrandt’s realism, for all its specificity, ends up arguing the broad theological point of God’s incarnation in a regular Joe rather than giving a vision of Jesus’s actual flesh.

Maybe that’s why Rembrandt’s new Jesus never caught on. After all, if Christ was a real person in a single real body, his features can’t suddenly change. “The continuity of the image is a kind of testimony to the incarnation,” as Hart puts it, while Nagel refers to the paradox that “the claim of specificity requires seriality.”

Rembrandt’s one Jew, that is, could never compete with a billion blond Jesuses.