What Did Jesus Look Like, Anyway?

by | Sep 5, 2012 | Uncategorized

Botched Ecce Homo Painting via Know Your Meme.

As reported by a multitude of media outlets, including TJP, an 80 year-old woman in Spain recently “restored” the face of Jesus to a cartoonish second-cousin of Magilla Gorilla. Unfortunately, nobody (not even our own Tim O’Brien) seems very interested in exploring why this might matter, except perhaps to art historians.

There are lots of questions you can ask about why this is a news story. Is it just a way to sell papers or get ‘likes’ on Facebook? Is the point really that bad things often come from good intentions? Is it that we’re outraged that an old work of art has been defaced? Or maybe it’s a sign that Christianity is becoming a punch-line to someone else’s joke (see also: the Virgin Mary on Grilled Cheese)?

But all these miss the point and ignore several bigger questions worth asking: what did Jesus look like? Does it even matter? Is the “classical” image of Jesus quickly becoming somebody that we used to know?

There’s not a whole lot of cultural agreement on how Jesus looks. For example, we have:

Abercrombie Christ

Chiseled, Sun-soaked Abercrombie Model Jesus

Head of Christ, photo by Subconsci Productions on Flickr.

Ugly as Sin Jesus (see also: Isaiah 53:2-3)

Even though the particulars are different, all three of these images of Jesus are European males. But how comfortable are we with this?

Jesus es Negro by Karsten Hitzschke on Flickr.

Decidedly non-European Jesus

I ask because it seems to me Jesus might have uttered similar words to Paul’s, when he wrote to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 9:22): “To the weak I became weak so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”

St. Ignatius encourages us to relate to and speak with Jesus as one friend does to another. Given that, it seems like how we imagine Jesus may make a difference in how we are able to relate to him (or not), as well as our sense of belonging in the kingdom of God.


Jeff Sullivan, SJ

jsullivansj@thejesuitpost.org   /   All posts by Jeff