Early Christians not only used the same artistic media as the surrounding pagan culture, but Roman forms and styles as well. These media included fresco, mosaics, sculpture, and manuscript illumination, and, not surprisingly, depictions of Christ were first modeled on those of a typical Roman youth.
However, in medieval Europe, everyone would have been confident that they knew what Christ looked like. Images of his face were everywhere, many of them claiming to be copies or versions of the miraculous ‘true likeness’ of Christ housed in St. Peter’s in Rome. This was the Veronica, also known as the Vernicle or the Sudarium (meaning cloth for wiping sweat). This bearded gentleman became the norm for portraits of Christ.
The Protestant Reformation during the 16th century in Europe ushered in a new artistic tradition that diverged from the southern European and humanist art produced during the high Renaissance. Protestant religious art both embraced Protestant values and assisted in the proliferation of Protestantism, but the amount of religious art produced in Protestant countries was hugely reduced. Artists in Protestant countries diversified into secular forms of art like history painting, landscape painting, portrait painting and still life.
This stylistic evolution was noted when nineteenth century Russian critic Alexei Suvorin extolled the traditional features of Christ represented in the art of the Old Masters: "Christ was young, strong and beautiful… That is why the Old Masters, who were devout, sought ideally beautiful and brave features for the God-man.” He lamented that contemporary artists had become interested in the formulation of new images of Christ, different from both the traditional Byzantine icons and Renaissance and baroque conceptions of the Redeemer. The representations of Christ they created were profoundly influenced by individual artists' individual attitudes toward religion, history, and society, and began to democratize both the figure and the face of Christ.
Such philosophy became widespread during the twentieth century, and depictions of Christ became as varied as the art movements that sprung up like flowers after a refreshing spring rain. Fauvism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Symbolism, Impressionism – they all had their exponents. And although biblical scenes and portraits of Christ became less common subjects for the artist, their interpretations became more varied and individualistic as time passed.
In the coming week I will spotlight images that were created within the last several decades, images that demonstrate the continued relevance of the depiction of Christ in modern times.
‘... blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.’ Matthew 13:16-17