Recently my wife returned from a shopping expedition to Deseret Book. While there she noticed several new paintings of the Savior, and a couple of them really bothered her. It was something about the face. The features. It just...wasn't right for her somehow!
So what did the Savior really look like? Have any artists in modern or medieval times gotten it right? There's a wonderful series of articles on this subject in a volume of BYU Today from about ten years ago. I would recommend reading that, if you find the time. For my newest volume in the "Tennis Shoes" series I was forced to face (forgive the pun) this issue head on. Of course, one always begins with the scriptures. But on this subject, the scriptures are not particularly helpful.
The only clue we get is in Isaiah 52:3 (or Mos. 14:2). This verse reads: For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground; he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him there is no beauty that we should desire him.
Since this verse is dated prior to His resurrection, we can probably assume that it refers to His physical appearance in life, during His mortal ministry. No beauty? No comeliness? This is a very different vision of the Savior than the one we are accustomed to receiving from modern artists. It almost repulses us. But where did we get the basic image that we have?
A key influence upon most artistic representations of Jesus Christ in the last millennium has been an apocryphal text that dates back to the 12th or 13th century AD. This text, known as the “Lentulus Letter” purports to be a document sent to the Roman Senate by the Governor of Jerusalem who served just before the appointment of Pontius Pilate. This governor was purportedly named Publius Lentulus.
Part of that letter is as follows: He is a man of medium size; he has a venerable aspect, and his beholders can both fear and love him. His hair is of the color of the ripe hazel-nut, straight down to the ears, but below the ears wavy and curled, with a bluish and bright reflection, flowing over his shoulders. It is parted in two on the top of the head, after the pattern of the Nazarenes. His brow is smooth and vary cheerful with a face without wrinkle or spot, embellished by a slightly reddish complexion. His nose and mouth are faultless. His beard is abundant, of the color of his hair, not long, but divided at the chin. His aspect is simple and mature, his eyes are changeable and bright.
It's easy to recognize the Savior in that description, right? All the standarized traits are there: long hair, beard, and pleasant countenance. Unfortunately, the Lentulus Letter is an obvious fake. For one thing, Jerusalem didn't have a governor. And no procurator (which was the office of Pontius Pilate, who was stationed in Ceasarea) would have ever addressed the Roman Senate in this manner. But the image described therein sure is pretty. And it's lasted almost a thousand years.
However, the earliest images of Christ, which come from the 2nd and 3rd Centuries A.D., show a man with no beard and short hair. But these images are still several hundred years removed from His mortal ministry. So are they any more reliable? Frankly, a lot of these images look more like a Roman or Greek God than a typical provincial Jew of the First Century. But if one considers the "typical provincial Jew" we would have to lose the long hair. And the beard would not be shaped like western beards. Jews did not cut the corners. They just let it grow. Remember Laserwolf from "Fiddler on the Roof?"
And yet any modern artist who employs realism must utilize Lentulus' traditional characteristics, or “badges,” if his/her sacred representations are to be accepted. If they are ignored, the artist runs the risk that his subject won't even be recognized. As one walks into a Church bookstore or any gallery displaying art pieces depicting Jesus, the shape and musculature of the face will vary dramatically, but the traits/“badges” of long hair, beard, and handsome countenance, (and usually white robe--even in mortality) are never compromised. Any other portrayal risks being rejected, even repudiated.
So why didn't any of the Savior's contemporaries, like the Apostles or Mark or Luke or Josephus or any other person living during that same basic era give us a physical description? Frankly, because it would have been against the Mosaic Law. Jews had strong prohibitions against graven images of Gods or men. And the all-Jewish writers of the New Testament respected that law. But this does nothing to dispel sincere human curiousity on the matter, and that's why something like the Lentulus Letter and the Shroud of Turin and other apocryphal representations of Jesus came to be.
The next question might be, “Haven’t modern prophets confirmed the basic physical characteristics that artists commonly employ?” Again, the answer is no. Although there are secondary sources that claim Joseph Smith described the Savior as having “blue eyes” and “light complexion” (Alexander Neibaur, Journal, May 24, 1844), such a teaching was not widely disseminated and is not regarded as doctrine. Not even James Talmage, author of the seminal volume, Jesus the Christ, ever took up the subject of the Redeemer’s physical appearance, choosing instead to focus upon His sublime and magnanimous attributes of character—His capacities for love, mercy, and compassion. And this has been principal focus of every prophet since the Restoration.
The most we get from a modern prophet or apostle may be from Bruce R. McConkie, who wrote: “We know very little about the personality, form, visage, and general appearance of the Lord Jesus. Whether he had long or short hair, was tall or short of stature, and a thousand other personal details, are all a matter of speculation and uncertainty. We suppose he was similar in appearance to other Abrahamic Orientals of his day, and that he was recognized by those who knew him and went unheeded in the crowds by those unacquainted with him. A Judas was needed to identify him to the arresting officers; people spoke of him as though he were the carpenter's son; and he seemingly appeared as other men do.” (Bruce R. McConkie, The Promised Messiah: The First Coming of Jesus, Deseret Book, 1988, pg. 476).
So we come back to Isaiah 53:2. Such a concept may at first be jarring to those who have long ascribed to the sentimental Lentulus-style images adopted in most paintings. Nevertheless, it falls short of a rather repellent perspective that was prevalent in the 2nd century A.D., when such Christian apologists and theologians as Justin Martyr and Origen seemed to concede the point to Christian critics who proclaimed that Jesus Christ was physically ugly. (Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, 88; Origen, Against Celsus, VI:85). Declaring the Savior “ugly” would seem to have the same power in undermining the impact of the Savior’s mortal mission as declaring him uncommonly beautiful, and would have presented a similar stumbling block to those who pondered His message.
There may be a more pragmatic explanation for the lack of a physical description of Jesus in the New Testament. The Gospel writers may not have been necessarily following a proscribed dictum to avoid the subject of His physical appearance after all. Perhaps no particular description of Jesus is offered by His contemporaries because there is really nothing particularly noteworthy to describe. If He had been stunning in appearance, this undoubtedly would have affected some of the furor that surrounded Him and been duly noted by contemporaries. The tendency of all human beings to describe as beautiful that which is beautiful is seemingly irresistible. On the contrary, if Jesus had been ugly or repellent in some way, Gospel writers might have mentioned this to help the reader understand why some rejected His message. But Gospel writers do neither. They leave us to form His image exclusively in our imaginations.
However, when it comes to His physical appearance as a resurrected Being, no mortal turn of phrase has been found sufficient to describe it. In his First Vision, Joseph Smith declared, “When the light rested upon me I saw two beings, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air” (Joseph Smith History 1:17, emph. added).
And from the Doctrine and Covenants we read, “We [Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery] saw the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit, before us; and under his feet was a paved work of pure gold, in color like amber. His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters . . .” (D&C 110:2-3). Though strikingly poetic, such a description does little to help most mortals grasp a tangible image.
From this we may conclude that if, while in mortality, the Savior’s appearance was ordinary and unremarkable, the celestial cloak His features now bear has erased those adjectives forever.
But for now, is it okay to gaze upon the wonderful paintings depicted by modern artists, many of whom are LDS? The answer, I believe, is yes. If it increases faith, if by visualizing our Lord and Savior in a pleasant way it allows us to focus our prayers and make them more meaningful and impactful, how can such a thing be harmful? Just remember that when the veil is lifted and we finally see past and future as one, the images of all mortal artists (and fiction writers) will ultimately be replaced by a more perfect vision that will remain in our minds and hearts forever.
(c) Copyright 2009, Chris Heimerdinger