Michelangelo:  Christ at JudgementThe Human Face of Divinity


This Christ from the Last Judgement by Michelangelo appears to me to be a portly young man, a little heavy. Although Jesus' muscles are evident, they appear "soft", not the same as an athlete, or laborer. Why would the artist choose this appearance? Let's speculate. This is the risen Christ with a "glorified" body. It would not have the defects of a body on earth, although there is a red wound barely visible that would correspond to the spear thrust into his side at the Crucifixion. A really thin body might be seen by Michelangelo's contemporaries as a symptom of illness. To be thin and muscular might indicate someone who works hard at physical labor, like a peasant or soldier. The well off, the nobility and clergy, would not be engaging in physical labor. Jesus at the Judgment would rank higher than any of these and it may be that the artist wanted to communicate a sense of rank.
The face does not seem to me to be particularly handsome or ugly. This might be the artist's way of avoiding disrespect for the Christ and criticism. If he were too handsome, if he exuded sexual magnetism, it would probably be seen as blasphemous. A face that is ugly or ferocious could also seem blasphemous, with the added result of making Christ seem unapproachable. [In contrast, look at the Christ of the Fiery Eye, from 14th century Russia.]

Carravagio ChristChrist with Doubting Thomas

This image of Christ from Caravagio's Emmaus is similar. He appears beardless, young, soft, even indulgent. Why? Perhaps the artist wants to show that after the resurrection all hint of the pain and harm is gone. This would be a valuable way to convey something about the Kingdom of God where there is no suffering, and where wrongs are made right. Also, Jesus at Emmaus becomes recognized at the breaking of the bread, the Eucharist. This image of Christ may say that in the Eucharist we receive a Christ fully alive, vital, vibrant, and real. (This image is from Mark Harden's texas.net Museum of Art.)

Note how different the Christ at Emmaus is compared to Christ in Caravagio's The Doubting of Thomas. Jesus seems to be in pain, but it must be the pain that comes from Thomas's doubt. ->
(The entire image can be found at CJFA.)

There is no reliable historic record of Jesus' personal appearance. "There is not one syllable in the Gospels or in the Epistles respecting the appearance of His form or face. Nor is there the vestige of any reference to it in the literature of the first two centuries." Frederic W. Farrar,The Life of Christ as Represented in Art, MacMillan and Co. (1895) p. 67. The only fact we have is that there was a significant change in his appearance after the resurrection. Is it not "possible that the witnesses of His Resurrection had been struck with the difference between Jesus as they had seen Him...and the glorified Body in which He appeared to them after His Resurrection? That there was a difference is clear. Even the loving gaze of Mary Magdalene did not instantly recognize Him. To the two disciples, on the way to Emmaus, He remained unknown till the breaking of bread. The Apostles, when He first appeared among them, were terrified, and thought that they saw a Spirit." Ibid., p. 68. The first Christians may well have focused their attention on the resurrected Christ, not on how Jesus looked before the resurrection.

The early references to Jesus' physical appearance are not flattering. "The earliest reference to the [physical] aspect of Jesus is in Justin the Martyr. He says that when Jesus came to the Jordan, 'He appeared without beauty ... as the Scriptures proclaimed.'" Ibid. p. 69. Justin refers to the passage at Isaiah 53:2-3. See also Is. 52:14, and Psalm 22. "Clement of Alexandria says, 'Himself also, the Head of the Church, passed through the world unlovely in the flesh...'" Ibid. Tertullian, in arguing for the reality of human nature in Christ as Very Man, says as though it were certain, that the question, 'Whence has He this learning, and these wondrous works?' was the question of men who despised His human aspect, -'so completely was His body devoid of human nobleness, much more of heavenly lustre.'" Ibid. p. 70.

However, it can also be argued that these people were relying on the description in Isaiah and really did not know how Jesus may have looked. The apostles might not have conveyed how Jesus looked because it was not important. There were few if any paintings of Jesus in the first centuries. (However, symbols for the Name of Christ, and emblems of the Savior did develop.) There are some attempted portraits from the catacombs which may be the earliest images of Christ.

Pre-6th century image of Christ
"Many pre-sixth-century portraits of Jesus show him as an
Apollo-like, beardless youth. Others, although of a bearded, long-haired type,
lack the precision, frontality, uniformity of features, and Vignon facial
markings so predominant from the sixth century on. Writing in the fifth
century, St. Augustine complained that the portraits of Jesus in is time were
'innumerable in concept and design' for the good reason that 'We do not
know of his external appearance, nor that of his mother.' The change came
only in the sixth century."
- Ian Wilson, The Mysterious Shroud (1986)
Images of Jesus based on miraculous rather than historical sources.
Shroud"Artist's renderings of the face of Jesus that were created from the sixth to thirteenth centuries seem uniquely to stand out as a group because their commonality hints of a single subject that they copied. These include a 590 icon in St. Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai, a fresco of Christ Pantocrator [the all-sovereign] in Daphni, Greece, and the Justinian coin."


"...A Byzantine icon in St. Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai, painted in 590...so accurately reflects the facial contours of the Shroud of Turin that Dr. Alan Whanger of Duke University has counted more than 46 points of congruity when he has superimposed the two faces..." - Frank C. Tribbe, Portrait of Jesus? (1983) This quote, the Wilson quote, and the images are from the Image of Edessa.  You can view material on The Shroud of Turin Website and the Face of Christ (Shroud of Turin). You can look at some of the arguements in dating the Shroud at Shroud research at the magazene of the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.

The National Gallery of Art has Fetti's 1606 AD painting of Veronica's Veil, with an explanation of Fetti's work. The Gallery states that it is a copy of the ancient relic held in the Vatican. The image by Fetti is powerful and moving. Jesus looks like he is in shock from the trauma of his physical pain and from his "failure" to open the minds and hearts of the religious leaders. A close examination of the expanded image reveals some of the damage done to him but his downcast eyes reveal some of the inner harm as well. (Unfortunately, the National Gallery has asked me not to show you the image here. They request that you use the above link to a medium sized image located at their site. Click on the "details" icon to see the details available and then click on the enlarged version of Jesus' face.)

Jesus giving Peter the KeysThis image of Christ is also from the Sistine Chapel, but not by Michelangelo. It fits more closely with what we would expect and may be closer to the accepted artistic view of how Christ looked. Michelangelo and Caravagio both take a different direction. Why? Why not since we really do not know what Jesus of Nazareth looked like. The authenticity of the Shroud image may never be established, and the Shroud is the only existing article that may show how Jesus actually looked, because of all the scientific tests that have been done. (How could someone in the middle ages create a photographic negative on cloth?)

This frees the artist to communicate something about the Christ his own way, for his own time and audience. We are free to respond to that communication in our own way. Some conceptions of Christ will not work for us, but some may. I look for a mix of attributes such as a penetrating eye, compassion, interest, and a desire to help. No single work of art may ever convey it all, but how could it? So, keep looking and experiencing. Perhaps one day the eyes of the painting will be more than just a painting.

For more examples see the Face of Christ in Art.

For Catholic teaching on images of Christ see the material in the Catholic Tradition and Theology on Statues and Paintings.

The image by Michelangelo and the detail of Peugino's "Charge to San Peter" are from Christus Rex, used with permission. The images and quotes about the Shroud and the Image of Edessa are used with knowledge of Richard Shand. Caravagio's Doubting Thomas was obtain from Carol Jackson Fine Art and is used according to the permission given in FAQ. Mark Harden's texas.net Museum of Art has also permitted the use of Caravagio's Emmaus as part of its patron program.

Images are displayed here for non-profit religious and educational purposes only. No other us is intended or permitted. The text is by the Rev. Roger J. Smith, unless attributed to someone else, and is presented "as is". ©1997, Roger J. Smith.

I am not an art critic or artist. I just invite others to think about the message presented by the work of art and then in meditation reflect on its application in your life. In addition, use your imagination. Put yourself in the position of one of the people depicted and feel what they feel. A painting may have tremendous spiritual meaning for you whether or not the artist intended it, or the art critics would agree. If you find meaning, work with that meaning thanking God.

This web page is the responsibility of Rev. Roger J. Smith, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Comments can be sent to him by Emil at frrjsmith@yahoo.com. To see our many other pages click on home below.

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