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Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Christ, Images and Portraits of.

The Gospels contain no notice whatever of the personal appearance of Christ. The passages in the O.T. which refer to his person (Isaiah 52:14; Isaiah 53:2) seem almost like premonitory warnings against any worship of Christ "after the flesh." The Apostolical Fathers are as silent on this subject as the Scriptures are. "Either the Church was too spiritual to desire such descriptions, or its leaders were too faithful to invent them." So completely, indeed, had all tradition of the personal appearance of Christ died out, that, as early as a hundred years after his death, a long controversy arose as to whether he was in form and features as described by the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 52:14; Isaiah 53:2), without comeliness and beauty. Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Cyril took the ground that Christ was physically uncomely; Cyril even declares that Christ was the "ugliest of the sons of men." Ambrose, Jerome, and the later fathers generally, declared him to have been the most beautiful of mankind (Didron, Christian Iconography, 1:268). The spurious letter of Lentulus to the Roman senate, describing Christ as a man of noble appearance, with curled hair parted in front, and falling, dark and glossy, over his shoulders, with a smooth, high forehead, a strong, reddish, and irregular beard, dated probably also from the third century, but has been known, in its present form, only since the eleventh. (See LENTULUS).

When persecution arose, the early Christians felt soon the need of some visible sign of their faith. The earliest adopted was the fish (q.v.). Afterwards the figures under which Christ presented himself in the New Testament, as the vine, the LAMB (of God which taketh away the sins of the world), and, above all, as the Good Shepherd (q.v.) carrying a lamb on his shoulders, were introduced into the paintings and sculptures of the Catacombs of Rome, Naples, and Syracuse. The so-called monogram of Christ, viz. <> (for Χρ, the two first letters of the name Χριστός ) with or without the letters Α, Ω (the Alpha and Omega of the Apocalypse), appears about the time of Constantine ( 337). (See CHRIST, MONOGRAM OF); (See ALPHA); (See AGNUS DEI).

Again, the best class of pagan thinkers in the Roman empire, even before the official adoption of Christianity, had become dissatisfied with the complications of polytheism, and were seeking for a simpler faith. Perhaps the mystery of the unity of the Godhead, which had been celebrated through nearly all forms of paganism in secret rites, had become the common property of educated minds. Egyptian mythology, with the sun as its great center, had also made its impress on the Roman mind. And thus, towards the later periods of the supremacy of paganism in the Roman empire, Apollo, as the deity of the sun, had assumed the chief place in heathen worship. As indicating that Christ was the true "light of the world," the "Sun of righteousness" the most favorite figure used in speaking of the Savior in the early centuries this very figure of Apollo was often introduced as indicating Christ. Orpheus was also often thus introduced, as indicating that Christ is the true charmer of the evil passions of the human heart indicated by the beasts that quietly listened to his music, and the true ruler of the powers of nature indicated by the trees and other plants bowing to his music.

The figure of the Good Shepherd, usually a beardless youth not over twenty years of age, with long, curly hair and a joyful countenance, gave the most usual type of the personal figure of Christ, when represented on the sarcophagi and in some of the frescoes of the Catacombs. Many of these sarcophagi are now in the Museum of the Lateran. One of the most interesting of these youthful figures of the Savior in sculptured monuments is that in the tomb of Junius Bassus (A.D. 359), in the church of St. Peter, at Rome, in which Christ is represented disputing with the doctors. This type of the Savior as a youth appeared again in some manuscripts, and in other paintings of the early part of the Middle Ages.

Quite a different type, however, predominated at a later period in all Christian art through the entire Middle Ages. The first example of it occurs in a tablet of ivory now in the Vatican museum. The second, and by far the better example of this type, is a painting in a chapel in the catacombs of Callistus. It is considered by recent Roman archaeologists to be of the second century, but this is not at all probable. It represents the Savior as about thirty-three years of age, with a somewhat elongated oval face, bearded, with a grave and somewhat melancholy, but still sweet and benign expression of injured innocence. The features are not to be recognized as distinctively Greek, Roman, or Jewish, but they are highly ideal. The brow is high; the beard is sparse, somewhat pointed, and of a reddish hue; the hair parts in the middle, and flows in abundant curling masses over the shoulders. Of the many varieties of representations of Christ, of which Augustine speaks as existing in his day, this type soon gained the predominance in the Christian world, and it has held its place till modern times. In the mosaics of the Basilicas and the Byzantine churches, in Rome, Constantinople, and Ravenna, it gained an inexpressible grandeur, which was not entirely lost during the decadence of the so-called Byzantine period of painting (A.D. 600-1000). Almost its original power was renewed under the hand of Giotto. It finally reached its highest development in Christ as the Redeemer in Leonardo's Last Supper, and in Christ the Judge in Michael Angelo's Last Judgment.

In the scenes of the birth, infancy, and early childhood of the Savior, attempts have usually been made to infuse into his face indications of the divinity of his nature. This reached its climax in the miniatures of some Grecian manuscripts, in the paintings of the preRaphaelites, and especially in the Christ of the Sistine Madonna (at Dresden). Later in life, even Raphael painted the youthful Christ as merely a blooming or laughing child. Other Italian painters, in the decadence of morals of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, painted portraits of beautiful children in the arms of their mistresses as madonnas. Some Flemish and Dutch painters imagined scenes in which Christ, as a dutiful child obedient to the law, was helping his mother in such homely duties as hanging out clothes which she was washing, or as helping his father in his labors as carpenter.

When represented as disputing with the doctors, he is usually placed on a seat above the other figures, with his feet on a stool, as symbol of his high position and authority.

In whatever scene of his life he appeared, he is often represented, after the time of Constantine, with a nimbus (q.v.) around his head, as a symbol of his heavenly nature and origin. This often also included a cross, or the monogram< >. He is usually represented larger than the surrounding figures. As indicating his authority and power, the Savior is often represented with a globe the universe under his feet; or as sitting on the globe, or the rainbow, or with a wand in his hand, especially while performing miracles. The Savior was usually represented in the early works as wearing a tunic, over which was thrown the pallium of the ancients. The tunic often had two bands of purple or of gold on the breast, and, like the pallium, it was of white cloth. Sometimes a volume, the New Testament, was placed in his hand, or he was placed between two cases of volumes, the Old and the New Testament.

Besides direct scenes from his own life, or representations indicating his holy mission, the Savior was, during the first centuries, when symbolism was carried to a very great perfection, sometimes represented in scenes from the Old Testament, as in the fiery furnace with the three worthies, with Daniel in the lions' den, and in the place of Moses, when that patriarch was striking the rock.

Besides these extant representations of the Savior in Christian art, we know that the Gnostics had what they called images of Christ as early as the second century. Raoul Rochette (Types de l'Art, p. 9 sq.) says that the cast of features described above as belonging to the best portraits of Christ was derived from the Gnostic artists. Compare also Irenaeus, adv. Haer. 1:25, § 6. A century later, the emperor Alexander Severus (A.D. 222-245) placed among his household gods figures of Abraham and Christ beside those of the heathen deities.

Images of Christ, claimed by the Romanists to be of miraculous origin, are preserved in several churches in Italy and the Orient. Most of them are really of Byzantine origin, and probably dated from between the tenth and twelfth centuries. The power of working miracles is ascribed to these images! One of the most noted of them is the Veronica (the picture known as the Ecce Homo), on a linen cloth which a woman nmmed Veronica is held by tradition to have given to Christ while bearing his cross to Calvary to wipe his brow. (See VERONICA). On the cloth is the face of the Savior, with an expression of great grief, and the brow pierced by the crown of thorns. Another is that which is said to have appeared miraculously when St. Sylvester was consecrating the basilica of St. John Lateran, and which was formerly preserved above the tribune of that church. Another is the Abgarus picture, a portrait without colors, which a baseless tradition (of the tenth century) has it that Christ sent to king Abgarus of Edessa, when that king wished Christ to come and heal him of a sickness, and the original of which picture two churches the church of S. Sylvester in Prata, near Rome, and a church at Genoaprofess to have. (See ABGARUS). Another is preserved in the sacristy of the basilica of St. Lawrence, near Rome. There are also several wooden images of the infant Savior said to have been carved and painted by St. Luke, or by angels!

Paintings or sculptures of the crucifixion, (See CRUCIFIX), are usually placed over the altar in Romish, Greek, Armenian, and Lutheran churches. In some Protestant churches, other than the Lutheran, the figure of the Savior is often introduced in paintings of the parables, the miracles, and other Biblical subjects, rendered in a Protestant sense. See Piper, Mythologie und Symbolik der christlichen Kunst (Weimar, 1847); Martigny, Dictionnaire des Antiquites Chretiennes (Par. 1865); Rossi, Roma Sotterranea (Rome, 1866); also the works of Aringhi, Bottari, Perret, etc., on the Catacombs; Glü ckselig, Christus-Archaeologie (1863, 4to; reproduces the so-called Edessa picture in colors, and gives six other portraits); Marangoni, Istoria della Cappella di S.S di Roma (Rome, 1747); Mrs. Jamieson, History of our Lord in Art (London, 1864, 2 vols. 8vo); Lecky, History of Rationalism, 1:221-257; Didron, Christian Iconography (Bohn's ed.), 1:242-298; Lewis, Bible, Missal, and Breviary (Edinb. 1853, 2 vols. 8vo), 1:138 sq.; Schaff, Church History, iii, 110. (See CATACOMBS); (See IMAGE-WORSHIP).

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Christ, Images and Portraits of.'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/c/christ-images-and-portraits-of.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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