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April 13th, 2011
Envisioning the Face of Jesus

By the fourth century, as Christianity began to flourish, the desire among the faithful to envision the face of Jesus became a source of growing wonder. In Rembrandt’s time, more than a thousand years later, the way in which Christ was generally represented had become a longstanding tradition that held great authority, from Constantinople to Western Europe. Emotionally detached and heavily stylized, this model, or canonical image of Jesus, was refined through centuries of struggle about the legitimacy of images and waves of iconoclasm. Until 1648 when Rembrandt was in his 40s, he painted Jesus according to this tradition, one that been deeply informed by widely venerated relics held to be miraculous. Several of these source relics are described below, along with other important ones that retain wide currency among many Christians even today. They are helpful in understanding the challenge posed to artists when they have attempted to envision the face of Jesus.

The authority of these canonical images had come from the belief that the true appearance of Jesus had been preserved as a result of cloth being pressed to the face and body of Christ, so that the likeness was not made by human hands. Artists faithfully copied these “true” images both to confirm their authenticy and to avoid coming into conflict with the second commandment against the worship of idols, or graven images made with human hands. The resulting canonical image remained dominant in Rembrandt’s day, although artists had begun to explore different ways in which to persuasively convey the image of Christ.

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the exhibition Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus examines how Jesus was portrayed in a new way through the vision of one of the greatest artists of the 17th century. Around 1648, Rembrandt made a radical break with tradition when he decided to paint the face of Jesus from a living model. The young man who served as his model for eight images of Christ he painted probably lived in Rembrandt’s neighborhood, an area in Amsterdam that was popular among artists and where Jews had come to seek refuge from the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. It was considered highly unusual, even unprecedented, that Rembrandt would choose an apparently Jewish model. At the same time it was typical of Rembrandt to set out to achieve a greater realism. What emerged was a deeply human and empathetic representation, and such are the qualities manifested in the group of panel portraits reunited in the exhibition. Gathered from around the world for the first time since they left the artist’s studio in Amsterdam, these pivotal images of Jesus are central to the story of the exhibition. Seen in context with traditional sources, especially those below, Rembrandt’s new manner of depicting the face of Jesus can be appreciated for its special qualities and tender expression.

The Mandylion (Image of Edessa)
One traditional source that informed Rembrandt’s early work is a relic known as the Mandylion. According to the story, the Syrian King Abgar of Edessa (4 BC - AD 7 and AD 13 - 50) had sent a letter to Jesus, asking him to come to cure the king of an illness. Christ was said to have replied via letter that he was unable to see the king, but promised a visit by one of his disciples. When the apostle Thaddeus came to Edessa, Abgar was miraculously cured by the word of Christ.

The first mention of an image of Christ in the legend of the Mandylion occurred in the Syriac work, the Doctrine of Addai (c. 400 AD), which stated that a messenger and artist named Ananias painted a portrait of Jesus that was brought back to Edessa and placed in one of Abgar’s palatial houses. The story evolved further in 544 AD, when a court historian recorded the recovery of Edessa from the Persians and attributed the victorious event to the letter sent from Jesus to Abgar. The same event was later attributed to a miraculous "God-made image" in 593 AD, and the image of Christ in Edessa then became regarded as one that was supernaturally made when Jesus had pressed a cloth to his wet face.

The cloth reportedly remained in Edessa until it was taken to Constantinople in 944 where it was celebrated by Emperor Romanus I. It was lost during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 when the Venetians conquered Constantinople but was said to have resurfaced in Paris as a relic in Sainte Chapelle during the reign of King Louis IX. It was believed to have been destroyed during the French Revolution, although other cities would also claim to have it, and other icons have been claimed as the original Mandylion. It was as a result of the Crusades, in any case, that the Mandylion began to inform Western art, as various copies and versions entered circulation. In Rembrandt’s work, its influence is seen in the painting Doubting Thomas in which Jesus appears with gentle, almost androgynous features, a large forehead, long nose, narrow mouth and light brown hair.

The Lentulus Letter
The Lentulus letter was a document ascribed to Publius Lentulus, thought to have been Governor of Judea before Pontius. He was said to have witnessed Jesus, and in a letter to the Roman Senate, wrote:

“His hair is the color of a ripe hazelnut, parted on top in the manner of the Nazirites, and falling straight to the ears but curling further below, with blonde highlights and fanning off his shoulders. He has a fair forehead and no wrinkles or marks on his face, his cheeks are tinged with pink, his beard is large and full but not long, and parted in the middle. His glance shows the simplicity adorned with maturity, his eyes are clear and commanding, never apt to laugh, but sooner inclined to cry…In sum, he is the most beautiful of all mortals.”

The Lentulus letter was thought to have been found in 1421 in an ancient Roman document sent to Rome from Constantinople. It was first printed in Cologne in 1474 and then in Nuremberg in 1491. It is likely to be of Greek origin, translated into Latin during the 13th or 14th century, and its lasting and still current iteration was rendered by a humanist during the 15th or 16th century. By Rembrandt’s time, the Lentulus letter was doubted by some Christians but it held as persuasive by the 16th and 17th century, and its influence can be observed in Rembrandt’s early work. It likely informed Rembrandt’s teacher Pieter Lastman as well as his contemporary Pynas, as seen in Resurrection of Lazarus (Philadelphia Museum of Art).

The Veil of Veronica
The Veil of Veronica is another relic bearing the likeness of Jesus that also was not made by human hands, according to the story. A devout woman, Saint Veronica was said to have walked with Jesus in Jerusalem as he carried his cross along the Via Dolorosa on the way to Calvary. When she offered her veil to wipe Christ’s forehead, it came back to her with the image of his face and the crown of thorns impressed upon it, as commemorated in the Sixth Station of the Cross of Catholic devotion. According to some versions of the story, the veil possesses miraculous qualities and was used to cure Emperor Tiberius when Veronica later traveled to Rome.

While Saint Veronica does not appear in the Gospels, they note the miracle of a woman who was healed by touching the hem of Jesus’ garment. She was later identified as Veronica in the Acts of Pilate, which are considered apocryphal. In its present form, the story of the Veil of Veronica comes from the Middle Ages. The authority of Veronica’s veil, often showing the crown of thorns, was asserted by Dutch artists in Rembrandt’s day, including Abraham Bloemaert, although it does not appear directly in the works of Rembrandt.

The Shroud of Turin
One of the most studied artifacts in human history, the Shroud of Turin is said to have covered the body of Christ at the time of his burial, and it bears the image of a man who has suffered a physical trauma. The apparent wounds are consistent with that of crucifixion, corresponding to the biblical description of Jesus’ death. Several of the Gospels make note of Saint Joseph of Arimathea wrapping Christ’s body in linen cloth and placing it in a tomb. The Gospel of John states that Peter found multiple pieces of burial cloth after the tomb was discovered open. Although pieces of the burial cloths were claimed by churches in France and Italy, the shroud has been kept in Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Turin, northern Italy, since 1578.

It is perhaps the most well known Christian relic today, and the Shroud of Turin was known as one in Rembrandt’s day, but it would not have held wide currency for artists at that time. In 1898 an Italian photographer, Secondo Pia, photographed the shroud, revealing images previously indistinguishable to the naked eye, at which point the Shroud began to gain in currency as a true image of Jesus. Scientific, academic, and religious research surrounding the artifact continues today, as the Shroud of Turin remains associated with ongoing belief and debate.

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