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Traditional Images of Jesus

The Holy Face of Laon, c. 1249
The Holy Face of Laon, c. 1249
Artist unknown
Treasury, Laon Cathedral, France. Photograph © DeA Picture Library /Art Resource, NY
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Depicting the face of Christ had always been a contentious practice in Christian art, as from the beginning the Second Commandment prohibition against idolatry clashed with the image-loving culture of the ancient Roman world. The legality of religious art was a core issue of the Protestant Reformation, and portraying Christ would remain a fraught practice in Rembrandt’s time and beyond.

The early Church Fathers Justin, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria all nevertheless had speculated about Christ’s physical appearance, but concluded that he was probably unremarkable in this regard. Not until the third century, according to Hans Belting, did a Gnostic-influenced idea begin to prevail in which Jesus was ascribed a measure of youthful beauty and bodily perfection (even at birth) more appropriate to his divine status. This youthful type persisted until it was displaced by that of the philosopher with beard, parted hair, and averted gaze found on the earliest surviving portable icons, such as those at Saint Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai in Egypt.

Complicating the representation of Christ was the fact that, since nearly all Christians confess the divinity of Jesus, the very practice of depicting him was seen as conflicting with the Law of Moses, which forbids making images of God. Two early portraits of Jesus, however, were purported to have been produced by the body of Christ itself. These were the Sudarium, or Veil of Veronica, familiar in the Latin West (Roman Catholic) world, and the Mandylion of Edessa--a likeness miraculously imprinted on a cloth that Jesus held to his face, and which he sent to Edessa, in present-day Turkey, to heal its king, Abgar--which was well known in the Byzantine East (Orthodox) world. Like the Shroud of Turin, these portraits were thus considered acheiropoieta (sacred icons made without human hands) and not idols or man-made works of art.

These icons became the most authoritative and influential portraits of Jesus and were the models most often used in early Netherlandish painting. Even as Flemish painters in the fifteenth century became obsessed with illusionism and employed ever more microscopic levels of detail in their oil paintings, their depictions of the face of the mature Jesus largely remained faithful to such Byzantine models. The Christ of artists such as Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin, for instance, features light-brown hair, shallow features, thin lips, and especially a distinctly large, high, round forehead and elongated nose.

The Lentulus Letter
The authority of the Byzantine image of Jesus in northern Europe was further propagated through an apocryphal written source called the "Lentulus letter," a description of the physical appearance of Jesus that, according to legend, was sent by a certain Publius Lentulus to the Roman senate during Christ’s lifetime. The letter observed the following about Jesus: His hair is the color of a ripe hazelnut, parted on top in the manner of the Nazirites [Hebrew ascetics], 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 simplicity adorned with maturity, his eyes are clear and commanding, never apt to laugh, but sooner inclined to cry; he has straight hands and his arms are very pleasing. He speaks sparingly and is very polite to all. In sum, he is the most beautiful of all mortals.

During the sixteenth century, Dutch Protestants became increasingly wary of the veneration of saints and the propriety, not just of Christ images, but of any statues and paintings purported to work miracles or otherwise deemed to take on the characteristics of idols. Beginning in the summer of 1566, these tensions finally exploded in episodes of iconoclasm, resulting in the destruction of a staggering number of religious paintings and sculpture in the Netherlands.

Rembrandt worked less than a century after iconoclasts had removed religious images from churches throughout the Netherlands and triggered the political revolt that led to the independence of the United Provinces. These events forever changed the Dutch art market, especially for religious art. In the post-Reformation Dutch Republic, most artists worked in secular genres such as portraiture, still life, and landscape, all of which blossomed to fill the demands of a nation of burgeoning wealth and growing taste for luxury goods. During this period, known as Holland’s Golden Age, which roughly spanned the seventeenth century, religious painting became a marginal aspect of art production, both because the Church had ceased to function as major patron and because the predominantly Protestant population remained averse to even the perception of idolatry. Nevertheless, the image of Jesus continued to be the subject of much debate in Rembrandt’s time.

Breaking with Tradition

Head of Christ, c. 1648
Head of Christ, c. 1648
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn
Museum Bredius, The Hague, 94-1946
Photograph © The Bridgeman Art Library International
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The decisive break that the heads of Christ produced in Rembrandt's studio represents in the iconography of Jesus becomes all the more clear in light of the work of the artist's predecessors. Not only did Rembrandt clearly abandon traditional sources, but as many scholars have persuasively proposed, and visual and circumstantial evidence consistently supports, he used as his model a young Sephardic Jew from the neighborhood in which he lived and worked.

While the genesis of Rembrandt’s project of finding a new means to depict Jesus is unclear, two drawings he made around 1648 of a young man seated on a chair with his hat in his hand may offer us a glimpse of its inception. Out of all the known drawings attributed to Rembrandt, only these two seem to show the same model as the sketches of Christ. The long hair, short beard, and nose all correspond to the sketches, as do the shape of the eyebrows and high cheekbones. The modern dress of the figure in the drawings--particularly his flat collar and coat, and possibly the hat on his lap--does not correspond to the more ancient garments in the oil sketches, but his pose is quite similar, down to the hands folded over his hat. This was typical of Rembrandt’s process of refining the pose and expression of his subject over successive sketches, suggesting that these drawings represent an initial stage in the development of this model into the sketches for Christ.

Several technical features of the heads of Christ indicate that they too were taken from life, particularly their sketch-like quality, mainly wet-in-wet paint handling, and consistent level of immediacy with the subject. The vignette-like dropping-off of finish toward the edges makes sense if the panels were indeed studies of facial expression and pose, and the tonal palette typical of Rembrandt’s mature work enhances the refinements in chiaroscuro so critical to their function as studies. The heads of Christ lack the archaic halo or radiance that Rembrandt revived as a distinctive marker of the risen Christ. This difference is another sign that these works were intended to look like sketches based on an anonymous model from life, rather than an identifiable figure taken from the artist’s imagination.

While on one level, the oil sketches of Jesus resemble the canonical models in that they draw their affective power partly from the religious understanding of the believer, the lack of symbols, attributes, or narrative context makes these refined studies of emotion and expression seem like disembodied types, even as they make Jesus more human than previous imagery did. The body of Christ the studies portrayed was believed to have been the same body that was resurrected from the dead, glorified, and ascended into heaven in order to appear again on the Last Day in triumph and judgment. Yet the sketches differ dramatically from the acheiropoieta, which, because they supposedly had touched Christ’s body, reference the miracle of incarnation, in which God takes the form of a man. Rembrandt, on the other hand, gave a graphically human character to his Christ by referring to Jesus’s earthly Jewish parentage, his realistic and specific appearance, and his very human emotions. In further contrast to stylized iconic images such as The Holy Face of Laon, in the oil sketches the artist’s hand is evident also in the loose execution, scratches with tools, and unfinished quality. The project dictated, and Rembrandt and his studio produced, a series of specific poses and expressions that corresponded to their use in his narrative art.