Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

Face of Christ |

Face of Christ is drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 46, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Just as theologians struggled for centuries to define the nature of Jesus, artists struggle age after age to reflect the two aspects of his nature

Face of Christ - Artist’s challenge: the face of Christ

Face of Christ - Artist’s challenge: the face of Christ
The Sinai Christ, sixth century, St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai.

From ancient catacomb frescoes to contemporary movies, the face of Jesus has always been an intriguing subject for artists, both Christian and non-Christian. That this is true is inevitable, writes the twentieth-century English author Dorothy L. Sayers: “To forbid the making of pictures about God would be to forbid thinking about God at all, for man is so made that he has no way to think except in pictures.”

In the catacombs, the earliest frescoes paid little attention to detail, but by the fourth century, artists were beginning to decorate churches with more than simple, sketchy representations of biblical scenes. Even in the stylized art that would later be called Byzantine, Christian craftsmen were asking, “How should he appear? How ought he to be presented?”

The length and color of Jesus’ hair became standardized, with appropriate postures worked out. The primary concern was not the “historical accuracy” of the face–after all, there were no historic descriptions to serve as models. He was generally represented as Semitic or at least Mediterranean. But of growing significance to artists was how his face could show his divinity or humanity, his compassion as Savior or his dispassion as Judge.

In the sixth century, the artist who painted the Sinai Christ (right) tried to resolve the paradox of Christ’s nature by portraying him as loving and caring on one side of his face, stern on the other. Something of the search for the “soul” of Jesus can be found in virtually every depiction since, to the extent that even his race and ethnicity became optional.

After the late nineteenth century, some artists would attempt to depict a historically “probable” Christ, while others put him in modern forms. Sallman’s Head of Christ (below right), was a Sunday School favorite in the mid-twentieth century, forerunner of a number of views of Jesus in various modern guises including laughing youth, Cuban revolutionary, enlightened guru or Rasta-man.

The advent of movies brought new visions of Jesus: moving, talking, suffering and dying on screen. But the essential problem remained for filmmakers as well: Who is Jesus, and what would a glimpse of his face reveal?

This is the end of the Face of Christ category article drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 46, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends. To continue reading more about Face of Christ from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at