The Arts: Divine Inspiration ; Jesus Hasn't Always Been Seen as a Man with Long Hair and a Beard. from Lamb of God to Emperor of the World, a New Exhibition at the National Gallery Charts the Changing Image of Christ. Words by Martin Gayford

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Jesus Christ may have been, as A N Wilson argues in his book Jesus, one of the least influential of the world's great thinkers (as very few people, Christians included, ever acted on what he actually said). But his image unquestionably saturated the art and religious life of the West. Or rather, perhaps one should say, many highly diverse images of Jesus have been omnipresent for most of the last 2,000 years. This rich multiplicity of Christ's guises is to be explored in Seeing Salvation, an exhibition which opens this month at the National Gallery in London.

There never was, of course, a portrait of Christ. It was not until centuries after the crucifixion that the familiar face with long dark hair and beard was generally agreed upon in Christian art. Before that, he had already appeared in a number of different guises. He was Christ the fish, and Christ the anchor, the Good Shepherd, and the Lamb of God, Christ the vine, dangling grapes, symbolic of the Eucharist. Sometimes, his presence was rendered alphabetically: XP (chi rho), the first two letters of the word "Christ" in Greek. Some of this imagery was taken over from paganism - the grapes come from Dionysus, for example. And all of it was - to borrow a word from contemporary art- speak - conceptual. That is, they were impregnated with ideas: visible theology. And as Christian theology is a complex and paradoxical business, so the images that came to represent Christ had to be multifarious. Some showed him as the King of Heaven, some as Jesus the Redeemer, suffering on the cross, or as the Incarnation, the word made flesh as a new-born baby, others again as one of the Trinity. At times, more than one of these themes might be included, as in paintings of the Madonna grieving over her child or, as in a picture by Murillo, the plump baby Jesus shown reclining on a cross.

But it was not enough to show theological concepts. It was necessary to focus the soul, to provide a starting point for meditation. In the later Middle Ages, this was often achieved by evoking emotional empathy with the sufferings of Christ. That was the age of the Imago Pietatis, "The Image Of Pity" - the dead Christ displayed in the tomb - and the Man of Sorrows, scourged, humiliated and wounded. And the process of imagining and reimagining Christ still goes on.

`Seeing Salvation' starts 26 February at the National Gallery (0171-839 3321). An accompanying BBC2 series starts on 2 April.

`Bound Lamb', Francisco De Zurbaran, c1635-1640

This might appear to be an example of animal art, a subject more suited to Landseer. It could even be a rather grisly bit of still life, a single item taken from those vast assemblages of animal and vegetable eatables which were popular in the 17th century. But, for all its stark and meticulous realism, this lamb, lying bound with string on a stone shelf, is, of course, nothing of the kind. It is a concrete visualisation of the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God.

Zurbaran was a master of the still life in the bare and uncompromising Spanish idiom (although it has often been suggested that his paintings of flowers, fruit and earthenware vessels contain some religious overtones). Here, however, he has put to explicitly devotional use his gift for making the simple and everyday sharply vivid. This is Christ the Lamb or Cordero, which, according to the Spanish mystic Fray Luis de Leon, indicated his meekness and purity. The metaphor of Christ as lamb is common in the Bible, a text rich in the language of herding. "Behold the lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world," announced St John the Baptist; St Peter compared Christ to a "lamb without blemish or spot". Christ the Lamb was one of Zurbaran's most popular subjects - five other versions are known. A 17th-century owner of a similar painting was said to value it more than 100 real sheep.

`St Veronica with the Sudarium', Master Of St Veronica, c1420

This is, largely, a painting of a painting - but of a special painting, a painting not painted by human hand. …