THE MANY FACES OF CHRIST; from the BBC's Computer Image to the Glories of the Old Masters

By Southworth, June | Daily Mail (London), March 28, 2001 | Go to article overview

THE MANY FACES OF CHRIST; from the BBC's Computer Image to the Glories of the Old Masters


Southworth, June, Daily Mail (London)


Byline: JUNE SOUTHWORTH

THE MANY FACES OF by June Southworth STARING eyes look out from a troubled brown face with features framed by coarse dark hair and beard. Can this really be a truthful image of Jesus Christ? For this is how a television documentary, The Son Of God, to be screened on BBC1 on Sunday, sees the most portrayed man in history.

The emphasis is on a man rather than a god, an image produced by computer trickery and the study of ancient Jewish skulls.

But what evidence is there that we are looking at the face of Christ? There isn't a single hint in the Gospels about His appearance.

Discoveries of His bones have never been authenticated; nor has the image on the Turin shroud in which His body is said to have been wrapped after the Crucifixion.

Because we have no proof, He can be all things to all people. Picasso painted him as a bullfighter; Afro-Americans produce black Christs; redheaded Vincent van Gogh painted a red-haired Christ; a Swedish photographer was stoned by outraged Christians when she produced a model posed as a gay Christ; sculptor Edwina Sandys bowed to women's lib with a crucified female; a French photographer, Bettina Rheims not only produced a female Christ but also a chic designer Christ in a Helmut Lang T-shirt.

In 1969, Dennis Potter's controversial BBC1 play Son Of Man dumped the popular image for a reconstruction of the life of a distinctly down-to-earth everyman, played by Colin Blakely.

It was disconcerting because, like the BBC's latest image, it portrayed an all-too-human working-class Jew from around 2,000 years ago who looked like a Middle Eastern shepherd or carpenter. He was nothing like the pure, unsullied Christ nurtured by the masters of the Renaissance and brought to an apogee of sentimentality by the Victorians.

They gave us the images with which we grew up - the gentle Jesus on the nursery wall, the icon in the darkened church.

From the Renaissance to the Pre-Raphaelites, He was portrayed with an aquiline, aristocratic face softened by a kindly expression and a pale skin with a framework of shoulder-length ringleted dark hair as in a Durer print.

Wander through the galleries of the Vatican in Rome and you can see the spiritual force behind the Renaissance portrayals. But only in the chapel housing the Mandylion of Edessa do you find anything approaching reality.

A linen portrait mounted on a wood panel, it shows a Syrian-like Christ.

First mentioned in the year 595, it is the oldest known image of Jesus.

Early pagan art introduced the concept of The Good Shepherd. Then came the young philosopher in a tunic with a scroll under his arm.

After the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity, the imperial nimbus or halo appeared and Jesus was seated on a throne. Until Byzantine art carried Eastern traditional images to the West, Christ was clean-shaven.

Raphael painted Him as a radiant divinity in trailing white robes. But Rembrandt went back to basics with models from Amsterdam's Jewish quarter.

In the 19th century, Holman Hunt's stately figure with a lantern was a favourite picture to illustrate Sunday school texts.

In the 20th century, the traditional depiction of a white, 'middle- class' Christ came under pressure. He was seen as universal man, to be interpreted according to local beliefs and customs.

HE BECAME big in the movie industry, starting in 1916 when W. D. Griffith's silent masterpiece Intolerance brought the reality of The Passion to filmgoers.

Cecil B. de Mille in the Twenties gave us Jesus as epic hero in King Of Kings, a theme taken up by George Stevens's The Greatest Story Ever Told in 1965.

But Lew Grade's 1977 TV blockbuster, Jesus Of Nazareth, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, created the greatest stir, with Robert Powell as a blue-eyed Christ. …

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