What Did Jesus Look Like?

What did Jesus look like?

You know, nobody knows for sure, and it really doesn’t matter.  Christ lives in each of His followers, in everyone who believes in and follows Him,  reflected through them.

Artists all over the world have depicted Him in as many races and cultures in which there are Christians.

mosaic of Jesus in Roman church 530 AD

mosaic of Jesus in Roman church 530 AD

The Risen Christ looks like each of us, is part of each of us, and these

Jesus speaks to the wealthy young man

Jesus speaks to the wealthy young man

images are all beautiful, transcending race and mere physical appearance.

Jesus Christ is all things to all people of all times, the Savior of all of us.




But God did become a man, at a particular location and a particular time.  He took on a particular visage, a specific individual body build and shape, an individual appearance.  The tradition of iconography, which began in the very early years of Christianity, has established a general depiction of Our Lord’s face, based on oral tradition and also a few early images.

Some of the oral tradition finds it beginning in the story of a King Abgar, who sent a servant to ask Jesus to come heal him.  Jesus declined to travel, but permitted the servant to try to draw a portrait of Him, to bring to the king to represent Him.  The servant tried, and failed many times to get a good likeness, so Jesus took a cloth and pressed His face into it, leaving an image of Himself upon it.  The king was immediately healed when he accepted this image.  The cloth became a great treasure of the kingdom, and was built into a hiding place in the city gates, where it remained for centuries despite wars and sieges.  Icons fashioned after this cloth are called Not-Made-By-Human-Hands.  In the West, it’s called the Mandylion, and Westerners have the story of Veronica and her veil.  The origin of the name Veronica is from the words “vera icone”, or True Image.

Another part of the oral tradition comes from the story that St. Luke was the first iconographer.  As he was an eyewitness to the appearance of Jesus, his paintings were carefully observed, described, and copied.

The hand of different artists and their painting styles inevitably alter this appearance, so the canon arose that all figures in an icon are to be labelled, so as not to be misidentified.  Thus, every single icon of Jesus has a cruciform halo with letters that stand for “I Am Who Am”.  Additionally, the name Jesus Christ, in the vernacular, or the Greek letters which stand for His name:  IC XC, will identify Him.

Historically, there was a huge controversy over using images in worship during the early years of Christianity. For a while, those who were against using icons gained power, and nearly every icon created before the 8th century was deliberately destroyed.   The oldest surviving icon of Jesus was hidden away in the remote desert of Mt. Sinai.  It shows a dark-haired, dark-eyed, adult Jesus, and was painted in the early 500s.  There are also very early images of Jesus found in some of the catacombs, as frescos.

In monasteries, oral tradition and a few ancient surviving images allowed iconographers to continue their work and to produce new icons faithful to the ones that had been written before.

Many icons, as well as Western religious paintings,  follow the general proportions and features of the image on the Shroud of Turin.  The Shroud of Turin is believed to be the burial cloths of Jesus, preserved through the centuries.  The face is thin.  The proportions of the features are based on the length of the nose.  Sacred geometry has been developed to maintain these proportions and the likeness.



Images of the Child Jesus have also been depicted  many ways.  


I saw the icon below in Russia. It was painted in 1679, and is in the State Historical Museum at Novodevichy Convent.

Each painting reflects the culture of the artist and the living presence of God dwelling within each one of us



About reinkat

I am an iconographer, and have been studying Russian/Greek icons since 1995. I'm married with 3 children. I love hiking, camping, animals, my family and church--and icons.
This entry was posted in art, Catholic icons, Icon, Iconography and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to What Did Jesus Look Like?

  1. beautiful post. thank you.

  2. I always get so much from your posts.Thank you deeply.

  3. Biltrix says:

    Great post! Thanks for sharing the history and all the different images. I think it is right to believe that the tradition of icons have handed down a good approximation of what our Savior looked like, even if the oldest surviving example is from c. 500. This makes sense when you understand this the tradition of iconography and it’s prescribing to strict cannons. As you say, however, these are only approximations, and at any rate, it does not matter. Art is in a way like Catholicism in its universality, because it transcends time, place, culture, and race.

    I do like to refer to iconography for an approximation of what Jesus might have looked like, because it is important to my spirituality to know him as a man. Jesus was an individual, and in that way, like us, unique. God who knows us in our uniqueness loved us so much as to become one of us in this way too.

    • reinkat says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Biltrix. I also like to have a sense of what Jesus looked like, to make Him comprehensible to me, if that makes sense. That He not only looked a certain way, but laughed a certain way, and had favorite foods . . . as you say, unique.

  4. sf says:

    Hi, Reinkat! Interesting post! Have you heard of Colton Burpo and the Heaven Is For Real movie, which was out in theaters last month? The Heaven Is For Real book is quite thin, so it’s a not-too-lengthy read. Anyways, in the book, Colton’s dad writes about how he had shown to his son a picture of a drawing of Jesus painted by a child prodigy artist named Akiane. When Colton saw it, he said that it was the closest drawing of how Jesus looked to him, when he had seen Jesus in Heaven. We’ll, of course, never know how Jesus looks ’til we get to heaven ourselves, but just wanted to letcha know about that book and Akiane’s painting of Jesus. I wrote about the book in a post here, if you’d like to check it out one day: http://untitledpress.wordpress.com/2013/12/27/heaven-is-for-real/
    Enjoy your weekend!

    • reinkat says:

      Hey, thanks, sf! That was an interesting link. I had heard of the movie, and the book, but hadn’t explored either one. I also did not know of the painting. Really very interesting, and thanks for sharing it.
      Happy Memorial Day!

  5. Pingback: From Fayum Portraits to Holy Icons | reinkat

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