The image of Christ

A few years ago, before I was involved in alternative worship, I went to see a Christian musical performed by the local church drama group. After the interval, the curtains opened upon the figure of Christ on the cross, portrayed by a fortyish friend of mine in nothing more than crown of thorns and the obligatory (and probably unhistorical) loin cloth.

As we gazed, slightly shocked, upon his almost naked body, flat stomach, ribs showing, I thought to myself "Good job he's still skinny enough to play Jesus" - and then it struck me. There is no evidence in Scripture to suggest that Jesus was thin at all. He might, for all we know, have been short and fat, or at least had plenty of body hair and a pot belly. After all, few men get to thirty without a little extra round the waist, especially if they are gluttons and wine-bibbers. But we've inherited a tradition of how Jesus looks, and it affects what kind of person we see him as - and therefore our relationship with him.

The basis of our image of Christ lies in medieval art, when I expect skinny was the bodily norm, certainly for humble artisans such as carpenters. The medieval stereotype of holy men and saints was heavily conditioned by the memory of the Desert Fathers, fasting to emaciation and scourging their flesh, and reinforced by the physical effects of monastic poverty visible everywhere in medieval Europe. It was considered a sign of spiritual laxity and dereliction towards vows if monks were too well-fed. Throw in the angular aesthetics of late medieval Mannerism and the need to express suffering and torture to encourage affective devotion - somehow an ample physique doesn't suggest much suffering, which neglects the fact that Jesus was hardly an ascetic during his earthly life.

(While we're at it, I have always been annoyed by the stereotyping of Simon Peter, in contrast, as large, shambling and hairy. How this came about I am not entirely sure, but again there is no evidence in the New Testament that he was anything of the sort. I think Peter has been shoehorned into the Captain Birdseye stereotype - also represented in our time by Tintin's friend Captain Haddock. All we know about Peter for sure is his character - mouthy, rather headstrong and with an impulse to speak on behalf of others. He could well have been a small, wiry, nervy man, like a Liverpudlian shop steward.)

In fact, Jesus's earthly appearance is nowhere described in the Bible, except in mystical and symbolic terms in, for example, the Book of Revelation. One effect of what to us is a strange omission is to prevent us tying Jesus down to a particular place and time - the Incarnation becomes about Jesus in the contemporary world here and now, all heres and all nows, utterly committed and involved and refusing to be distanced or irrelevant. The trouble with all our usual images is that they remove Jesus from the contemporary world. They make him a historical figure or a sort of alien not at home in our lives.

It's like having the Queen come to tea - meeting him becomes a somewhat constrained and artificial encounter with someone who is clearly not part of the world you and I live in. We certainly don't expect him to know how to work the Playstation [let alone beat our score]. We expect him to be floating serenely in a state of mystical purity untouched by such worldly matters. Even though we believe in him, we subconsciously limit his relevance by putting him in a religious bubble. Or we set the rest of our lives in the modern world at nought, as we look forward to leaving it behind for a robes-and-sandals Kingdom - forgetting that these things were once as contemporary as combat trousers and trainers, and that in their time they conveyed the immediacy, the here-and-nowness, of the Kingdom.

From Byzantine times through to the late medieval period, Christ as portrayed in art appeared as a contemporary figure. The robes, the hair, the beard were pretty much what normal men of those centuries wore. The Christ people saw when they looked at the pictures was a real person present in their world here and now - for the first 1400 of the last 2000 years, there was no perceived distance to travel between him and us. If people of those centuries behave as though Christ were a real and immediate presence in their world, that's partly because they had seen nothing that would open up a distance.

But in the fifteenth century the way people in general, but men in particular dressed began to shift. We've all seen a jester's outfit, parti-coloured doublet and tights with a funny hat - but in the fifteenth century this was the height of fashion, a revolutionary and one might say indecent break with the past. From this point on men had cod-pieces - something which never found its way into the representation of Christ! This is also the first clean-shaven period since early Byzantine times about 1000 years earlier.

So at this point a gap opened up between the way Christ was normally portrayed, and the way men actually looked in the contemporary world. But the issue doesn't seem to have been addressed, and I think the reason is because this is the period of the Renaissance. And the Renaissance rediscovered the culture of the ancient world and aspired to it as superior. We enter a period in which it was normal to portray rulers and aristocrats as Roman emperors, when high culture liked to dress up in the clothes of ancient Rome. And so no-one was interested in portraying Jesus in contemporary fashions - indeed, both his divinity and his perfect humanity were expressed by giving him the muscular, hairless body of a Greek god or hero. Not to mention the scanty draperies, which would have got funny looks in Elizabethan London.

And when the cultural authority of ancient art began to fade in the 19th century, it was replaced by another nostalgic longing, for an idealised medieval world. We get Holman Hunt's 'Light of the World', and the Pre-Raphaelite Jesus of Sunday school fame. And nothing came along to replace that, because when art turned away from the past to embrace the modern world, it didn't want to take Christianity with it. Those artists that did portray Christ tended to use him as a way of engaging with tradition and the past. The image of Jesus was left frozen, timewarped, after 500 years of being constantly turned back away from the contemporary world into an idealised past.

Now, in the year 2000, we find ourselves looking at a Christ who seems alien to us, from another time and place. This makes it easy to believe that he should be left there, with all the other cultural baggage we claim to have outgrown. Our problem is thrown into sharp relief by the way other twentieth-century cultures have reimagined Christ in their own image, to claim his identification with them right here and now. We in the West have hesitated between reimaging Christ as one of us, and clinging on to the historical tradition of representation we have inherited. This leads to those strange cheesy baby-boomer Jesuses, or to Jesus portrayed as Che Guevara. We leap at the chance the return of beards and long hair, and even sandals, have given us to have it both ways - we can say "Look - Jesus is just like us" and have the tradition, too.

It's actually dodging the issue. Can we really portray Jesus as 'one of us' again, when that means abandoning the tradition - or are we stuck with the first century Jew or medieval holy man? Is Jesus going to be for us a historical figure we have to keep bringing forward in time, or an eternal figure at home in all times? To go back to where I started, if what we are given in the Bible is the character and nature of Jesus, not his appearance, how do we reimage that character in our own world, in a way that's truthful not nostalgic?