By Claudine A. Chavannes-Mazel
Visual Resources, Vol.19:1 (2003)
Abstract: Early images of Christ borrowed significantly from the Classical tradition. It is generally agreed that two traditions co-existed in which Christ could be youthful and unbearded or else older and bearded. This article traces the literary and historical backgrounds for both pictorial traditions from the late apostolic period to the thirteenth century. It proposes an origin in the East for the tradition of representing Christ with a beard that gained in popularity in the west in the twelfth century. This was a tradition that was driven by popular practice and owes nothing to the influence of the Church.
Introduction: No one knows what Jesus of Nazareth looked like. Nevertheless, over the course of time , the Western world gave him a physiology that became familiar to every Christian – a slender solemn face with curly dark hair and a small beard. Dieric Bouts, Albrecht Durer, Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, and especially the VIctorians have fixed this image in our visual memory. On the other hand, Michelangelo, when decorating the wall of the Sistine Chapel in 1536-1541, painted his Christ as an almost nude, antique deity without a beard. The Roman Catholic hierarchy was not pleased with many an audacious detail of this Last Judgement, and after the Council of Trent nearly all the nudity was decently covered. There was also criticism over Christ’s beardlessness, but the face of Christ remained unchanged. Thus even in the days of the Counter Reformation, it was not seen as offensive to depict Christ as beardless. This article will examine the reasons as to when and why the beardless Christ, human or godlike, disappeared.