Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Personal Appearance of Our Lord
By William Ingraham Kip (18111893)
[The Unnoticed Things of Scripture. 1868.]
IT is strange, how many of our religious notions, unconsciously to ourselves, are derived from other sources than the Bible. For instance, how many views of the fall and the atonement which persons entertain, if scrutinized, would be found to have their origin in Miltons Paradise Lost. They come to us in the flowing dignity of his verse, and insensibly we adopt, as a part of our theological creed, his picture of the revolt in heaven and the crushing of the fallen angels.
So it is with the personal appearance of our Lord. When we think of Him, there rises to our view the portrait of the oval face, soft in expression, yet grave and even melancholy, the sad eyes, the brown wavy beard, and the hair parted on the forehead and falling in long masses on the shoulders. This is the invariable picture we summon up, when we imagine the scenes in our Lords life.
Whence do we derive this? It is a portrait to which we have always been accustomedwe have never imagined any otherand yet, we scarcely think that, if we were to analyze the impression in our own minds, we should find it was from Scripture. There is not a word to warrant it in the New Testament, nor can we find a solitary sentence in the four Evangelists on which to found any description of our Lords personal appearance.
We believe the only reference with regard to His outward manner is that given by St. JohnThese words spake Jesus, and lifted up his eyes to heaven. But why not have told us of His appearance, His features, His voice or actions! How would it have gratified the longings of all future ages! There is not a scene in our Lords life but has been seized on by the painter and sculptor as a subject for their art, yet not one of the Evangelists has given a single idea which could be embodied in marble or transferred to the canvas. The laborers in the field of Sacred Art were obliged to draw entirely upon the imagination. The features which are so familiar to us were the conception of the Eastern Church and from it received and adopted by the Church of the West.
It is a case unparalleled in history. Wherever there have existed those who were the leaders of the human race, if their lives are written, we are furnished with the most minute descriptions of their appearance. We turn to the pages of Plato, and as he writes of his great master Socrates, we feel as if he stood before us, distinct in every lineament, not only of his intellectual, but of his physical form. His pupil has portrayed his conversations, his sayings and arguments, and also his face and features. We behold his bald head, his flat nose, his thick lips and prominent eyes, his round and robust figure, his homely dress and bare feet. From the minuteness of these details it is easy for art to construct his portrait, as, twenty-four centuries ago, he disputed in the Agora or walked the streets of Athens.
But it is not so with the four Evangelists. On all these points they are entirely silent. And yet they were men, and we see not how, humanly speaking, they could have abstained from these descriptions. Their object was to set Him forth so that all coming generations should know and love Him. Why, then, do they confine themselves only to the moral and spiritual traits of his character?
Perhaps one reason was, the overpowering awe with which they looked back to Him. To them, the divinity absorbed all thoughts of the humanity. They could not worthily describe the ideal in their minds, and therefore shrank from the attempt. Human language, they realized, could give no idea of the outward form, when the God-like and the human were mingled in one, and therefore they gave nothing which could appeal to the senses. They felt, perhaps, as did one of the most celebrated sculptors of our day. When Thorwaldsen had executed what the world now looks upon as an exquisite statue of our Lord, he thus sorrowfully commented on it to a friend: My genius is decaying. What do you mean? said his friend. Here, said the sculptor, is my statue of Christ. It is the first of my works with which I have ever felt satisfied. Until now, my idea has always been beyond what I could execute. It is no longer so. I shall never have a great idea again.
Perhaps there was a deeper meaning in their silence. They were surrounded by nations who could not conceive of a religion where the Deity was not pictured before their eyes. The whole Jewish dispensation had been one long protest, for two thousand years, against this spirit. There must be no graven image of Him whom they worshipped. Particularly with the Greeks, with whom the early Christians were brought so much in contact, the favorite subjects for the chisel were the gods of their radiant mythology. To these subjects the artistic genius of the people was specially devoted. We must conclude, then, that the sacred writers observed this marked silence because they were moved thereto by the Holy Ghost. It was to prevent, what later ages actually saw, the rise of a sensuous religion whose spirituality vanished amid the gorgeousness of its outward appearance. Looking at the past, they saw that the shekinah, the visible manifestation of the Divinity, was concealed behind the veil of the temple, and they felt not authorized to withdraw the covering .
The oldest extant painting of our Lord is one found in the catacombs of St. Calistus at Rome, while there is another similar to it in the cemetery of St. Peter. The earlier Christian sarcophagi, which are supposed to date in the time of Julian, have also representations of His countenance. All these give what is to us the familiar type of face and expression.
At length this awed silence was broken, and the Fathers of the Church began their open speculations on our Lords appearance. Yet at first it only furnished a topic of discussion and dispute. While some contended for the physical beauty of our Lord, others took the ground that His bodily presence was weak.
Thus, for two centuries, the Fathers were divided on this subject, which was necessarily only one of speculation. Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria speak of His want of form and comeliness, while Tertullian, in his usual impulsive style, declares, the person of Christ wanted not merely divine majesty, but even human beauty. So, too, wrote Origen; and when, in his argument with Celsus, the latter denied that the Deity could dwell in a mean form, Origen found himself obliged to soften the literal interpretation of Isaiah, and declared that it referred not to the lowliness of stature or meant more than the absence of noble form or preëminent beauty. And then he refers triumphantly to a verse of the forty-fifth Psalm (in the rendering of the Septuagint)Ride on in thy loveliness and in thy beauty.
But the progress of time swept away all these inglorious ideas, and insensibly there was awakened in the Christian mind those conceptions of grace and beauty to which so many had been accustomed in the creations of Grecian art .
And so this image of symmetry and beauty was permanently embodied in Christian art, and became the one unvarying type of our Lords appearance with which we are all familiar, recognizing it alike in the miserable engraving which ornaments the cottage of the poor, and in the glorious conception of Raphaels Transfiguration, on the walls of the Vatican.
We accede to it and willingly adopt it as it is. We cannot imagine our Lord otherwise than as the highest efforts of art have represented Himthe old Eastern idea, where the artist has striven to embody the type of superhuman beautythe Divinity irradiating a form where gentleness and majesty are mingled together. Yet we cannot but realize that for none of this are we indebted to the words of Scripture.