Flashback essay: Faceless saviour

Detail of “Intåget i Jerusalem” (“Entering Jerusalem”), watercolour by Berta Hansson (b 1901, d 1994).

I originally wrote this short essay for a special series in the Swedish newspaper Norran in 1993. Various writers chose a painting each from the art-collection belonging to Museum Anna Nordlander in Skellefteå, Sweden. Then, each writer wrote an essay inspired by that particular painting. The essays were later published in a booklet by the museum: “En bild, en tanke” (“A picture, a thought”).

Faceless saviour

Jesus has no face.

It’s kind of odd that the main character in the New Testament is faceless. In modern literature, descriptions of thr characters’ physical attributes are everywhere: there are people with crooked smiles, pointy noses, bedroom eyes, rough hands, and cauliflower ears. Even in Ancient Greece, Homer used vivid language to describe the characters of The Iliad and The Odyssey, informing us that Odysseus had red hair and Athena grey eyes. Yet, you can read the gospels over and over without getting even a hint of what Jesus looked like. Did he have dark or fair hair? Brown or blue eyes? Was he short or tall, fat or thin? Was he disfigured? Scarred? Did he have gaps between his front-teeth? Nobody knows. He is the story from the manger to the cross, but we never, ever get to see him.

The Jesus of the New Testament is a mystery in other ways too. We don’t really get to know him: you know, the real, at-home, in-his-own-skin, everyday Jesus. Occasionally he gives us a parable about the poor and camels, children and loving thy neighbour, but none of his stories seem really personal or character-revealing. None of them begin with “When I was growing up in Nazareth…” or “My mom once told me…”, or even: “One of the things I learned when I was a child…”. Actually, there is very little mention at all of Jesus’ early life in the gospels. The story leaps rather abruptly from his birth to his early thirties (the brief mention of a visit to the temple as a young boy being the only exception). It totally skips the formative years of childhood and adolescence and we don’t find out very much about his family life, either. All of this makes him somewhat of a blank page, and making that page even more blank is the fact that Jesus doesn’t talk much about his emotions: about how he feels.

In today’s world everyone is asked that question:“How does it feel?”; politicians and hockey players, hunters mauled by bears, lottery winners, victims of crime, and celebrities just out of rehab. But no one asks Jesus how it feels. How does it feel to be Jesus? How does it feel to grow up as a supposedly illegitimate child in a small village? How does it feel to believe you’ve been chosen by god? How does it feel to know that all those children were killed by Herod when he tried to have you killed as a baby? How does it feel to know that you will be betrayed by a guy you handpicked as a follower, and then, tortured and executed? All of these questions, and many more, would no doubt be asked of Jesus if he was interviewed on a TV talk-show or by a magazine, or even if he just came over to one of us for a cup of coffee. Yet, as far as we know, none of the disciples ever ask him how it feels, and he never tells anyone about it either.

There is just the one occasion, when we do get some understanding of how it might feel. It’s that night before he is arrested, when Jesus more or less breaks down and asks God to “take this cup from me”. It is perhaps the strangest part in all of the New Testament, and to me it seems quite odd that it’s even included in the text at all. The man who by his life and death, and reported resurrection, creates a new religion; the man who is worshipped as the son of God more than two thousand years later; is asking God to let him pass on the whole thing. What if his prayer had been answered?

Jesus might be faceless in the Bible, but in the movies he has been given plenty of different faces. He has looked like Max von Sydow, Willem Dafoe, Ted Neeley, Robert Powell and James Caviezel. Jesus’ face has also been painted, carved, sculpted, and reproduced in every fashion imaginable. Still, the fact remains that we don’t know if any of these images look anything at all like the real Jesus.

I used to think that the absence of descriptive details in the New Testament turned the face of Jesus into a kind of mirror where people could see their own reflection – God made in our own image: black or white, Jewish or not, catholic or protestant, liberal or conservative. But the more I think about it, the more I believe that maybe there is no mirror. Maybe there is only a gallery of masks, made by us to create the kind of Jesus that we want to see, that we choose to see: Son of God or overrated human being, Messiah or fool, deliverer or oppressor, saviour or opium for the masses, Dafoe or Caviezel.

In the end, does it even matter what Jesus’ face looked like? Obviously the people who wrote the gospels didn’t think so. They were concerned with other things, like divinity and redemption, sin and salvation, heaven and hell, and the end of the world. Facial features, weight and height and the answer to questions like “How does it feel”, didn’t interest them.

Still, I can’t help but wonder about the original face, the first face, the face beyond and beneath all of the masks that we have fashioned through the ages. And I can’t help but wonder what he saw when he looked into his own mirror.

  • Museum Anna Nordlander.
  • More about the Swedish artist Berta Hansson. She grew up on a farm, studied to become a teacher, and then worked as a teacher in Fredrika, a small town in northern Sweden. Berta had been interested in drawing and painting from a young age, and in 1938 she studied painting with Leoo Verde. She continued her studies with the painter Brita Nordencreutz, and spent six months at an art-school in Stockholm.

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