Rembrandt's Face of Jesus
Before Rembrandt, artistic depictions of Jesus followed an established formula: they were based on two cloths that were thought to have been imprinted with the face of Jesus: Veronica's veil and the Mandylion of Edessa.
To the contemporary viewer, these portraits seem almost lifeless and distant from all things human. There is a "flatness" about these paintings, as if Jesus could have taken on two dimensions of human existence, but not the third.
Rembrandt's early work seems to reflect a third source for the face of Jesus, a so called Letter of Lentilus, which describes Jesus as "the most beautiful of mortals". In his Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, Rembrandt depicts Jesus with long blondish hair, soft features, and taller stature that all the others present.
In the late 1640s Rembrandt abandoned these traditional sources and started using as his model for Jesus a young Sephardic Jew from his neighborhood. This would mark a radical change not only in his work, but also in the entire tradition of Christian art. Gone is the light-brown hair, the thin lips, the large forehead and elongated nose, and the feminine features of the canonical type.
Rembrandt's new Jesus is more natural, his proportions more realistic, his face more common. He is no longer a two dimensional icon nor an Adonis, but a face in the crowd.
There is nothing in these new portraits which sets Jesus apart as if his humanity were somehow different from ours. It seems that Rembrandt, consciously or not, got closer to the appearance of Jesus as described in the prophecy:
Further reading: Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, edited by Lloyd Dewitt.
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