What does Jesus look like? There are two thousand years of pictures, but most people's thoughts are similar. They'll typically describe “the long, centrally parted hair, the full beard and mustache. It's what I call the canonical image,” said Adam Levine, a Mellon Fellow at the Toledo Museum of Art who is in training to be a curator and museum director. Mr. Levine will show pictures of Jesus on Friday night, focusing on images from the years 200 through 700, for a lecture at the Toledo Museum of Art. His talk, “Imag(in)ing God: The Image of Christ in Antiquity,” covers more than the canonical image; he'll be showing different ways in which Jesus has been depicted.
“The earliest Christian artists did not know what Christ looked like,” Mr. Levine said. “In fact, a lot of the theology of the time centered around the ambiguity in Christ's image and his ability to take on polymorphous appearances.” Many classic writers of that time “all say fairly similar things, that Christ comes to each person according to that person's needs, so it's not that surprising that you see these very different images of Christ,” he said. Some people of that period used the Old Testament to support their arguments; “some of them used Psalms to argue he was beautiful, and some of them used Isaiah to argue that he was ugly, so it works both ways.”
The different facial characteristics of Jesus are a topic Mr. Levine, 27, knows very well. The talk is related to his doctoral dissertation from Oxford University in England. “In short, the argument was art historians hate ambiguity, so instead of trying to scrub ambiguity, if you actually read the church fathers and look at how images were constructed in late antiquity, what you see is that ambiguity, it appears to me at least, was probably operative” for images to work in building the Christian religion, he said. “It's very convenient to have images that can be read in lots of different ways and appeal to lots of different people.”
And those images draw from non-Christian sources. For example, in trying to present Jesus as God, artists looked to other illustrations of the divine, pictures of “Jupiter, Apollo chief among them,” as models, Mr. Levine said. “Some of the iconography of the emperor is appropriated, too, because Christ is not just the ruler in heaven, he's the ruler on earth as well. And you use philosophical imagery because Christ of course also had disciples and taught the gospel. So you have these multiple prototypes that are in circulation, but it's about trying to define their godhead visually.”
The pictures of a young Jesus also had a place. “A lot of people don't realize that in the fourth and fifth centuries there were a series of child emperors in the region, so the idea that you would have an imperial iconography that grows up around young-looking children, toddlers, isn't that outlandish. You actually have 4-year-old emperors at the end of the Roman Empire, so if you're a Roman and you're seeing images of a child Christ enthroned, it has a certain resonance for you in the real world that we can't necessarily relate to,” Mr. Levine said.
“A symbol as potent as the image of Christ in the Christian religion is always going to be subject to manipulation, but there is never going to be a completely standardized imagery,” Mr. Levine said. Referring to the common image of Jesus today, he said, “The fact that there is something even remotely resembling a consensus is astonishing. That's something that we take for granted, but it's really quite mind-blowing.”
Cosponsored by Toledo Society chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America and the museum as part of its “It's Friday” series, Mr. Levine's lecture will be in the Peristyle, 2445 Monroe St, from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Near the end of his time as a Mellon Fellow, Mr. Levine will curate “Global│Local,” on display Oct. 30 through Jan. 25, 2015, in the Canaday Gallery. “My show is on the history of globalization and in particular about how local identity emerges,” Mr. Levine said. It will also illustrate “how this museum in a lot of ways speaks to Toledo's role in an increasingly globalized world.” The major exhibition will use works exclusively from the Toledo Museum of Art.