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The six oldest images of Jesus

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Looking at the oldest depictions of Jesus can teach us about artistic canon of early Christian communities.


As outlined in a recent article about the realistic “looks” of Jesus, much of what we know about Jesus looks is a product of artistic convention. Since neither the Bible nor the New Testament provide a description of what Christ looked like, painters and mosaic-makers would often resort to the artistic canons of their time to create a visual image of the “Son of God.” This means that some of the earliest depictions of Jesus offer a precious insight into the diverse iconography style of the places and people that made up early Christianity. Here is a list of the six most ancient depictions of Jesus known to historians:

1. Alexamenos graffito, 1st century

This “graffito,” representing a person looking at a donkey-headed man being crucified, was carved in plaster on a wall in Rome during the 1st century. If you are feeling confused or offended by its content, that’s because it was not created as a celebration of Jesus but rather as a mockery. During the 1st century, Christianity was not an official religion and most Romans citizens looked at its practitioners with suspicion and skepticism. This graffiti was probably created to make fun of “Alexandros,” a Christian, by implying that he worshiped a “donkey-headed” God. The inscription that accompanies the image indeed reads: “Alexandro worshiping his god.” And the fact that “Alexandro’s God” is being crucified makes it even worse, as during the 1st century crucifixion was a punishment reserved for serious crime offenders.

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