This image has been shared all over the internet with the claim that it is the, or one of the earliest known paintings, images or pictures of Jesus Christ.
Even the Daily Mail, the biggest online newspaper in the world, has made the claim.
But the painting is not the earliest depiction of Jesus, far from it.
The image shows St. Thomas touching the wound of Christ with his finger so he could believe in his Resurrection, while the rest of the disciples look on.
The picture gets quite a lot of attention because the skin colour of both Jesus and the disciples.
Some people claim that the image was darkened by age, varnish, candle smoke, lead whitewash, etc.
And although these things indeed sometimes darken paintings in this case the people really do have a dark skin.
Which is not strange as the painting has a strong Byzantine influence and in these types of paintings darker skin is far from uncommon, not always because the people they depict were actually dark skinned.
But if this truly was the earliest known picture of Jesus it would be extremely famous, some people may think that the image was hidden or ignored by historians because they don’t like the idea of a dark skinned Jesus, but if that was the case the painting wouldn’t be on display at the Coptic Museum for everyone to see.
Anyone visiting it would be sharing it, every modern history book on the subject would have mentioned it by know, it would be shown in documentaries, etc.
Remember that in 2001 forensic anthropologist Richard Neave made a model of what Jesus might have looked like, an image of a typical of the era.
It got a lot of attention and in stead of hiding or ignoring it the image became famous.
Anyone knowing about this so called first image of Jesus in the Coptic Museum would have mentioned it then.
Also if this was the first image of Jesus it would be extremely well protected, draw huge crowds and you would not be allowed to take a photo… especially not with a flash camera!
There is a reason to why this image is not shared in books, documentaries and special international travelling exhibits, but does get a lot of attention on social media, and no it is not because of some sort of conspiracy.
What the real Jesus looked like is something we don’t really know, it is highly likely that he looked like most men in the region the bible stories take place in; a Jewish man from Galilee, someone who didn’t stand out in a crowd in Jerusalem (hence Judas having to kiss him).
Which makes it unlikely that he was white skinned, had blue eyes and long blonde hair.
I’m not sure why some people still find it an astonishing discovery or something controversial to say that Jesus probably didn’t look like how he was portrayed all over the world for centuries.
The painting is indeed on display at the Coptic Museum in Cairo, so all it took for me to deal with this myth was to get in touch with the museum and simply ask them.
This was their response;
It shows Saint Thomas touching the wound of Christ with his finger while disciples look on.
St. Thomas touches the wound of Christ with his finger so he could believe in his Resurrection, while the rest of the disciples look at Thomas or at Christ. 18th Century (AD) Greek style.
So the experts at the museum where this piece is displayed are telling us it is from the 18th century, this doesn’t come from me.
If you don’t believe me I suggest you get in touch with the museum yourself.
The icon is on display for everyone to see at the museum, not in a special room with extra protection, there’s no permanent guard, it is not advertised as such, even though the museum obviously would do that as the revenue of the countless visitors to the museum if they truly had the oldest image of Jesus would be immense.
Prof. Dr. Sherin Sadek El Gendi, Associate Professor of Coptic and Islamic art and archaeology at the Faculty of Arts/Ain Shams University in Cairo, Egypt, also wrote about this art piece in her article ‘Different Attitudes of Jesus Christ in Coptic Art‘;
In the Incredulity of Thomas event decorating another rare icon in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, the Christ stands on a flight of stairs flanked by his disciples. His brown-half long hair is decorated by a golden cross-halo. Being barefoot, he raises his right hand to show the wound. In his other hand, in his right side and his feet, other wounds are seen. Having beard and moustache, Jesus wears a white tunic under an orange pallium. Six disciples, between them Thomas, stand to the left side of Jesus. To his right side, other five disciples appear and they are appointing with hands. Wearing different colored tunics and pallia, they have brown or grey hair, beards and moustaches. Like the first disciple to the right, Thomas has a red beard around his right arm. All have small heads, slightly curved eyebrows, small eyes and mouths and straight noses. The event is going on under a red-brown arcade. To the left and to the right of the background, buildings are shown under a golden sky.Above the buildings,it is written: “the incredulity of Thomas”.In the Christ’s cross-halo, one can read: The one who is. Dating from the beginning of the eighteenth century A. D., the icon is painted on linen, fixed to a panel.
She also describes the object as such;
27Nº 4871. Dimensions: 43,9 x 59,1 x 1,8 cm. Bought from NICOLA KYRODOS on the 26thof June 1939. V. GIRGIS, Icons, p. 59, nº66, fig. 66. The Icons, pp. 108-109, nº 119, pl. 31/b.
So the painting was made in the 18th century.
Yes, 1700 years after Jesus lived.
Making religious icons was very popular then.
Ibrahim Al-Nasikh was well known for making these and for a short time I assumed he may have made this one but the museum spokesperson explained to me that it was not and all they know is that it was made in the Greek style, in the 18th century and they’re not sure by who.
I got in touch with several experts on Coptic, Greek Russian art and they all agreed that this was a relatively new icon, possibly Russian, given to the Coptic Museum.
Not only is this not the oldest depiction of Jesus and his disciples, it’s not even the oldest depiction of Jesus and his disciples in the Cairo museum itself.
I don’t have a stake in this game, it doesn’t matter to me what his skin colour was, I am not religious and never have been.
So although this article is mostly just about if the story about this painting is real or not, I can’t resist writing a little about what Jesus might have looked like and what the earliest images of him looked like.
Religious texts don’t tell us much about his appearance.
One important detail to remember is that all descriptions we have of what Jesus looked like probably come from after he lived.
That includes the bible.
The only description of Jesus we have in the bible comes from the Book of Revelation from the New Testament.
Here it says;
The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.
Things to keep in mind are that this is not a description of Jesus as how people would/could have known him when he was still alive.
This is what Jesus looked like in a vision to a certain John, who may have been John the Apostle but we don’t really know who he was.
So this is the account of one man who had a vision many years after Jesus had died.
This was Jesus his heavenly form.
All the description suggests is that Jesus was glowing, the sun is sort of white and yellow, bronze in a furnace is bright white and yellow, his hair was white, his eyes were like fire.
In short; Jesus in his heavenly form was very bright, not black, not white, but very very bright…
People often forget to mention that when they use this to describe what Jesus may have looked like.
But even if this was in relation to what Jesus looked like when still alive, even then it is vague enough to not really tell us very much.
The holy texts also tell us of several instances where people who had known Jesus very well, in person, failed to recognise him after his resurrection.
John 21:4 and Luke 24:16 describe the disciples meeting Jesus but not realising who he was, in John 20:15 Mary Magdalene confuses Jesus with a gardener.
If we take this literally, it suggests Jesus looked, at fight sight, quite different after his resurrection.
One clue we get from the bible is that Jesus did not stand out in 1st century Jerusalem, if he had looked very different from any of the people around him or even just his disciples, Judas wouldn’t have had to kiss him to identify him.
So it’s very unlikely that Jesus looked like a Scandinavian or a black African.
Regardless if the story is true and if the bible is a reliable record, it does tell us that at least for the people involved with writing it had to think of a way to get the Romans to identify Jesus among others.
To the authors of the bible at that time it was obvious that Jesus looked like everybody else and didn’t stand out.
Although Jerusalem at the time had visitors from all over the world, was full of Romans, Greeks and traders from far away places including Western Europe, a tall blonde haired blue eyed man would still have stood out, especially in a group of disciples who didn’t look like that at all.
Jesus most likely had dark hair and light brown skin, what’s sometimes called Olive colour skin.
Let’s move on to the images.
This, as far as I know, is the actual first image of a human Jesus, although historians aren’t quite sure.
There is one that might be earlier, but it doesn’t tell us anything about how people thought he looked like because it is graffiti probably meant to mock Jesus by giving him the head of a donkey.
We don’t know much about Jesus but I’m pretty sure he didn’t have a donkey’s head.
Here’s another contender, 2nd century, Catacombs of Domitilla on the Via Appia Antica in Rome, the last Supper fresco, which is possibly the oldest depiction of Jesus and the disciples.
Here are a few more images showing Jesus, mostly from the 3rd and 4th centuries.
So, conclusion; we don’t really know what Jesus looked like, no contemporary images or descriptions exist and when people started drawing him centuries after he died they generally painted him the way people around them looked at the time.
But the icon image at the top of this article is not, I repeat, not the earliest known image of Jesus.
Special thanks to Mr. Dommershuijzen for helping me with the detective work.
Coptic Museum Egypt
Different Attitudes of Jesus Christ in Coptic Art
‘What Did Jesus Look Like?’ by professor Joan Taylor
Coptic Civilization: Two Thousand Years of Christianity in Egypt, by Gawdat Gabra
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