‘Son of God,’ ‘The Bible’ and the tradition of the beautiful Jesus

Faces of Jesus (L to R): “The Lamentation Over the Dead Christ” (circa 1475-78), tempera on panel, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan; “Son of God” movie poster;  the contemporaneous “Pietà” by Michelangelo (1498-99), marble, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City; Michelangelo’s “Risen Christ” (1519-20), marble, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome was conceived as a complete nude and received a loincloth during the Baroque.


Was it sacrilegious – not to mention completely shallow – of me that I bought “The Bible” miniseries for the hunky guy who plays Jesus?

The series itself – from Roma “Touched by an Angel” Downey and her hubby, “Survivor” impresario Mark Burnett – isn’t very good, concentrating too much on the dreary dutifulness of religion rather than the joy it can bring. Which is, I think, part of Jesus’ message. 

The actor who plays Jesus in “The Bible” and the subsequent Downey-Burnett collaboration “Son of God” – Portugal’s Diogo Morgado – is one of a long line of beautiful Jesuses. Think of Jim Caviezel in “The Passion of the Christ.” (The moment I saw him in “The Thin Red Line” as the otherworldly Christ figure Witt, I knew he’d make an excellent Jesus.) Or Robert Powell, my favorite, in Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jeffrey Hunter’s blue eyes were so dreamy in “King of Kings” that some critics dubbed the film “I Was A Teenage Jesus.”

Sure, there have been stern-looking Jesuses (a miscast Max von Sydow in “The Greatest Story Ever Told”) and even commonplace Jesuses. (Dennis Potter’s  “Son of Man,” with stocky, course-looking Colin Blakely in the title role, was lambasted for making Jesus ordinary, even homely, when it aired on British TV in 1969.)

But these are the exceptions that prove the rule: Jesus must be gorgeous. (For years, he was a blue-eyed beauty. Recently, however, the trend has been to cast actors with darkly handsome Semitic features like Morgado or Henry Ian Cusick of “Lost” fame in “The Gospel of John.”)

We do not know what the historical Jesus looked like. The divine figure, whose Resurrection Christians celebrate Sunday, has been depicted in as many ways as there are cultures. But even in his agony and death, Jesus is stunning. (Michelangelo, everyone?) We argue that goodness is beauty, Jesus is good, therefore Jesus is beautiful. Evil is ugly.

Human nature, though, is much more complicated than that. Part of what makes evil alluring is that it’s often physically attractive. (Satan has all the best lines in Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”)

So we want a hunky Jesus to combat that and Hollywood filmmakers, no fools they, want us to have him. But they, and we, are not superficial creatures – well, not really. Rather we are part of an art historical tradition that is one of the great pr/marketing campaigns of all time. It was the genius of Christianity to be the only Abrahamic faith to create images of the deity, the angels and the saints, thereby offering worshipers and atheists alike an extremely personal God who could co-opt the sensual, sculpted Greco-Roman gods and heroes and transcend them with a message of compassion that could not be denied. (In that sense, Christianity has more in common with Buddhism, which also offers sensuous images of its gentle, charismatic leader.)

If you go to the Catacombs in Rome, you will see images of Jesus, not in his Passion or Crucifixion – that would’ve been too much for the early Christians, themselves potential martyrs – but in his role as the Good Shepherd.

And who was the model for that? Orpheus, with his beast-soothing music and willingness to risk Hell itself for his beloved Eurydice.

While the post-Roman Empire Middle Ages preferred to concentrate on Jesus’ Passion and Crucifixion, the Renaissance sought to return to the “glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome.” (Thanks, Edgar Allan Poe.) And that meant some of the most ravishing depictions of Jesus, like Michelangelo’s “Pietà” and “Risen Christ.”

It was Rembrandt, living in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam in the 17th century, who became the first artist to depict Jesus realistically as a Jew, with haunting brunet good looks. Down through the centuries, Jesus has gotten fairer, particularly in Protestant America, and a little more effete. People are uncomfortable with a God who’s too sexy or sexual (as in the controversial “Last Temptation of Christ” or Rodin’s nude, erotically charged “Christ and the Magdalen.”) Even Morgado has been criticized for being “Hot Jesus.” 

Today, portraits of Jesus try to strike the uneasy balance between virility and lust. Yet perhaps the greatest depiction of Jesus is one that is not particularly vibrant or good-looking. It’s Mantegna’s “The Lamentation Over the Dead Christ” (1475-78), in which the body is foreshortened as we view it from the feet.

You look at the pale, lifeless form and think, “This is what it’s like to be dead.”

And then you think, “This is what it’s like to be human.”

There’s a kind of beauty in that.