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There seems to be a pretty recognizable and consistent artistic image of Jesus Christ, despite the lack of evidence of what he looked like. Where did this initial image originate?

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...the imagination of the artist –  Andrew Apr 10 at 16:21
    
I'm going to vote to close this unclear because there really are lots of different artistic styles for painting Jesus. The shoulder length wavy hair one is pretty common, but definitely not the only one. Please edit this to clarify exactly what art style you're asking about. –  curiousdannii Apr 13 at 1:08

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Popular Mechanics (of all sources) did a good article on "The Real Face of Jesus".

The article discusses how the current representations of Jesus came to be. The European image with long wavy brown hair that we're all familiar with in Western cultures isn't universal at all. Rather, it seems to simply have been an image that artists rendered, and that we, as a culture, find pleasing. He looks Kind, loving, gentle, and everything we know Jesus was, but it it, of course, just an artist's interpretation, copied and emulated over the years.

From the article: (emphasis mine)

Further clouding the question of what Jesus looked like is the simple fact that nowhere in the New Testament is Jesus described, nor have any drawings of him ever been uncovered. There is the additional problem of having neither a skeleton nor other bodily remains to probe for DNA. In the absence of evidence, our images of Jesus have been left to the imagination of artists. The influences of the artists' cultures and traditions can be profound, observes Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi, associate professor of world Christianity at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta. "While Western imagery is dominant, in other parts of the world he is often shown as black, Arab or Hispanic."

Hopefully, the above will do for an answer. I know it's vague. For a more specific answer, I believe you'd have to find the earliest representation of Jesus that you feel represents the western image we're used to. This would be a difficult thing to do, and still meet with the site's strong bias toward objective answers (or those based upon commonly accepted canon or a specific doctrine.)

  • First, there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of artist's depiction of Christ. Selecting the first one would be like finding a needle in a haystack.
  • Second, whether or not an image seems to match the current accepted "look" is a bit subjective. (Just look at the results here and try to determine which ones do and do not fit.)
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Until at least 400 AD, Christians were reluctant to make any image of Christ, due to idolatry. Occasionally Christ was pictured as a lamb, as He is several times represented in the Bible.

An image at Edessa began to be regarded as a likeness of Christ, and was said to have been made by Christ himself. Church leaders contended that it was therefore authorized to portray the face of Christ, and that picturing Him as a lamb was inappropriate.

While artists used their own imagination of how Christ's features should be drawn, many of them appear to have used the Edessa image as a pattern or been influenced by others who had. The image on the shroud of Turin looks similar, and it is believed by some that it had been folded to show only the face, and was in fact the Edessa image.

Here is a blog post by a Roman Catholic about the Edessa image, which he firmly believes is also the shroud:

http://taylormarshall.com/2011/05/christs-holy-image-of-edessa-and-is-it.html

[T]he Holy Mandylion of Edessa ... is venerated in the East and not well known in the West.

According to tradition, King Abgar of Edessa wrote a letter to our Lord Jesus Christ, asking Christ to cure him. King Abgar received an letter in reply from Jesus declining the invitation, but promising a future visit by one of his Apostles (who turns out to be Saint Jude Thaddeus). Eusebius of Caesarea, writing in the 300s, recounts the story for us. He claims that the original letters are still preserved in the city of Edessa. In this version, Christ sends Saint Jude Thaddeus to heal the king. However, a later version of the legend from the 6th century (Acts of Thaddeus) recounts that the image was a sidon (Greek for burial shround) and that it was folded tetradiplon (Greek “tetra” = four and “diplon” = twofold). So then, it was a shroud folded twice and then fourfold

At the Seventh Ecumenical Council (AD 787), the bishops defended the veneration of images by teaching that Christ’s Himself provided an image for veneration, namely the Holy Image of Edessa!

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This answer deserves much better documentation. I wrote the first sections from memory and found they mostly agree with Marshall's post, so I know the information is available. –  disciple Apr 12 at 21:09

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