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Dear Father Angelo,

… I will also ask you whether “Christ was physically good-looking or ugly”.

This is the title of one paragraph from the introductory monograph to “Le Confessioni di Sant’Agostino” (II edizione Bompiani)[1].

The author chooses the second option and supports it with two sources “There was in him no stately bearing to make us look at him, nor appearance that would attract us to him” (Isaiah 53) versus “Thou art beautiful above the sons of men” (Psalm 44:3) …

I apologize for dwelling too much but this service that you offer is like an oasis in the desert where you can draw all the possible water from, which is in other words God’s knowledge.

While awaiting, I am going to commit myself to praying with special consideration for you and the service that you offer to the Church.

Priest’s Answer

Dear Marco,

1.       There are two passages from the Bible that say something on Jesus’ physical looks.

The first one is from Psalm 45:3: «You are the most handsome of men; gracious speech flows from your lips. For God has blessed you forever».

The second one is from Isaiah 52:14: «Even as many were amazed at him –  so marred was his look beyond that of man, and his appearance beyond that of mortals».

This is followed by Isaiah 53:2: «There was in him no stately bearing to make us look at him, nor appearance that would attract us to him».

2.       What can I say?

Certainly, by taking human form the Word wanted to be subjected to the infirmities related to human nature, wounded by the original sin. Christ indeed became in whole similar to men, except in the sin.

According to Saint Thomas, his participation to human infirmities occurred for three reasons:

First, because the child of God, once he was made flesh, he came to the world precisely to expiate the sin of humankind. But a man expiates for someone else’s sin when he assumes the punishment due to the others’ sin… Therefore, it was convenient in relation to the incarnation that Christ in our flesh would take these penalties on our behalf, according to the prophet’s words «Yet it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured» (Isaiah 53,4).

Secondly, in order to facilitate the faith in the incarnation. For this reason, since human nature is known by men as subjected to these physical imperfections, if the son of God had taken a nature deprived of these, it would have been questionable that he was a real man in real and non-imaginary flesh, like the Manicheans said…

Thirdly, in order to give us an example of patience, by sustaining with strength human sufferings and imperfections (Summa Theologica, III, 14,1)[2].

3.       Due to his nature Christ subdued to death and other weaknesses such as feeling the nail piercing and flagellum hitting (Ib., III, 14,2).

Instead, he did not assume the imperfections that would diminished the validity of redemption like “ignorance, inclination to sin and the difficulty in practicing righteousness” (Ib.).

Neither did he assume certain flaws, which are consequence of personal faults, eating disorder or inherited vices.

4.       However, it should not be forgotten that a certain school of thought, especially in the Eastern world, saw in Jesus someone where “There was … no stately bearing to make us look at him, nor appearance that would attract us to him” (Isaiah 53:2), someone who talks about himself through the psalmist’s words: «But I am a worm and not a man» (Psalm 21:7).

5.       According to Justin these expressions are not exclusively said in relation to the Passion and the sufferings of Jesus but also in the material sense: “created through the flesh by a virgin of their lineage (the patriarchs’), he also wanted to become an ugly, oppressed, punishable man” (Dialogo con Trifone, 1000, 2)[3].

6.       Again according to Justin, Christ was a man without honor, without beauty and destined to suffering; he also believes that his coming in humbleness is witnessed not only by Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 but by the whole Old Testament. Due to his inconspicuous and deformed looks, the Heavenly powers didn’t recognize him and could say through the psalmist: “Who is this King of glory?” (Psalm 24:10). He wasn’t even recognized by the Powers of this world, because “if they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8) (Ib., 85, 1).

7.       The same belief occurs also in some Apocryphal Books, like in the Acts of Thomas, and for that reason the demons were misled: “for we knew him not; but he deceived us with his form of all uncomeliness and his poverty and his neediness” (The Acts of Thomas, 45).

8.       Generally, also in the East the prevailing reference to Isaiah 53 interprets it as a text about the humiliation and the Passion of Jesus and denies any possible argumentation related to his exterior looks.

9.       However, in the Early Church already, the prevailing belief is that Christ was extraordinarily beautiful. Since God himself is Beauty and having Christ divine nature, he can only possess this divine attribute. One widespread interpretation of the Song of Songs is the Messianic one. Christ is the Bridegroom and the expressions addressed to him are: “How handsome you are, my beloved! Oh, how charming!” (Song of Songs 1:16) and also the ones describing his beauty as Bridegroom (Song of Songs 5, 10-16).

10.   As a matter of fact, in Pieta and Christian art, the prevailing figure is Christ, You are the most handsome of men (Psalm 45,3), as a result of the scientific anatomical examination of the Shroud, done by Giovanni Judica Cordiglia: “Above and beyond any ethnic type (…) he was a man of well-built and strong complexion, with stately looks and a remarkable beautiful face on which two shining eyes dragged, wounded, healed, cried, smiled and reached the heart: real masterpiece of holy wisdom”[4] (Gesù Uomo fragli Uomini, p. 44).

11.   Here’s what Saint Thomas says. He claims that “the man is referred to as beautiful mainly for two qualities: for the beauty in his gaze and for his word, pleasing to the hearing. Well, both these two qualities were in Christ, as you can read: «Show me your face, let me hear your voice because your voice is agreeable and your face is graceful» (Ct 2:14) (Comment to Psalm 44).

12.   Saint Thomas goes on describing the beauty in Jesus’ gaze and says “in Christ beauty showed itself in four ways”. First of all, because he was “in the form of God” (Philippians 2:6) and for this aspect he was beautiful above all the children of Man: indeed, all have beauty in abundance and participation.

Like you can clearly understand from the Scripture: “this son is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being” (Hebrews 1:3); “For she is the refulgence of eternal light, the spotless mirror of the power of God, the image of his goodness(The Book of Wisdom 7: 26).

In a second way there was the beauty of justice and truth in Christ.

Indeed, he dwelt among us “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

In a third way there was the beauty of the holy life in Christ.

The fourth beauty is the corporal one: “You are so beautiful, my beloved, as lovely” (Ct 1:16). Christ received this beauty in high degree, according to his being, his splendor, and physical beauty, so that he emanated something divine from his face and for this reason everybody worshipped him (cf. Saint Thomas, Commentary to Psalm 44).

I thank you for the very generous encomiastic words that you expressed for our website by defining it “an oasis in the desert from which you draw all the water possible, which is nothing but the wisdom of God”.

These words encourage us to move forward.

Thanks for your prayer which I heartily reciprocate.

I bless you.

Father Angelo

Translated by Irene Visciano

[1] The Confessions of Saint Augustine, Italian 2nd Edition Bompiani.

[2] Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1485.

[3] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 155-160 d.C.

[4] Translated by the translator.