Exploring the Theory that a Modern Image of Jesus was Based on a Pope’s Son

In 1843, within his collection titled Celebrated Crimes, the renowned Alexandre Dumas commented intriguingly on contemporary portrayals of Jesus Christ. He asserted that every current representation of the eminent Jewish prophet and the “Christian son of god” can trace its origin to the likeness of a single person.

This individual, as pointed out by the creator of famed works like The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, was none other than Cesare Borgia, an Italian cardinal from the 15th century and the offspring of Pope Alexander VI. There’s a noticeable resemblance when comparing Borgia’s extant portraits with the prevalent depiction of Jesus. But does this alignment happen by chance, or does Dumas’s assertion hold weight?

Let’s delve into the assertion made by the French novelist. While the identity of Jesus Christ is universally recognized, Cesare Borgia remains relatively unfamiliar to the contemporary audience. Borgia, however, was a controversial political personality during the Italian Renaissance.

His birth took place on September 13, 1475, in Subiaco, close to Rome. He was the progeny of Cardinal Roderic Borgia and his lover, Vannozza dei Cattanei, and had a sister notoriously referred to as the black widow of Rome, Lucretia Borgia.

In the year 1492, the widely acknowledged corrupt Cardinal Roderic Borgia ascended to the Papacy, taking the title Pope Alexander III, a role he retained until his demise in 1503.

Serving as the leader of the Papal States during the closing years of the 15th century and the onset of the 16th century, Alexander had dominion over a temporal domain that spanned much of central Italy, stretching from the Lazio region down to Naples.

At this juncture, Italy was fragmented among rival city-states, including Florence, Milan, Urbino, Genoa, and Venice. Furthermore, it was a tumultuous period. Close to Alexander’s papal inauguration, Spain and France entered the scene, attempting to assert their supremacy on the Italian terrain.

A six-decade-long conflict, known as the Italian Wars, ensued, instigated by these two nations. Soon after, Cesare found himself entwined in these political intrigues. Upon his father’s papal appointment in 1492, he was designated as a cardinal, even though he was but a youth.

Yet, in subsequent years, Cesare transformed himself into a formidable military leader. He efficiently enlarged the Papal States during his father’s reign and established his dominion in the Emilia Romagna territory, stretching from Rome to Bologna.

In an alliance context with the French, he played a role in occupying Milan and Naples, elevating the Papal States’ influence in Italy to unprecedented levels. His astute diplomacy and military prowess were widely acknowledged.

So impactful was Cesare’s reputation that he deeply inspired Nicoló Machiavelli when the illustrious political strategist penned his cynical manual for ambitious leaders, The Prince, in the early 1510s. Nevertheless, Cesare’s prominence was ephemeral.

Following the passing of his father in 1503, his influence waned. After moving to Spain, his life was cut short in an unexpected attack in 1507 in the country’s northern parts, when he was merely thirty-one.

Evidently, Cesare Borgia played a significant role in the political dynamics of Italy during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. But is there any validity to Dumas’s assertion that the depiction of Jesus Christ evolved in the 16th century to mirror Borgia’s portraits?

When juxtaposing the conventional representation of Jesus with an image of Borgia, particularly the one crafted by the esteemed Italian artist Altobello Melone, a striking resemblance emerges.

Both portrayals showcase figures with a robust physique, devoid of pronounced facial plumpness. They share similar beard lengths, mustaches, and comparable complexions.

Moreover, both images capture a look of wisdom and, surprisingly for Borgia, a somewhat compassionate expression. It’s understandable how Dumas might have drawn the conclusion he did. However, Dumas’s theory doesn’t hold up.

For his argument to stand, more than mere similarity between Borgia’s and Jesus’s artistic representations would be needed. There would have to be a tangible change in the artistic depiction of Jesus around or shortly after Borgia’s lifetime.

For example, if before Borgia’s images became prominent, Jesus was illustrated as the probably darker-complexioned, shorter person he most likely was, then there might be a connection. But that’s not what history shows.

Conclusive evidence exists that the modern representation of a bearded Jesus predates Borgia by several centuries. To underscore this, consider two early illustrations: One is from the Catacomb of Commodilla on the Via Ostiensis in Rome, featuring a fresco of a bearded Jesus.

This particular depiction, one of the earliest that mirrors today’s familiar image of Jesus, is from the 4th century, making it roughly 1100 years older than Borgia’s time. Another notable depiction is from the early 6th century.

During this period, the Byzantine Empire’s ruler, Justinian I, managed to reclaim parts of the Western Roman Empire, primarily in Italy and North Africa. This led to significant architectural endeavors, including the establishment of the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Northern Italy.

Now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, this basilica boasts an array of mosaics featuring biblical tales, early Christian icons, and contemporary political figures like Emperor Justinian and his consort, Theodora.

Prominently, one panel distinctly portrays Jesus Christ in a manner reminiscent of today’s common depictions. These Ravenna mosaics antecede Borgia’s existence by nearly a millennium.

Numerous other instances from the Medieval era can be cited, affirming that this portrayal of Jesus was consistent for many centuries before Borgia’s iconic 15th and 16th-century portraits.

In conclusion, while Dumas spun a compelling narrative juxtaposing the virtuous Jesus with the crafty Borgia, it remains a mere tale. There’s no factual basis for his suggestion that Borgia’s portraits influenced Western perceptions of Jesus Christ from the 16th century onward.