The life of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the Christian Bible has been a principal subject for art since the late Roman empire. Key details of the accounts of his life and ministry are summarized here to facilitate identification and understanding of Christian imagery.
The name Jesus is a form of Joshua, Hebrew for “savior”; “Christ,” as he is known to Christians, is Greek for “anointed,” a translation of the Hebrew word for messiah. Accounts of his life and ministry and the miracles ascribed to him are recorded in the four canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. His mother was Mary, the wife of Joseph, a carpenter of Nazareth, and a member of the house of the biblical king David. When she was espoused to Joseph, but prior to their marriage, the archangel Gabriel appeared to her to announce that she would be the mother of a child, to be named Jesus (the Annunciation, 56.70). Afterwards, Mary visited her pregnant cousin Elizabeth for a three-month stay (the Visitation, 13.64.3ab). At their meeting, Elizabeth’s baby, who would become John the Baptist, leapt in her womb, apparently in joy at Mary’s pregnancy. Some months later, Joseph took his wife to crowded Bethlehem for the Roman tax census ordered by the emperor Augustus. Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable (the Nativity, 1983.490), where shepherds, alerted by angels, came to visit him. In accordance with Jewish law, the baby was circumcised on the eighth day and given the name of Jesus. Some time later—in the Middle Ages, it was believed to be twelve days after his birth—three Magi, or wise men, who had been guided by a star, arrived to see Jesus (11.126.1), with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Thirty-three days after Jesus’ birth, following Jewish law for a mother’s purification after a son’s birth, the family went to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer the sacrifice of a pair of birds. There, in the Presentation in the Temple (31.67.8), Simeon and Anna proclaimed Jesus to be the Christ.
Meanwhile, King Herod the Great of Judaea (37–4 B.C.), who had hosted the Magi and had become worried by their search for a newborn supposed to be the king of the Jews, found that they had not returned to him with news of the child as he had requested. He then ordered all children of Bethlehem two years old and younger to be slain—the Massacre of the Innocents. Joseph, warned by a dream, escaped with his family to Egypt (the Flight into Egypt, 61.50), returning to Nazareth a few months after Herod had died.
There is only one account of Jesus’ adolescence. When he was twelve, his parents took him to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. When it was time to leave, Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, unbeknownst to Mary and Joseph, who finally found him a day later in the Temple, discoursing with teachers.
Years later, Jesus began his public ministry by having his cousin, John the Baptist, baptize him in the Jordan River. In this Baptism of Jesus (12.130.1), the Holy Spirit flew down to him as a dove and a heavenly voice proclaimed him to be a beloved son. Going into the wilderness for forty days, Jesus was then enticed by the devil, the Temptation of Christ (61.248), all of whose temptations he withstood. Over the next three years, Jesus gathered twelve close followers, known as the disciples or apostles. The Gospels recount numerous miracles of healing, such as the curing of a man born blind and the raising of his friend Lazarus from the dead, as well as other feats, such as feeding a crowd of 5,000, and another of 4,000, with only a few loaves and fish—the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes (13.75). One of the most notable events ascribed to Jesus’ ministry is his Transfiguration on a mountain. Accompanied by three of his followers, Peter, James, and John, Jesus suddenly changed in appearance—his face shone and his clothes became dazzling white. The Jewish leader Moses and the Jewish prophet Elijah appeared and talked with Jesus, and a voice from a bright cloud claimed Jesus as a beloved son and ordered the disciples to listen to him.
The teachings of Jesus during this time, many delivered in parables, focused on a repentance that would redirect a life to God, a life absolutely obedient to the will of God and following the commandment to love one’s neighbor expressed in Mark 12:28–31. This repentance was linked to a Last Judgment for mankind and the establishment of a reign of justice and peace—the Kingdom of God.
The account of Jesus’ suffering and death—the Passion—begins with his Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem and his Entry into Jerusalem (62.189). There, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and shared a Seder with them. This final meal with his followers is known as the Last Supper (17.190.18a–c). Afterwards, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane and wrestled with his doubts—the Agony in the Garden. The betrayal by his disciple Judas ended in the Arrest of Jesus by soldiers. After Jewish and Roman authorities briefly questioned him, with Peter outside denying that he knew him (the Denial of Peter), Jesus was beaten (the Flagellation, 64.27.18) and forced to wear a crown of thorns. Jesus himself, or the passerby Simon of Cyrene, carried the cross from which Jesus would be hung to the Place of the Skull, or Golgotha (Calvary, in Latin). There, Jesus underwent his Crucifixion (1999.295.4) and death on Good Friday; he was thirty-three years of age.
The events following Jesus’ death that are often depicted in art include: Jesus’ Descent from the Cross, or Deposition (17.190.735); the Lamentation over his body (2001.78)—a scene not found in the Bible; his Entombment (20.46.17), hastily done since the Sabbath was about to begin; and his Descent into Limbo or Hell to free the souls there—an event also not found in the Bible. Immediately after the Sabbath, Jesus’ Resurrection was revealed to women coming to his tomb with spices to complete his embalming, the Women at the Tomb. In one account, Mary Magdalene is met by Jesus in the garden behind the tomb, where he asked her not to touch him—the Noli me Tangere scene (17.190.47). Jesus then appeared at least ten times to his followers over the next forty days, including accompanying two of them in their Journey to Emmaus (17.190.47). The period ended forty days later with his Ascension, when Jesus rose to heaven with the apostles as witnesses (1970.324.2). As recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus’ followers gathered ten days after his ascension, for the celebration of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot (“the feast of weeks”), and were empowered by the Holy Spirit (65.105) to continue his ministry.