Art History Lab

Masterpieces of Jesus: From the Oldest Painting to the Most Expensive

The world has seen numerous portrayals of Jesus Christ in art over many centuries. From the earliest depictions of Jesus to the more modern interpretations, the story of Jesus has inspired some of the world’s greatest artists.

We will explore some of the most famous paintings of Jesus and learn about the history, controversy and techniques behind the artwork that made it to the forefront of art history.

Oldest painting of Jesus

The earliest known painting of Jesus comes from a third-century tomb in the catacombs of St. Callixtus in Rome. This painting of Jesus is depicted as a young shepherd with a wand, surrounded by sheep.

This painting is an example of early Christianity, where Jesus was often represented as a shepherd or teacher. Depiction of Jesus’ Appearance

The appearance of Jesus Christ has been the subject of debate for centuries, and it has been widely interpreted differently across various cultures.

In Europe, Jesus was often depicted as a white man with long hair and a beard. But, during the Nazi’s reign, they created a version of Christ with blonde hair and blue eyes to spread their hateful ideology.

People of different cultures and regions have their own unique interpretations of Jesus, which represents the diversity and inclusivity of the religious figure.

Famous Paintings of Jesus

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci

The Last Supper is one of da Vinci’s most famous works, painted between 1495-1498. This religious painting illustrates the final meal that Jesus had with his disciples before his arrest and eventual crucifixion.

The painting has been restored many times, and controversy surrounding damage caused by over-cleaning and inappropriate restoration techniques have ensued in preserving this masterpiece.

Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci

Salvator Mundi portrays Jesus Christ holding an orb with his right hand, representing the world he had created. The painting is said to have been painted by da Vinci in between 1506 – 1513, but it was lost for centuries until it was discovered in 2005 and then authenticated in 2011.

This artwork exemplifies da Vinci’s artistic genius with its masterful technique and attention to detail.

The Transfiguration by Raphael

This painting was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de Medici in 1518, five years before Raphael’s death. It portrays Jesus along with Moses and Elijah in heavenly radiance, the centerpiece of two overlapping Peter, James, and John’s stories.

This masterpiece beautifully portrays the spiritual transformation of Jesus and has stood the test of time.

The Last Judgment by Michelangelo

The Last Judgement is one of the most prominent artworks in the Sistine Chapel. This artwork is incredibly complex in nature and featured in Michelangelo’s expertise in anatomical painting.

However, it caused uproar and controversy due to depictions of nudity, which was considered inappropriate, and the Catholic Church’s interpretation of scripture demonstrated within the painting.

Christ Carrying the Cross by El Greco

This artwork depicts Christ carrying the cross during his crucifixion, which was El Greco’s longtime fascination. The picture is distinguished by a unique, elongated style, reflecting El Greco’s distinctive approach to the human figure.

Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio

Supper at Emmaus is considered one of Caravaggio’s most dramatic and powerful paintings. This artwork portrays Christ’s sudden appearance and revelation of his identity to his disciples in a sudden display of light and darkness.

The creative use of light and shadow and realistic facial expressions made this painting stand out in the era of Baroque art.

Christ Crucified by Diego Velazquez

Velazquez is known for his religious paintings that fuse realism with classical styles. Christ Crucified is one of his most famous works, depicting a life-like Jesus being crucified with several people around the crucifixion site.

The painting perfectly encapsulates the Spanish Baroque style and is an iconic painting of the Spanish Golden Age.

The Yellow Christ by Paul Gauguin

The Yellow Christ is one of Paul Gauguin’s most iconic paintings and is representative of Symbolism. This painting depicts a yellow-skinned Jesus wearing a red loincloth with a green background.

Symbolism is employed as a way of visually summing up the artist’s intended meaning without depicting it literally.

Crucifixion by Francis Bacon

This painting is regarded as one of the most important works of abstract painting. Francis Bacon’s Crucifixion is an abstract representation of Christ crucified overlaid with a chaotic background, creating a feeling of suffering and pain.

Christ of Saint John on the Cross by Salvador Dali

Christ of Saint John on the Cross is one of Salvador Dali’s most controversial paintings. This painting portrays Jesus Christ crucified on a cross with an odd perspective of the background, and the effect is a surrealistic and dreamlike interpretation.


In conclusion, art has always been one of the most effective ways to express the story and teachings of Jesus Christ. The paintings of Jesus are not only a showcase of artistic talent but also act as a way to teach and preach, especially to those who cannot read.

The list above provides just a glimpse of the vast array of depictions and interpretations of Jesus that exist. These masterpieces symbolize the diversity and versatility of art and allow us to view the scriptures and figures in a new perspective.

White European portrayal of Jesus

One of the most significant discussions on the portrayal of Jesus is the prevalence of the white European depiction of Jesus. This is in stark contrast to the Middle Eastern and Jewish ethnicity of Jesus.

It is hypothesized that early depictions of Jesus in early Christianity illustrated him as a young shepherd with a wand, surrounded by sheep, rather than focusing on his physical attributes. However, as Christianity spread throughout Europe, Jesus grew taller, had fairer skin and lighter hair.

In the 4th century, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, leading to the first European portrayal of Jesus that features a lighter-skinned Jesus with blonde hair. This representation continued throughout the Renaissance era and even influenced Nazi propaganda, where Christ was represented as a blonde, blue-eyed Aryan to promote their race-based politics.

The white European portrayal of Jesus has been viewed by many as a way of reflecting the biases of the time and place rather than reflecting who Christ really was. Scholars believe that it is critical to examine the historical and geographical context of the depiction of Christ to ensure accuracy and inclusivity.

Expensive paintings of Jesus

The most expensive painting ever sold is

Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci, which was sold at auction in 2017 for over $400 million. This artwork depicts Jesus Christ holding an orb and blessing with his right hand.

It was believed to have been painted by Leonardo da Vinci in between 1506 – 1513, but the painting was lost for centuries until it was discovered in 2005. Since its rediscovery, authentication debates have continued, and many experts still question the painting’s authenticity.

Many religions consider Jesus a cosmic figure with an influence beyond a lifetime. Millions of art connoisseurs and religious followers alike have been thronging to see works of art that give this biblical figure a form.

It is interesting to note that it is not just the painting but also the legacy behind it that drives up the price of these artworks. Salvator Mundi itself is iconic because it is the last known painting of Leonardo da Vinci.

The artist left behind a legacy that carries on into modern times, meaning that every artwork associated with Leonardo carries a premium for that enduring interest.

Oldest painting of Jesus

The oldest known painting of Jesus is a third-century painting that came from the catacombs of St. Callixtus in Rome. It is believed to be one of the earliest examples of Christian art, featuring Jesus depicted as a young shepherd with a wand, surrounded by sheep.

This painting portrays a youthful and calming Jesus, which is common in early Christian art. The age of Jesus in this painting is uncertain, as it is difficult to tell his exact age from the painting.

Although Jesus was typically depicted as a man in his thirties at the time of his crucifixion, this early portrayal reflects a childlike depiction of Jesus. This shepherd imagery illuminates the pastoral themes prevalent in early Christianity and relays the message of Jesus’s role as a spiritual guide to his followers.

It is worth noting that this painting is not the only representation of Jesus in Christian art. Numerous artists over time have depicted Jesus in various ages, from childhood to his crucifixion and beyond.

Each artist brings a unique interpretation of Jesus and incorporates their creativity and intentions to their works of art.


The portrayal of Jesus in art has evolved over centuries, with different influences and contexts shaping the depictions of Christ over time, leading to controversies and debates. The white European portrayal, the authenticity and cost of artworks, and the oldest painting continue to fascinate and attract audiences worldwide.

Artworks have been historically linked to religious beliefs and interpretation of divine life, leading to some of the most expensive and well-known works of art. The artistic depictions and interpretations of Christ have always represented a way of bringing people together, creating a common narrative and symbolism that transcends particular dogma, making it an integral part of Christianity.

Overall, the depictions of Jesus in art remain dynamic, from the earliest known painting to modern art, where artists are now taking a more inclusive approach to depict Jesus. These artworks represent the diversity and inclusivity of Christianity and continue to inspire audiences worldwide.

In conclusion, the portrayal of Jesus in art has been shaped by cultural, historical, and geographical influences across centuries, leading to different interpretations and controversies. The white European representation of Jesus and the authenticity and cost of artworks have impacted how audiences view Jesus in painting, while the oldest painting has highlighted the pastoral themes in early Christianity.

Understanding the significance of these depictions and interpretations allow for greater inclusivity and accuracy, stressing our shared values and beliefs. Art using Jesus has been an integral part of Christianity, inspiring and educating audiences, and continues to be an essential component of religious life.

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