Cultural depictions of Jesus

Cultural depictions of Jesus
Christ Carrying the Cross,
by El Greco, 1580.

Jesus has inspired artistic and cultural works for nearly two millennia. The following lists cover various media to include items of historic interest, enduring works of high art, and recent representations in popular culture. These entries represent portrayals that a reader has a reasonable chance of encountering rather than a complete catalog. Lesser known works are not included.

For purposes of classification, popular culture music is a separate section from operas and oratorios. Television covers live action series, TV movies, miniseries, and North American animation but not Japanese anime, which appears with manga and graphic novels.



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There has been a long tradition of featuring Jesus in paintings and sculpture, ranging from the Roman catacombs and the conservative icon tradition of the Orthodox world through medieval altarpieces to modern acrylics. Many images depict the Life and Passion of Christ, especially the Crucifixion of Christ, whilst others show the infant Christ with his mother (Madonna and Child) or Christ in Majesty. Many of the most famous paintings in Western art feature Christ. The tradition continues in professional and folk art in many countries, as well as popular commercial imagery. Most images, whatever their origins, (as left) keep fairly close to the conventional appearance (and clothing) of Christ established in Byzantine art by about 400AD, which is now instantly recognisable.

The Reformed churches, which grew out of the teaching of Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, and others, traditionally reject depictions of Jesus as a form of idolatry (cf the Ten Commandments).



Gospel music has remained a strong pop element in the music of religious America, of which Jesus is a frequent topic.

There have been significant (and successful) attempts to incorporate Jesus in current popular music trends, from rock to hip-hop. This incorporation happens on three different levels:

  • Bands or artists who focus almost entirely on Jesus/Christianity. Most of these bands are in support of it, and their music will almost always deal with spiritual themes. A few detractors may critique, attack, or ridicule Christianity and Jesus.
  • Songs that deal with Jesus/Christianity. Bands or artists may not be religious at all, but they will still produce a song (or songs) in reference to Jesus. The songs may deal with Jesus/Christianity in a positive light (e.g., "Have A Talk With God" by Stevie Wonder), a negative light (e.g., "Heresy" by Nine Inch Nails or the slogan used by the Anarcho-punk band Crass who used the slogan "Jesus died for his own sins, not mine"), or just as a tool to help provide commentary on modern society (e.g., "Jesusland" by Ben Folds).


The religious or biblical epic was a popular genre in the 1950s usually accompanied by towering budgets and names such as Charlton Heston, Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, or Yul Brynner.

The ensuing decade brought an attempt by a major studio to produce a religious epic in which the Christ Event was its singular focus. MGM released King of Kings in 1961, inspired by Cecil B. DeMille`s 1927 film The King of Kings. Some critics suggested the film should have been titled I Was a Teenage Jesus, due to Jeffrey Hunter's youthful appearance in the film.

Four years later, The Greatest Story Ever Told, directed by George Stevens, was completed for $25 million. Though Max von Sydow's performance as Christ was praised, the film fared poorly at the box office. Franco Zeffirelli's 1977 film Jesus of Nazareth was a highly praised television miniseries, but stood as the last major Hollywood production of Christ's life for nearly a decade.

It wasn’t until 1988 that another major studio took a gamble on a movie involving the life of Jesus, but this one involved a new wrinkle. Universal released The Last Temptation of Christ amidst protests. The pre-release publicity centered around demonstrations taking place outside of Universal after celebrated figures in the evangelical media began speaking about heretical content in the film. Theater managers across the USA were reluctant to screen the movie and no major video chain would carry it.

Screenwriter Paul Schrader adapted The Last Temptation from the Nikos Kazantzakis novel which engages in a fictional exploration between the two natures of Christ - divine and human. The film was not intended to be a Gospel portrait. The fictional aspect, which apparently provoked opponents of its release, centered around a vision presented by the devil to the Jesus of the film while on the cross. In this vision, Jesus is shown what it would have been like to marry, have a family, live until an old age, and die a natural death. The struggle for the Jesus of the film is the torment between his human wishes for a normal Jewish life and his longing to accomplish the divine mission set before him. In the film is that Jesus conquers these temptations and carries out his sacrificial death by crucifixion.

In 2004, Academy Award winning director Mel Gibson made the blockbuster film The Passion of the Christ which became one of the highest grossing movies of 2004. Jim Caviezel was cast as Jesus.

Date Title Country Notes IMDB
1898 The Passion Play of Oberammergau USA early black-and-white silent film, directed by Henry C. Vincent, starring Frank Russell as Jesus [1]
1911 Jésus de Nazareth France early black-and-white silent film, directed by André Calmettes and Henri Desfontaines [2]
1912 From the Manger to the Cross USA black-and-white silent film, filmed in Palestine, directed by Sidney Olcott, and starring Robert Henderson-Bland as Jesus [3]
1914 The Last Supper USA black-and-white silent film, directed by Lorimer Johnston, and starring Sydney Ayres as Jesus [4]
1915 The Birth of a Nation USA directed by D.W. Griffith, Jesus appears toward the end of the film [5]
1916 Intolerance USA directed by D.W. Griffith, Jesus is portrayed by Howard Gaye [6]
1927 The King of Kings USA silent film starring H. B. Warner as Jesus [7]
1928 Jesus of Nazareth USA black-and-white silent film, Jesus is portrayed by Philip Van Loan [8]
1942 Jesús de Nazareth Mexico black-and-white film, directed by José Díaz Morales, and starring José Cibrián as Jesus [9]
1946 María Magdalena Mexico black-and-white film directed by Miguel Contreras Torres, Jesus is portrayed by Luis Alcoriza [10]
1953 The Robe USA Jesus appears off-screen [11]
1959 Ben-Hur USA Jesus does not speak in the movie, he is seen only from behind or in partial view [12]
1959 El Redentor (The Redeemer) Spain Jesus, played by Luis Álvarez, is always shown from behind. Macdonald Carey provides the voice in the English version. [13]
1961 King of Kings USA directed by Nicholas Ray, starring Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus [14]
1964 Il vangelo secondo Matteo Italy / France directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, starring Enrique Irazoqui as Jesus [15]
1964 Scorpio Rising USA A short film directed by Kenneth Anger, with archival footage from The Last Journey to Jerusalem, a low budget religious film about Jesus. [16]
1965 The Greatest Story Ever Told USA directed by George Stevens, David Lean, and Jean Negulesco, starring Max von Sydow as Jesus [17]
1971 Johnny Got His Gun USA Donald Sutherland portrays Jesus in a dream sequence [18]
1973 Godspell USA directed by David Greene, Jesus is portrayed by Victor Garber [19]
1973 The Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus USA Robert Elfstrom was both the director and the actor portraying Jesus, Johnny Cash provided the music for the film [20]
1973 Jesus Christ Superstar USA film based on Andrew Lloyd Webber's opera, with Ted Neeley as Jesus [21]
1973 The Holy Mountain Mexico/USA Directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Numerous depictions of Christ and Christian iconography. The protagonist is made to resemble Christ and is even hung on a cross. [22]
1979 Monty Python's Life of Brian UK The story of Jesus is parodied by parallel in this movie. Jesus only appears briefly. [23]
1979 Mary and Joseph: A Story of Faith Canada directed by Eric Till, starring Jeff East as Joseph [24]
1979 Jesus UK/Australia/USA directed by John Krish and Peter Sykes, starring Brian Deacon as Jesus [25]
1980 White 'Pop' Jesus Italy directed by Luigi Petrini, Jesus is portrayed by Awana Gana [26]
1981 History of the World, Part I USA directed by Mel Brooks, Jesus is portrayed by John Hurt [27]
1985 Hail Mary France / Switzerland / UK a modern-day retelling of the Virgin Birth [28]
1986 Jesus - The Film Germany Epic film in 35 episodes, shot on Super8. The individual episodes were made by a total of 22 filmmakers from East and West Germany, directed by Michael Brynntrup [29]
1988 The Last Temptation of Christ USA directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Willem Dafoe as Jesus [30]
1988 The Seventh Sign USA directed by Carl Schultz Jürgen Prochnow as Jesus [31]
1989 Jesus of Montreal Canada / France directed by Denys Arcand [32]
1992 Bad Lieutenant USA directed by Abel Ferrara, starring Paul Hipp [33]
1996 Kristo Philippines directed by Ben Yalung starring Mat Ranillo III as Jesus. The costumes, music, design and overall feel are all adapted to a local setting in Malay-influenced, pre- Hispanic Philippines. [34]
1997 Matthew USA/South Africa directed by Reghardt van den Bergh starring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus. All narration and dialogue is taken word-for-word from the New International Version of the New Testament Gospel of Matthew. [35]
1997 Orgazmo USA Jesus is seen cheering the lead character on at the end of the film [36]
1998 The Book of Life France / USA directed by Hal Hartley, starring Martin Donovan as Jesus [37]
1999 Superstar USA directed by Bruce McCulloch, Jesus is portrayed by Will Ferrell [38]
1999 South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut USA Jesus can be seen as part of the American army marching in front of Kyle's house [39]
1999 Jesus' Son USA Main character FH sees a vision of Christ in the chest of a man he encounters. Several other allusions to Christlike miracles are depicted. [40]
1999 Dogma USA Buddy Christ is created as an icon to help revitalize the Catholic Church. [41]
1999 Mary, Mother of Jesus USA is a made-for-television Biblical film that retells the story of Jesus through the eyes of Mary, his mother. It stars Pernilla August as Mary and Christian Bale as Jesus. This is produced by Eunice Kennedy Shriver. [42]
2000 The Miracle Maker UK/Russia/USA stop-motion animated film with Ralph Fiennes as the voice of Jesus [43]
2001 Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter Canada directed by Lee Demarbre, Jesus is called upon to aid humanity against a vampire scourge [44]
2003 The Gospel of John Canada / UK / USA directed by Philip Saville, starring Henry Ian Cusick as Jesus [45]
2003 The Book of Mormon Movie, Vol. 1: The Journey USA directed by Gary Rogers, shows the Book of Mormon view of Jesus [46]
2004 The Passion of the Christ USA directed by Mel Gibson, starring Jim Caviezel, portrays the final 17 hours in the life of Jesus. [47]
2006 World Trade Center USA Jesus is seen in the vision of a New York City firefighter in the film [48]
2006 The Nativity Story USA Retells the Biblical account of the nativity of Jesus, following the story of Mary and Joseph until the birth of Jesus occurs. [49]
2006 Color of the Cross USA Jean-Claude La Marre both directs the film and stars as Jesus [50]
2006 Son of Man South Africa directed by Mark Dornford-May [51]
2006 The Nativity Story USA directed by Catherine Hardwicke [52]
2008 Hamlet 2 USA Steve Coogan plays a high school theatre teacher who portrays Jesus in a school play. [53]
2008 The Messiah Iran Retells the Islamic view of Jesus. A film directed by Nader Talebzadeh, and starring Rennie Schembri as Ahmad Soleimani Nia [54]
2008 Anno Domini XXXIII Malta Retells the Biblical account of the passion of Jesus Christ. A film directed by Melvin Schembri and starring Rennie Schembri as Jesus [citation needed]

Television movies

Date Title Country Notes IMDB
1980 The Day Christ Died USA directed by James Cellan Jones, starring Chris Sarandon as Jesus [55]
1999 Mary, Mother of Jesus USA TV movie [56]
2003 Ben Hur USA animated TV movie [57]
2004 Judas USA TV Movie [58]
2007 The Lost Tomb of Jesus USA Simcha Jacobovici stars in this documentary about the supposed findings of the Jesus family tomb. The film dramatizes certain scenes in the Bible to depict Jesus both as a husband and a father.


Date Title Country Notes IMDB
1977 Jesus of Nazareth Italy / UK TV miniseries, starring Robert Powell as Jesus [59]
1999 Jesus Czech Republic / Italy / Germany / USA TV miniseries, starring Jeremy Sisto as Jesus [60]


Audio dramas

See also


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