Medieval and Early Modern Profiling: European Jesus in the “Letter of Lentulus” (Epistola Lentuli)
Most of the iconography of Jesus Christ’s appearance derives from a short, pseudepigraphical text known to scholars as the Epistola Lentuli or “Letter of Lentulus.” This popular Latin document—nearly 80 manuscripts survive—purports to be an eyewitness account of the physical appearance and demeanor of Jesus, as recorded by an associate of Pontius Pilate and sent to the Roman Senate. The letter was translated into all the medieval vernaculars and describes Jesus as distinctly European rather than Semitic in appearance. In fact, the letter originated during the Middle Ages and became increasingly popular through the early modern period, sometimes for racist reasons, despite efforts to debunk it. In this paper, I trace the text’s origins back to twelfth-century Latin commentaries on the Psalms, especially the third verse of Vulgate Psalm 44: Speciosus forma prae filiis hominum (“Thou art beautiful among the sons of men”). I then discuss the reasons for its accumulation of a bogus historical frame and its widespread influence on pictures of Christ into the nineteenth century and beyond. This influence, I argue, extended inevitably beyond religious iconography to shape ideas about normative and non-normative individual and social identities during a formative period in the history of the West. My analysis involves a number of items in the Newberry Library’s special collections, especially a unique Italian translation of the letter in a mid-fifteen century Italian miscellany (Case MS 92.5).
About the Premodern Studies Seminar Series
This Center for Renaissance Studies seminar provides a forum for new approaches to classical, medieval, and early modern studies, allowing scholars from a range of disciplines to share works-in-progress. Organized by Timothy Crowley (Northern Illinois University), Megan Heffernan (DePaul University), Lydia Barnett (Northwestern University), and Christopher Fletcher (Newberry Library).
If you have any questions about the submission process or the seminar in general, please email Christopher Fletcher.