Recent controversies over how to depict the founder of Christianity continue a debate nearly as old as the faith itself.
By Francis X. Rocca, WSJ, July 23, 2020
Recent controversies over the historical legacy of racism in America haven’t spared the symbols of religion. Several statues of St. Junípero Serra, an 18th-century Spanish missionary to California who critics say oppressed indigenous people there, have been pulled down by protesters or ordered removed by public authorities.
The targets of criticism have even included images of the founder of Christianity himself. Shaun King, a prominent activist with the Black Lives Matter movement, wrote on Twitter last month that “all murals and stained glass windows of white Jesus, and his European mother, and their white friends should also come down. They are a gross form [of] white supremacy. Created as tools of oppression. Racist propaganda.”
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and writer on religious topics, responded by rejecting the destruction of images but agreeing that “Jesus should be portrayed more like he (probably) looked…a first-century Galilean carpenter” resembling residents of the region today.
The question of how to represent Jesus visually is nearly as old as Christianity itself. It is complicated by the historical mystery of what he actually looked like, and even more so by the theological mystery of his dual identity as both man and God.
The first Christians made no pictures or sculptures of Jesus, continuing to honor Judaism’s ban on graven images. But as the new religion spread among the Greeks and Romans, who had a tradition of portraying their gods, the demand for images grew.
The Bible includes no hint about Jesus’ physical appearance, so artists borrowed models from the culture around them. The youthful sun god Apollo can be seen in the beautiful countenance and long hair of Christ portrayed as the Good Shepherd in a late-3rd-century statuette in the Vatican Museums. In his persona of sovereign of the universe, as in the late-4th-century apse mosaic of the Church of Santa Pudenziana in Rome, Christ is bearded and enthroned like Jupiter, king of the Roman pantheon.
“The question of likeness seems to have troubled no one” in the early centuries of Christianity, writes the British art historian Neil MacGregor in his book “Seeing Salvation: Images of Christ in Art.” “What was important to this community of believers was not what [Jesus] looked like but what he had done.”
Mr. MacGregor writes that the “stirrings of concern over what Christ actually looked like arose in large measure from the problem of his dual nature.” Although the Council of Chalcedon, in 451, definitively taught that Christ was both fully human and fully divine, disagreement over the matter continued.
Early 6th-century mosaics in the church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, illustrate Christ’s two natures on opposite sides of the nave. Jesus appears as a clean-shaven young Roman in a series of scenes portraying the miracles and teachings that reveal his divinity. But in a sequence illustrating his passion, death and resurrection, “he is older, and bearded as a Palestinian might have been, when his human nature is being emphasized,” Mr. MacGregor writes.
The 7th-century conquest of North Africa and much of the Middle East by Islam, which forbade image-making, largely cut off those regions from the Christian world. For the next millennium, most Christian art would be produced by Europeans, whose Jesus usually had a European face.
During the Middle Ages, a number of relics supposedly bearing the true likeness of Jesus, miraculously produced during his life on earth, attracted intense devotion and were widely reproduced. These relics typically featured the long hair and beard that we associate with Jesus today. The best-known is the Shroud of Turin, believed by some to be Jesus’ burial cloth, which bears the shadowy image of a crucified man.
“Relics, tangible manifestations of the actual existence of Christ are important [to show] that he was here, that he lived on this earth, that he ate and he drank and he had friends and he died and he resurrected, and that’s what people want to be in touch with,” said Elizabeth Lev, an art historian based in Rome.
The 16th-century Virgin of Guadalupe, which draws millions of pilgrims to Mexico City every year, appears with brown skin and straight black hair, surrounded by imagery associating her with an Aztec goddess.
Starting with the Age of Exploration, missionaries brought images of the European Jesus, Mary and the saints to Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. These likenesses inspired local versions, often bearing the racial features of the local population.
The most famous such image, held to be of miraculous origin, is the 16th-century Virgin of Guadalupe, which draws millions of pilgrims to its shrine in Mexico City every year. She appears with brown skin and straight black hair, surrounded by imagery associating her with an Aztec goddess.
Such “inculturated” images are more common of the Virgin than of Jesus. But in Cuzco, Peru, devotees annually venerate a statue of “the Lord of the Earthquakes,” his skin darkened by centuries of candle smoke, as they commemorate a 17th-century miracle with ceremonies reminiscent of pre-Columbian Inca religion.
With the rise of the civil rights movement, depictions of Jesus as a Black man began to appear in the U.S.
In English-speaking North America, pictures of Jesus were rare well into the 19th century, owing to the Protestant wariness of images as potentially idolatrous. Accordingly, in debates over slavery preceding the Civil War, abolitionists and advocates for slavery often quoted the Bible but didn’t discuss Jesus’ race, according to historian Edward J. Blum, co-author of “The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.”
Mass immigration from Catholic Europe and advances in printing technology in the late 19th century made images of Jesus more common, and racist propaganda used them as evidence of his whiteness. Later, anti-Semites in Germany and the U.S. argued that Jesus had actually been a gentile, encouraging an image of the savior as blue-eyed and blonde.
The famous 1940 “Head of Christ” by Warner Sallman, though not intended as racist, was an heir to those developments, Mr. Blum says. The portrait has been reproduced more than a half billion times and has largely defined the image of Jesus that most Americans have in mind today.
With the rise of the civil rights movement, depictions of Jesus as a Black man began to appear in the U.S. But the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in 1957 that the “color of Jesus’ skin is of little or no consequence…. The significance of Jesus lay, not in His color, but in His unique God-consciousness and His willingness to surrender His will to God’s will.… He would have been no more significant if His skin had been black. He is no less significant because His skin was white.”
Dr. King’s statement, published in Ebony magazine, drew a complaint from a reader asking him for evidence that Jesus had been white. According to the official edition of his papers, Dr. King didn’t reply.
Ms. Lev says that today’s debates over the whiteness of Jesus are part of a long tradition. In the 16th century, Michelangelo was criticized for omitting Jesus’ beard in his Sistine Chapel fresco of the Last Judgement. “Conflict about images has always been there, we’re always fighting about art,” Ms. Lev said. “This is another chapter in trying to wrestle down the power that art has.”
This article first appeared HERE.