Picturing Jesus — Part III: Why is Jesus so white?

I’m neither an artist nor an historian, but I’ve been fascinated with the way Jesus has been portrayed by artists throughout history. Over the next few posts I’m planning to take a very selective look at how we have pictured Jesus at different eras and in different cultures. You can read the earlier posts here and here.

In 1853, English artist Holman Hunt painted a picture of Jesus that he titled The Light of the World. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy the following year and is now in the side chapel at Keble College, Oxford. It was so popular with crowds that Keble started charging admission to view it. Unhappy about that (he thought people should be able to see it for free), Hunt set about painting a new version, this one life-sized, which he finished in 1904.

Today, it’s hard to imagine how a painting could become as popular as this picture became. When it was hung in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, it immediately drew massive crowds. Reproductions were hung in nurseries, schools and churches. Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) wrote an oratorio to it. From 1905–1907 it was taken on a world tour where gallery attenders lined for hours to see it. During WWI, British and Commonwealth soldiers carried postcard reproductions of it in their breast pockets to indicate keeping Jesus close to their hearts.

I venture to suggest Holman Hunt’s painting not only shaped how people in the Victorian and Edwardian eras imagined Jesus to look, but has had a lasting impact throughout much of the twentieth century.

In Hunt’s picture, Jesus wears a silk nightgown and is draped in a red, jewel-encrusted cape. He stands in the dark, holding a lantern, rapping patiently on a closed door which is overgrown with vines. Engraved on the ornate frame are the words of Revelation 3:20 (“Behold l stand at the door…”). The unmistakable message is that gentle King Jesus, the light of the world, stands at the door of your heart, knocking, waiting for you to bid him to come in.

But let’s take a closer look at Homan Hunt’s version of Jesus. This is the earlier Keble version of Light of the World:

As you can see, Jesus is light-skinned and red-haired. He has high cheekbones and an aquiline nose. In his bejeweled robe he looks like Richard the Lionheart or some other British (or Nordic) ruler. He stares vacantly to one side as he waits long-sufferingly for someone to answer the door.

Hunt turned Jesus into a kindly English king and the immense popularity of his painting spawned a veritable cottage industry of similar pictures.

The image in the bottom right corner of the picture above is called Head of Christ by American artist Werner Sallman, a 1940 portrait that had been reproduced over half a billion times worldwide by the end of the twentieth century. Sallman’s picture is said to have become the basis for the visualization of  Jesus for hundreds of millions of people.

Hunt and Sallman have unquestionably shaped the way English and American Christians have pictured Jesus. But they didn’t invent the idea of “white Jesus.” That goes way back into the Dark and Middle Ages.

The pale-skinned, long-haired, thin-nosed Jesus we know of from European art was the result of a combination of three ancient legends. The first arose in the seventh century, and concerned a story that Jesus had healed King Abgar of Edessa through a miraculous image of his face, now known as the Mandylion:

Descriptions of the Mandylion were then conflated with a twelfth century legend that Jesus had left an impression of his face on a cloth used by Saint Veronica to mop his brow on his journey to Calvary. And then in the 1300s, someone produced a highly suspicious artefact known as the Shroud of Turin. Despite it being rejected as a fraud almost from the beginning, images of the shroud nonetheless mingled with the Mandylion and Veronica’s veil (the Holy Face) to give us our modern day caricature of Jesus.

Like this one, Salvator Mundi (1519) by Leonardo da Vinci:

King Charles I purchased Salvator Mundi (“Savior of the World”) in the early 1600s and brought it to Britain where it has remained since. You can clearly see how it was an influence on Holman Hunt’s painting even 300 years later.

By 1632, Jesus had reached peak white in Diego Velazquez’s life-sized depiction, Christ Crucified:

There’s more milky-white skin per square centimeter there than most sacred art.

In the twentieth century, this whitening of Jesus was cemented in our imaginations by the emergence of cinema and a plethora of pale Jesuses on film. Playing Jesus, here are Robert Powell (Jesus of Nazareth), Max Von Sydow (Greatest Story Ever Told), Willem Defoe (Last temptation of Christ), Diogo Morgada (Son of God), and Brian Deacon (Jesus):

Of course, we have no idea what the real Jesus looked like. We don’t know how long his hair was or what kind of beard he sported. But we can be certain he wasn’t fair-skinned. Recently, this is has been more widely affirmed. Renaissance art historian Anna House has written, “The portrayal of Jesus as a white, European man has come under renewed scrutiny during this period of introspection over the legacy of racism in society. As protesters called for the removal of Confederate statues in the US, activist Shaun King went further, suggesting that murals and artwork depicting ‘white Jesus’ should ‘come down’.”

That link makes some sense. Why is it wrong to elevate a statue of a slaveholder but okay to display a Middle Eastern prophet as a fair-skinned British monarch? But correcting this mistake is more than just a concern to be historically accurate. The white Jesus myth does damage.

Australian theologian, Robyn Whittaker writes that perpetuating the white Jesus myth “allows the mainstream Christian community to separate their devotion to Jesus from compassionate regard for those who look different. I would even go so far as to say it creates a cognitive disconnect, where one can feel deep affection for Jesus but little empathy for a Middle Eastern person. It likewise has implications for the theological claim that humans are made in God’s image. If God is always imaged as white, then the default human becomes white and such thinking undergirds racism.”

In a subsequent post I will share some powerful images of black and brown-skinned Jesus, but right now we need to acknowledge the dominance of white Jesus and repent of the ways we have perpetuated an historically wrong and culturally damaging understanding of him. Such a perpetuation of white Jesus makes a mockery of the church’s call for people to embrace the historicity of his life and teaching.

A few years ago there was a meme doing the rounds that showed a picture of a typical long-haired, blue-eyed, fair-bearded Jesus with the caption: “WHITE JESUS: If you can’t get the race of your own beloved savior right, why should I trust you about anything else?”

Touché.

You can read Part IV Would Jesus Carry a Gun? here.

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To read a free chapter of my latest book, ReJesus: Remaking the Church in Our Founder’s Image, visit http://rejesusbook.com/

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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3 thoughts on “Picturing Jesus — Part III: Why is Jesus so white?

  1. I played Jesus once in a church musical “the Choice” and the production team were very upset when the costume company gave me a curly black wig to wear, instead of the long blonde classic. Awkward

  2. As always you continue to leaq and lead well

  3. Your comments enlighten an hopefully produce introspection into our views of the king

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