Picturing Jesus — Part V: Does it Matter What Color Jesus is?

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 others by checking the menu on my blog.

In an earlier post in this series on portraits of Jesus, I raised questions about when Jesus became almost exclusively white-skinned in sacred art. In this post I want to explore the ways different artists have portrayed Jesus in distinctly non-Caucasian ways.

Firstly, a few words about what Jesus probably looked like in reality. He wasn’t a pale northern European. He would have had a dark complexion, not unlike the olive skin common among Middle Easterners today. Princeton professor James Charlesworth goes so far as to say Jesus was “most likely dark brown and sun-tanned.” And Christena Cleveland says, “The earliest depictions of an adult Jesus showed him with an ‘Oriental cast’ and a brown complexion.” As early as the third century, Syrian, Indian and Ethiopian artists produced images of Jesus that showed him with dark skin.

In 2001, forensic anthropologist Richard Neave created a model of a Galilean man for a BBC documentary, Son of God. He used an actual skull found in the region and gave his model olive skin and curly short hair in the style of the time.

Neave didn’t claim it was Jesus’s face. He just wanted us to see what a first century Galilean man would have looked like. And he sure didn’t look like the alabaster-skinned savior found in European cathedrals.

And then more recently, Dutch photographer Bas Uterwijk presented his version of Jesus. Uterwijk uses GAN (generative adversarial network) to generate hyper-realistic portraits of famous historical figures. You can see his work here. It’s quite amazing. Anyway, his portrait of Jesus looks like this:

Whether that’s the face you imagine when you say your prayers at night, I’m not sure, but both the above images are closer to what the historical Jesus looked like than many of our most beloved sacred portraits. And it seems like some of those of us who are white are getting the hang of this. It is increasingly seen as inappropriate to depict Jesus as Caucasian. When conservative Baptist school Biola unveiled a 30-foot mural of a white Jesus in 1990 it raised a few eyebrows, but not that much controversy. Since that time the protests against the mural have only intensified. Biola is holding out and keeping the painting in place, but there’s no way such a mural could be painted today.

In saying this, I’m not suggesting that white Jesuses don’t dominate church culture. They do. But I sense a change is in the air.

After decades of white actors playing Jesus in Bible movies, the popular new web series The Chosen cast Jonathan Roumie, an Egyptian-American actor, in the role.

Indeed, the whole cast of The Chosen, while predominantly American, was highly multiethnic, including performers with backgrounds in Israel, India, Italy, United Arab Emirates, and Brazil. It’s a long way from when whiter-than-white Jeffrey Hunter played Jesus in King of Kings (Google him).

So, we know Jesus was of a swarthy complexion. But it’s only relatively recently we’ve begun to see him portrayed as such. Here are two recent American versions:

And American photographer Brian Behm recently won the “De-Colonizing the Christ” art exhibition with this piece, titled Pantocrator in Black and Brown:

Much of the impetus for the current interest in non-white depictions of Jesus isn’t just driven by a desire for historical accuracy. It is driven by a yearning for representation. Since the Middle Ages, the image of a light-skinned European Christ has been exported to the world via trade and colonization. As Christian mission became partnered with colonization, the image of a white Jesus reinforced a social system in which white Europeans occupied the upper tiers and indigenous people with darker skin ranked lower. Many missionaries didn’t intend this link, but unfortunately it became entrenched in most parts of the world. Freeing the image of Jesus from a legacy of white supremacy is profoundly important. Creating pictures of Jesus as a man of color reminds the world that Jesus is for and with all people, regardless of skin tone.

I would go further than that and say we don’t need any more pictures of European Jesus. We need an embargo on white Jesus. Firstly, because the world is full of them already (if any white person says they need representation in sacred art too, just roll your eyes at them). And secondly, because they reinforce racism. As Robyn Whitaker has written, “If God is always imaged as white, then the default human becomes white and such thinking undergirds racism.”

So let’s celebrate some beautiful images of black, brown and Asian Jesus, beginning with an older work by Nigerian designer, George Bandele. This is his baptismal font from 1965:

The font is so distinctly African. It is shaped like a large Ogboni society drum and depicts a black, risen Christ in a mandorla (almond-shaped aureole), with his hands raised to display his nail wounds. His side wound is also visible.

And here is Congolese artist, Francis Mampuya-Kitah’s 1997 depiction of the crucifixion, titled La Sûprematié:

I find Mampuya-Kitah’s image so striking. And when you consider the atrocities committed against the Congolese by the Belgian colonial government in the early 1900s it adds a sense of the horror of the scene he has painted.

Another crucifixion scene I like is by indigenous Australian artist Greg Weatherby. It is so full of Aboriginal imagery and symbolism while also unmistakably depicting the death of Christ.

And while we’re looking at crucifixion scenes, here is one from the Spanish missionary-artist Maximino Cerezo Barredo titled Crucificados:

Barredo spent many years as a missionary in Latin America and his work has a passing resemblance to that of Mexican painter Diego Rivera.

The picture below is titled Jesus Washes His Disciples Feet by an unknown Ethiopian artist and has become the basis of countless copies, some on parchment, others as tapestries. Jesus and his disciples are wearing the traditional priestly garb of Ethiopia.

And Chinese watercolorist, Lu Hongnian has created a stunning depiction of the same scene:

Personally, I really love Lu’s pictures (Google them) and this one especially.

There are also a series of portraits of Jesus as distinctly of a particular non-Western culture. Here is is portrayed as a Lakota elder in Lakota Victory Christ by John Giuliani:

Here is Jesus as a Maasai man in an icon titled Lion of Judah by American artist, Robert Lentz:

This Sacred Heart image is from Jamaica:

And finally, here is an intriguing painting by New Zealand artist Annett Hanrahan. She has painted Jesus as a Polynesian man, seated in a typical Polynesian prayer posture. He is a powerful and strong channel for the rivers of living water flowing from his sacred heart. Hanrahan titled her work, Cosmic Christ:

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the growing pantheon of art that depicts Jesus as a person of color. As I mentioned earlier, there’s no question that white Jesus dominates our imaginations, but the more we encourage artists to produce work that broadens our thinking about Jesus the better.

I’ll leave you with this protest sign from a BLM protest from the US in 2020.

Take all the time you need with this.

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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 V: Does it Matter What Color Jesus is?

  1. I love the etched window at Rotorua, NZ, of Māori Jesus walking on water

    https://beautyshared.org/sacred-places-christ-walking-on-water-stained-glass-rotorua-new-zealand/

    1. Oh wow! I hadn’t seen that before. It’s stunning.

  2. I am curious about the movement of the Jews as described in Bible and today’s existing Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews. Ethiopian Jews look very than Ashkenazic.

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