Friday, 3 April 2015

Portraying Jesus in art

The New Testament tells us nothing of what Jesus looked like. Our only lead comes in a vision of an unnamed figure to John of Patmos:
The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire… [Revelation 1:14-16]
People sometimes pick up on the ‘woolly hair’ but not only was this written long after Jesus’s death by someone who never met him, it describes a strange, heavenly incarnation, not his everyday appearance when alive. We don’t know what Jesus looked like. We can make some educated assumptions (see below), but ultimately artists who want to portray him in art are free to use their imaginations.

The earliest images of Jesus, dating from the 2nd century, draw heavily upon Greco-Roman art, and focus upon him as a ‘God-man’. The type we recognise today didn’t emerge until the 4th century – a good example is the Christ Pantocrator (‘ruler of all things’), found in the eastern churches.
Christ Pantocrator from Hagia Sophia.
Photo: Dianelos Georgoudis

In these images, Jesus’s divinity is emphasised with an ethereal look and a halo. He is impassive, his bearing calm and majestic. These images were not really striving for an authentic likeness; they were icons conveying a message about Jesus’s divine power. In the early Middle Ages the focus moved to his crucifixion or the Pietà (the cradling of his corpse by his mother) to emphasise his suffering. Jesus was now more like a fellow human being, who suffered as we do.

Centuries later, the rise of bourgeois humanism in Europe sparked the Renaissance. In portraying the human condition, European art now looked to Greco-Roman models, but re-imagined them in a Christian context. This took the humanisation of Jesus much further: he acquires a three-dimensional body of flesh and blood, is placed in realistic settings, and his emotional expression is explored more widely.
Warner Sallman:
Head of Christ (1941)

From the 19th century, technological advances allowed the mass production of images of Jesus. Most adhere to the familiar type though the artistic standard was often poor, as in the Catholic kitsch of the ‘sacred heart’.

The most successful modern image of Jesus is Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ, which has reportedly sold 500 million copies. Like most images of Christ in the Western art tradition, Sallman’s Jesus is white. In many works he is even blond-haired and blue-eyed. Can this be historically accurate? And does it matter?

The real Jesus

We cannot know what Jesus looked like, but we can make some educated assertions. When Jesus was arrested in Gethsemane, Judas Iscariot had to point him out to the soldiers, because they couldn’t tell him apart from the Galilean fishermen and farmers he had appointed as disciples. This is strong evidence that Jesus resembled what he was: a Semitic peasant of 1st century Palestine.

In 2002 a team led by the medical artist Richard Neave applied forensic archaeology to ancient skulls, and researched images of Jews in 1st century art, to produce a generalisation of how a Jew of Jesus’s time might have looked (right).[1] This is not ‘the face of Jesus’, nor is its accuracy guaranteed, but the image is probably the closest we can come to the real Jesus’s physical type. He would have been olive-skinned with wiry, black hair – Paul’s letters tell us the fashion was to wear it short – and as a Jew he would have been bearded. Up to the age of about 30, he would have experienced years of hard outdoor work, so he was probably fairly muscular and weather-beaten. And he would have been very short by our standards: on average about 5 feet 1 inch tall.

According to anthropologist Alison Galloway: “This is probably a lot closer to the truth than the work of many great masters.”[2]

This image conflicts of course with the Western artistic tradition, in which Jesus is normally tall, white, slender, light-eyed, and pale, with flowing shoulder-length hair – the opposite of how he is likely to have looked. Today we are more self-conscious about his whiteness in this tradition, but it remains the default.


From a spiritual, or simply a human, point of view it should be irrelevant what ‘race’ Jesus was. But majority-white societies were too racist to tolerate a brown-skinned Jewish god, and the whiteness of their deity reinforced ideologically the whiteness of power. It would thus be easy to condemn the white Jesus in Western art as straightforward racism.

But there is a difference between the real Yeshua of Nazareth – a Jew preaching a variation on Judaism to Jews – and the Christ – a fictional character invented by Christian tradition, a divine god-man who inaugurated a brand new religion after he was resurrected from the dead. The Christ of faith is an institution created by human beings, a metaphor only tenuously connected to the Jesus who really lived. He can therefore become anything his creators want, just as a horse in a fable can be made to fly if it suits the storyteller – whether real horses can fly or not isn’t really important.

From the beginning, Christ and Christianity have been interpreted in a multitude of ways. The development of orthodoxies didn’t change that. There is no single Catholic ideology, for example, and certainly no single Protestant ideology. Similarly we can conceive the human side of the Christian god-man to match our own conception of humanity, and re-interpret him in our own self-image. In short, Christ and the religion built around him can be whatever a community wants them to be. In terms of politics, Christ can be a peace-loving, anti-war feminist communist, or an anti-abortion, gay-hating neo-liberal bringing fiery deaths to Muslims, or anything inbetween. This flexibility is one of the reasons for Christianity’s global success.
‘Our Lady and Jesus Writing Characters’,
Chinese watercolour on silk, 1930s/40s.
Image: USF Ricci Institute.

If the Jesus of Europe or America is white, in Africa he is black; in South America he is Hispanic; and in China he is Chinese.

There is a particular ideology of racism and power behind the white Jesus of the imperialist countries, but at the same time, he has been created in much the same way as other societies fashion their heroes and idols in their own image. This helps local populations to identify with him, in the same way that art in feudal Europe depicted Jerusalem as a walled European city.

It also accounts for the wild inconsistency in Christian belief and practice around the world. Faith does not depend upon something concrete or historical that can be proved to have actually happened or to be factually correct in a way acceptable to the scientific mind. This is why the discoveries of historians and scientists in the last couple of centuries have not eradicated Christianity, despite exposing errors in its cosmology and absurdities in its doctrine. It is a kind of story, or metaphor, like art. It is disconnected from what is scientifically true, and can exist independently of it.

If you think your Jesus was white, he was white. If you think he was black, he was black. No wonder religion is so persistent.

Cartoon by Ron Cobb

[1] Reported in Popular Mechanics magazine,
[2] Op. cit.