Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Contested Color of Christ

The Contested Color of Christ - a fascinating article on the way that Jesus has been figured as white in the US for a couple of centuries. Apparently the LDS church (the Mormons) have depicted him as even whiter than other popular portrayals - light colored hair and blue eyes. I went to the wedding of two women this weekend at the local American Baptist church, and I was struck by the stained-glass window in the front of the church depicting Jesus in a long white robe, with long blond hair (I didn't notice what color his eyes were), and white skin, arms wide to welcome people.

The article discusses how some African-American churches began to picture Jesus as black. The African-American Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama is the church where four little girls were killed in 1963 by a bomb set by white racist terrorists. In this church Jesus was depicted as white.
In a world filled with images of Jesus, this one made headlines. He stood in a stained-glass window wearing a simple white robe and a dark tunic. When sunlight struck the glass just so, kindness radiated from his white face and warmth from his brown eyes.
The bomb destroyed the stained glass image, and was replaced by a black Jesus: "This one seems sad, his arms stretched out, crucified. His hair is short, cropped; his face black."

The article also discusses a popular LDS image of Jesus - the Christus statue, made by a Dutch artist and often reproduced for LDS visitor centers. Here's a photo of the one at the Visitor Center in Temple Square in Salt Lake City:

Photo is by Pedro Szekely - http://www.flickr.com/people/pedrosz/, and published here under a Creative Commons license.
(Aside from the overwhelming whiteness of the white marble Jesus, this is an absolutely fabulous background to the statue in the North Visitors' Center in Temple Square).

After reading this article, I started to wonder about images of a Jewish Jesus. The popular American Christian depictions of Jesus have always struck me as being almost totally unrealistic, since Jesus was not a midwestern white American with blond hair, but a Jew from Judea who was probably olive-skinned or darker with curly dark or black hair. By searching on Google Images I found quite a few images.

Here's one, from a blog called "Ideas of a Black WASP." This image comes from a 2001 BBC program called "Son of God."

Tablet Magazine published an article a couple of years ago about Jewish depictions of Jesus. Here are two cited in that article.

Marc Chagall's famous "White Crucifixion": Jesus is clearly white-skinned, but he has a brown beard, and his loincloth is a tallit. It was painted in 1938 and is currently in the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Israeli artist Adi Nes depicts Jesus: