I recently read some comments appended to an online article on Christian art. The anonymous critic ridiculed the portrayal of a “white Jesus” as a racist holdover from the era of “white oppression and white cultural imperialism.” Ouch. What color should Jesus be in your church art?
Look around your congregation’s building. Do you see the face of Jesus anywhere? If you come from a strongly Calvinistic tradition, your church might not have much imagery or perhaps none at all. Descendants of this “radical reformation” tend to interpret the Second Commandment very seriously and very literally (in the KJV: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath”). The Catholic Church over the centuries adopted the diametrically opposite philosophy. Their places of worship are adorned, sometimes packed, with images and figures from the Bible and from the history and traditional stories of the church. The early Protestants, Lutherans and Anglicans, embraced the use of painting, sculpture, and stained glass to tell the Bible’s stories through pictures. And of course the Orthodox Christians make their beloved icons one of the central features of their worship and prayer life.
Perhaps the most famous of all the Jesus images was that done by Swedish-American artist Warner Sallman of Chicago. In 1924 he did a charcoal sketch for the denominational magazine of the Swedish Covenant Church. It proved so successful that he did a formal oil painting in 1940; it shows Jesus as a remarkably dark-skinned man with an intense look on his face. The portrait was enthusiastically adopted by one denomination after another—Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), Baptists, and the Salvation Army among them.
The artistic conventions of Western culture drew heavily on the Christian art of Europe, whose artists portrayed a Jesus that looked like the Caucasian models posing for them. But in our times today there is a great freedom and abundance of ways to illustrate biblical scenes and the people in their stories, including Jesus. African, Asian, and South American Christian artists portray our Lord in ways that look as though he stepped out of their cultures.
Our congregation’s gorgeous stained glass windows were crafted in 1913 and were modeled after the immensely popular drawings and paintings of German artist Heinrich Hofmann. Jesus’ face is pretty pale, just like those of the Germans who commissioned the works. But over the years as we became more racially diverse, we decided to add some darker-skinned Jesuses. But not in any attempt to be more historically accurate. Nobody has any certainty about the complexion of Jesus’ earthly body. But it is imperative that people be able to imagine themselves in the Bible stories and to embrace Jesus as one of them. Surrounding our altar’s polychromed wood carving of the ascending Christ are four angels. Two are light-skinned and two are dark-skinned.
An Episcopalian woman named Wihla Hutson wrote a sweet little Christmas carol for children in 1951 that celebrated the ways in which children of different racial and ethnic backgrounds might imagine how Jesus looked on Christmas Eve. Check out the lyrics here.
Pastor Mark Jeske has been bringing the Word of God to viewers of Time of Grace since the program began airing in late 2001. A Milwaukee native, Pastor Jeske has served as the senior pastor at St. Marcus, a multicultural congregation on Milwaukee’s near north side since 1980. In addition, he is the author of six books and dozens of devotional booklets on various topics.
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