Wednesday, November 19, 2008

recreate jesus in their own image

How did the common American conception of Jesus Christ get so white?

from "Black Jesus," Episode 2 of the first season (1974) of Good Times
YouTube has the entire episode, starting here

In the New York Times, Charles Grimes writes about the artist who produced America's most familiar image of a whitened Jesus:

With the race for best-known artist of the century nearly over, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol are running neck and neck, with Andrew Wyeth a respectable third. But when the official tally is made, all three are likely to be buried in a landslide vote for Warner E. Sallman.

Warner Sallman?

Sallman, who died in 1968, was a religious painter and illustrator whose most popular picture, "Head of Christ," achieved a mass popularity that makes Warhol's soup can seem positively obscure.

"Head of Christ," created in 1940, was reproduced more than 500 million times, appearing on church bulletins, calendars, posters, bookmarks, prayer cards, tracts, buttons, stickers and stationery. Tens of thousands of wallet-size copies were distributed to servicemen during World War II. In the mid-1950's, Sallman's soulful, back-lighted Jesus with flowing, shoulder-length hair gazed out from the Inspira-Clock and the Inspira-Lamp, tie-in products intended for the pious Protestant home.

"Head of Christ" (1940)
Warner Sallman

At CrossLeft, where some bloggers are "balancing the Christian voice [and] organizing the Christian left," Landon writes:

Here's how the cycle goes: From our younger days when our critical thought process is non-existent or not fully formed, we are inundated with images featuring a Jesus that does not look like he actually would have. "This is the Son of God" we are told, "This is God incarnate." So, we guess, God must be white.

It never occurs to us that God is not white when we are growing up, and the dominant image that we get of Jesus is a white guy with flowy hair. As such, if God gets equated with white then "good" also get equated with white. (you see where I'm going?) If white is good, then that means (in the little ego- and ethno-centric mind) that "not white" is "not good."

Regarding what Jesus actually looked like, Mike Fillon writes,

In the absence of evidence, our images of Jesus have been left to the imagination of artists. The influences of the artists' cultures and traditions can be profound, observes Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi, associate professor of world Christianity at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta. "While Western imagery is dominant, in other parts of the world he is often shown as black, Arab or Hispanic."

And so the fundamental question remains: What did Jesus look like?

An answer has emerged from an exciting new field of science: forensic anthropology. Using methods similar to those police have developed to solve crimes, British scientists, assisted by Israeli archeologists, have re-created what they believe is the most accurate image of the most famous face in human history.


  1. say this in most American churches and listen to the pin drop

  2. Recently, a friend discovered online video of some of the religious cartoons we were both shown in the '70s.

    Not only are all the Israelites and Apostles in them whitey-white, cleanshaven, with long flowing hair, all the various bad guys are medium-complected and bearded, short, and fact, their faces looked a lot like that reconstructed Jesus head.

  3. I have this in my house. My white (religious, but non-churchgoing) father bought it, but understands that this is not what Jesus looked like. He still can't explain why he needs to have it up though. It feels too much like idol worshipping to me, but I'm not really bothered by it.

    There was a painting of a black Jesus in my grandmother's church, and my brother and I used to laugh at it when we were little. And we're both black. Same thing with "black Santa Clause." It was hilarious to us. Kind of makes you wonder...

  4. So as forensic anthropology (which is AWESOME, by the way) would have it, Jesus looked perpetually perplexed? Come to think of it, I would too if I were living in that time period. It's hard enough not to look perpetually perplexed in THIS time period.

  5. The answer to that question: Italian painters.

  6. This better?

  7. Jackie - Santa was Black at my house. Ask my dad.

    I have 13 of these pictures at my house (my grandnother left them with the house). It really doesn't matter how he looked, but what he represents.

  8. And of course then, Mary is a WOC. White people don't like that idea either, because what Mary symbolizes *must* be associated with whiteness, right?


  9. Wow, I remember going to church as a child and we had the church fans with white Jesus, it amazes me that even in black churches that Jesus was white. My grandmother had the white jesus on her wall too, next to MLK, and JFK.

  10. I was in my early 20's when I first heard that Jesus was probably not white. Oddly enough this was information told to me by a Muslim. I remember my confusion. Now when I think of where he lived it makes perfect sense and yet that damn painting pops into my head every time I think of what Jesus may or may not have looked like. Part of decolonizing your mind is looking at the ways whiteness has effected to the way we look at things and why.
    I wonder how many people in all white churches would have a problem with praying a black Jesus? Would they still hold as tenaciously to their beliefs. I will be thinking about this post for some time.

  11. I thought every christian knew that Jesus was middle eastern. Don't we know that He was born in Bethlehem? I mean,neither black nor white looking, more arab. And I don't think it is uncommon for them to have green eyes either,I know I've seen green eye-d arab men and women. Why do people seem to have an issue with it? I think it is up to us to realize that paintings are more the artists tilt. Nothing wrong with this, I have seen beautiful completely "black" manger scenes and I have seen them white, actually I have one from PERU whose pieces are all native american looking. I agree though that that composite looks a bit silly with the "surprised" look lol

  12. AngryBlackWhiteGirl - actually, as a guy with ordinary ethnicity to come from the city of Myra in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), St Nicholas would've have sorta light brown skin.

    A few years ago, some forensic scientists actually used St Nicholas's skull to come up with a reconstruction of what his face actually looked like. Here's a link to the picture:

  13. i does not matter WHAT he looks like only what he did!! that is the whole point! he did not die so we could fight over what he looked like!

  14. I absolutely agree with the previous comment; as a sunday school teacher I encourage the kids to draw him however they like-I think it's fine to imagine him looking like oneself.

    However, it bothers me that ALL of the kids books and Bibles depict him as white, often with flowing hair. The last straw was a children's Bible that gave him BLONDE hair! I decided I had to explain that this was not what he looked like when he walked the earth.

    Last week, at a Bible camp, there was a well loved Israeli man who looks remarkably like that image; my little nephew was excited to meet someone from Israel "where Jesus lived." I really hope that he remembers Gideon's kind (dark!) face for a long time!

  15. St. Mark was African and almost every picture of him is white with long blonde hair.

  16. Oh and skinny black St. Nicolas somehow turned into skinny white st. Nicolas who later became fat white santa clause.

  17. I'm pretty sure St. Nick was black too


Please see the "commenting guidelines" before submitting a comment.

hit counter code