Nearly everyday I get junk mail from some church wanting me to attend a service, join a bible study or give money to them. The advertisements are usually pretty slick too; glossy paper, color images and bright, bold text proclaim eternal salvation through the glories of modern printing. One thing most of these fliers have in common is the face of Jesus staring back at me. He is usually represented benevolently with open arms and a ray of light behind him – very welcoming and non-threatening. Somehow I doubt this is the image Jesus would approve of if he had an agent since he was prone to more assertive measures to get his message across.
A few weeks ago I received an oversize, 4 page flier requesting my presence for a seminar titled “Israel and the Countdown to Armageddon”. The presenter, a smarmy looking young man named H.S. Rester was giving a free conference about Bible Prophecy and if I acted quickly I could receive a free DVD about other “Unfolding Revelations“. Basically this was to be another end times sermon designed to pick and choose fuzzy bits of the Bible to scare suburban soccer moms into religious submission. All in all, the advertising was exciting with F-18 fighter jets flying over Israel, troops carrying guns, a very D&D dragon, a lion with wings and a 666. On the back cover was something I did not expect, this:
What? Who is this guy? Is that Jesus? Sure enough the Christian savior actually looks like he’s from the Middle East. Shocking! Needless to say I was surprised since most images of Jesus are far more, how should I put this, ethnically biased.
I live in the very suburban Front Range community of Fort Collins, Colorado and most everything I see is white-watered down to keep me feeling safe. Though we have a large Hispanic community, there is very little in the way of any real ethnic diversity so seeing a Middle-Eastern Jesus on my glossy, end of the world flier really sticks out.
Since 9/11 I would have imagined that portraying Jesus as being from the Middle East (which the Bible clearly says he is from) would be a bad PR move. Anything even remotely resembling the Middle East is considered scary these days in America. Terrorists are supposed to be from that part of the world, but not the Christian savior, right? But actually I was kind of glad that the people promoting the end of the world seminars were actually getting at least one bit of information right. For all their nonsense about the marks of beasts, four horseman and outrageous Biblical interpretation they at least moved a step closer to realizing their prophet was a Jew from Israel. Sure, the above image still leaves something to be desired in terms of accuracy but maybe the days of the Anglo-Saxon, Romanesque hippie are drawing to an end.
The white Jesus has always bothered me because I think Christians need to face facts and stop watering down their faith with friendly, nice guy pictures of Jesus holding lambs and smiling with his 12 buddies as happy children run behind him tossing palm leaves. How is anyone going to take a guy who looks like he travels with Phish supposed to be the same guy that’s going to judge all souls come time for the apocalypse? I thought religion was supposed to be serious business and not a feel good romp through the meadow.
In my opinion white Christians like to avoid the nasty side of their religion. They like to make it easy on themselves to continue believing. They want to feel righteous and to do so they strip away all the stuff that clearly states they are poor sinners who could quite easily go to hell for all eternity. White Christians want to feel good all the time without any of the guilt.
Here is a very early image of Jesus. This fresco was painted in Daphni, Greece around 1100 and it can be found in the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin. The title is “Christ Pantocrator” which in Greek means Christ the Almighty. Some familiar features are visible such as the beard, long hair and thin face. His expression, though, is far more foreign that when we are used to seeing. Here is a man to be reckoned with, his large eyes look away from the viewer as if he has more important things to worry about than just you. The hand he keeps on the bible is interesting in that it is twisted and seems ready to drop that bible to punch someone if need be. Jesus is not smiling either because he is serious business and he means it. Overall he looks kind of mean and frightening but I bet you would not want to piss him off either. He certainly lives up to the name of this work.
This next image was done by Orcagna around 1354-57 and is titled “The Redeemer”. Here Jesus has been given a bit of a face lift to make him look somewhat more Italian since the artist was working in Florence, Italy. We still have the long hair and beard but now he is staring right at us and with his glowing crown he seems to be passing judgment on the viewer. He is still not smiling and his insensitive eyes make the viewer fear him somewhat like the above image but he at least looks like he could be related to any good Catholic Italian and thus he seems like an accessible savior who can be reasoned with. The title “The Redeemer” suggests as much anyway.
These two images (left & right) were both painted in the late 1400’s. The painting on the left is by Schongauer and is titled “Noli Me Tangere” (Christ With Mary Magdalen). The image on the right is by Geertgen Tot Sint Jans and is titled “Christ As The Man Of Sorrows”. Here both artists are appealing to our empathy. Gone are the angry, judgmental figures from 400 years earlier. The Jesus we are now seeing is frail and almost feminine and seems somewhat weak in the face of evil. Both paintings feature women who are reaching out towards him and instead of Jesus being an imposing, king like figure he is more of a friend who we can feel sorry for. Here is someone willing to die for all of human sin so that we don’t have to. He will take the pain away unselfishly so that you can go about your day without having to worry about all that yourself.
In this detail of “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci (which was painted in the late 1400’s as well) we get more of the same. Recently much has been made about this painting and it’s supposed hidden meaning. True, the symbolism of the number three is used all through the painting (3 windows, triangles, apostles in groups of three all represent the trinity) but these meanings are usually lost on the casual viewer. Sure most people can “feel” this is an important work of art and may marvel at it’s beauty but the image of Jesus is surrounded by cryptic meanings that only scholars can ever really appreciate. Leonardo give us a Jesus that is all math and symbolism, his meaning is shrouded in mystery and code. Jesus moves further away from having any real, down to earth meaning for the common man and becomes just another Christian symbol.
As the ages pass the images of Jesus become less and less what he probably would have hoped to portray himself. Forgotten is any message he may have had because it has been replaced by artists who wanted to make him less threatening in hopes to bring in more converts to the churches commissioning their work. Jesus the friend of man, Jesus the nice guy, the good looking white man who will forgive you no matter what you do is what we have left all in the name of Public Relations.
The above image is what remains of the guy. A portrait and profile of a white guy with a nice Romanesque nose and golden, flowing hair. He may be looking to heaven but I don’t think it’s because he is praying but rather because he is bored. In short, it’s a silly image.
There have been attempts to put the meaning back in the art though. The image on the left paints Jesus as a sort of pissed off black man and that’s not too surprising since it was made in the 1960’s. The right image is from the Caribbean and both images are trying to engage the viewer. They both have an iconic quality similar to the famous icons you see in Russia in that they are both looking right at you, ready to take you on and judge you. Jesus may not have been a black man but the point is you can’t hide from this guy because he will find you.
So why am I so concerned about how Jesus is portrayed in art? Basically it’s because I’m sick of Christians who believe in Jesus as the savior yet have absolutely no idea how to deal with him. I find it hypocritical that Jesus is just watered down faith with no substance. White Christian Americans love to proclaim that Jesus will send you to hell for not believing in him as your personal savior when at the same time they strip away all meaning Jesus has just to make their lives more comfortable. Christians may say they believe in Jesus, but which one? What Jesus are they worshiping every Sunday (when the game isn’t on)?