Portraying Jesus in Visual Art

Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Pexels.com

Many years ago, when I was studying graduate linguistics/anthropology/missiology, I was approached by a friend who had grown up with Greek Orthodox roots. She was doing an anthropological research project, and she wanted me to take a look at a few pictures of icons and give her my initial reaction. (Me, the research subject, an evangelical who was unfamiliar with Greek Orthodox iconography.)

I took a look, and I was repelled. The first one, of Christ on a background of gold leaf, was so stylized that it hardly looked human to me. The eyes were huge and round, the nose very elongated and very narrow. The second, a Nativity scene, wasn’t any better. The figures seemed stiff, and all the faces were like the one on the first icon, except that the infant and Mary didn’t have beards. Their skin was a shade of yellow that looked jaundiced to me.

Since I knew this was a research project, I was very honest with my friend about how negative my reaction was to these icons. This was a mistake; I could see that her feelings were hurt. She explained to me that the faces had been “idealized as an aid to meditation.” Which just goes to show you.

About Image Making

A strong argument could be made that any visual portrayal of Jesus constitutes a violation of the Second Commandment, which forbids making images in order to worship them. This includes making images of humans or animals which purport to portray the one true God. Hence, when the Israelites made the golden calf and worshipped it, identifying it as the God that had brought them out of Egypt (!), they got dinged for disobeying the second commandment. “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4).

When God gave the Israelites the temple system, there was a lot of rich visual imagery, but none of it was of the kind that could be confused with an object of worship. It was all decorative. The priests had rich, purple and white clothing, and the decorations on pillars and curtains extended only to pomegranates, palm trees, and flowers, and the occasional cherub (a heavenly creature that was a throne guardian). There were no images of animals or people that might be mistaken for portrayals of God Himself. (Exodus chapters 25 – 30 and I Kings chapter 6)

In the innermost room in the temple, where a normal Ancient Near Eastern temple would have a large statue of the god, there was … nothing. Just the ark, with no statue behind it. God would not allow Himself to be portrayed “in the likeness of a man,” though a few of the prophets did see something like this in their visions. (Genesis chapter 18, Daniel 7:13 – 14, and many others)

Jesus, according to the New Testament, is God incarnate, a man. This means that, when we read the stories of the things He did, every reader is going to get some kind of mental image. But in the providence of God, Jesus did not come to earth at a time when photography had become ubiquitous, and He was not important enough socially to have realistic statues in the Greco-Roman style (or any statues at all) made of Him. We are not given a physical description of what He looked like, except that we are assured He was ordinary-looking. For example, Isaiah 53:2 says, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,/nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” In John chapter 18, when the Roman guards and the priests’ thugs come to arrest Jesus, they have no idea which of the twelve men in the dark Garden is their perp. Jesus has to tell them, “I’m the one you’re looking for.” This tells us that he looked like any other first-century Jew, including in the way he dressed.

The emphasis, in the Gospels, is always on His words and actions … and these tend to be so compelling that His personal appearance, to put it mildly, is secondary.

So, is it even permissible to portray Jesus when we are illustrating the events of the Gospels? I have seen this admirably handled by the Arch books, a series of Bible stories for children which hires many different artists. In the Arch books (at least when I was growing up), Jesus is most often shown “off camera.” If portrayed, we might see Him from a distance (as being led away to be killed in the background of a picture), from behind, or we might see an arm and a slice of the side of the face. Rarely do we see His face full-on. I think this is a good method. In some of these books (not all), Jesus is recognizable by the iconic white or off-white robe with a shoulder sash, and the shoulder-length hair. I now know that this style of dress and hairstyle were drawn from the personal appearance of the peripatetic philosophers.

About Incarnation

So, given that Jesus wasn’t actually a peripatetic philosopher (at least not in the Greek tradition) and probably did not have the over-the-shoulder sash and the shoulder-length hair, are artistic conventions like this permissible? If someone wants to portray Jesus (even from behind), are they morally bound to make Him look as much like “He probably looked” as possible?

With all the caveats above about it being better not to portray Him at all, I say no. Here’s why.

Jesus’ whole job was to come live with human beings, as a human being. This is what we mean by His being “incarnate.” His incarnation was very complete. He wasn’t just pretending to be a local guy; He actually was a local guy. He was dedicated in the Temple, grew up in the rough town of Nazareth, learned a trade, and spoke Hebrew, Aramaic, probably some Greek, possibly some Latin too.

But the really amazing thing about Jesus’ incarnation is that He can cross any culture. When His words are translated into a new local language, He actually becomes one of those people. He comes to them, as one of them, but as God. When a people receive the Gospel, they receive Him as their Jesus, with His message and his call and His substitutionary death and His enlivening Spirit meant for them.

Usually, they then start making visual art about Him and about the other events in the Bible. And naturally, they often portray it as though these events happened just a few years ago, in their local region. This is completely appropriate. They are applying the incarnation.

Why do all the figures in religious paintings from medieval and Renaissance Europe look like German peasants, or like Italian aristocrats? To ask the question is to answer it. When you are going to paint a portrait or a figure, you go to the people around you for models. For example, Rembrandt would often go into the slums of Amsterdam to find models for his biblical paintings. Not surprisingly, the people in his paintings came out looking Dutch.

This does not happen only in Europe. I was once able to see an artistic representation of one of the events of the Gospels done by an Australian aborigine. There were no human figures in this work of art. All of the action was shown with footprints in the sand. When the characters walked somewhere, there would be a trail of footprints. When they sat down for a meal or teaching, there would be a circle of u-shaped butt prints. I couldn’t understand this drawing without someone explaining it to me, but it made sense to the artist and presumably to his audience. And that’s kind of important in art, isn’t it? You don’t want to portray something that is so alien that your viewers have no idea what they’re looking at, however historically accurate it may be.

Showing Him in Specifics

So, given that we are portraying Jesus at all (which as I said above is a question open for debate), I am completely in favor of White Jesus. There. I said it. I am also in favor of: Javanese Jesus, Sundanese Jesus, Aboriginal Jesus, Ethiopian Jesus, Nigerian Jesus, Navajo Jesus, Latino Jesus, and Greek Orthodox Jesus, provided that these arise naturally in communities that have received Jesus’ word for themselves and become His followers, and now rightly think of Him as their big brother.

I am not in favor of them as theological statements that Jesus looked this way or that, or that His appearance was of any importance (except, of course, near the end of the Bible where He appears looking like white-hot metal with a sword coming out of His mouth).

I am also not in favor of an industry that produces lots of commercialized, sentimental religious art. That is definitely breaking the Second Commandment, whether or not Rembrandt was.

But leaving aside that odious industry, when most Christians make devotional art they are not arguing that Jesus’ personal appearance was of paramount importance. Anyone who thinks they are making such a statement does not understand Christian doctrine very well. All of the emphasis in the Bible is on Jesus’ words and actions. The Apostle’s Creed, and the Nicene Creed, emphasize that He was made human, but that’s it. All of us know that whatever our mental image of Jesus, it is certainly not accurate in its particulars. That doesn’t matter, because it’s not a mental image we are worshipping. It’s the reality.

2 thoughts on “Portraying Jesus in Visual Art

  1. I have to admit, I wonder what your friend was thinking. Did she not think you were going to tell her what you actually thought? And even as “art”, peoples’ tastes differ so widely and are shaped by such disparate circumstances, that to expect others to appreciate something you do, in the same way, is insanity. But it reinforces my opinion that most people don’t actually WANT your opinion when they ask for it. They WANT you to confirm THEIR opinion.
    (and I have to include myself in that) Hence why I have pretty much stopped caring about other’s opinions 😀

    I’ve often wondered why people get so hung up on “what did Jesus look like”. Once He was resurrected His own disciples didn’t recognize Him unless He wanted them too, so why should it matter to us? We’ve never seen Him and won’t until the 2nd Coming.

    I definitely fall into the iconoclast side of the issue but acknowledge that my own lack of interest in the arts (whether painting, music, sculpture, etc) makes it a non-issue for me. I’ll never be tempted to worship a statue or picture of Jesus because they, as objects, simply don’t mean anything to me. But there are enough people who that isn’t the case, so talking about the issue is productive and hopefully helpful in the long term.

    Great post and good food for thought…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I didn’t mean to be hard on my friend. All of us were there getting training in anthropology and in what Christianity looks like around the world, and what I’ve found is that no matter how self-aware and non-ethno-centric you try to be, you will have these instinctive emotional reactions when you cross cultures. Everyone does. She hid it well. She did not ream me out or anything.

      Good comment.

      Liked by 1 person

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