Origins of the ImageThe image of Jesus is the most pervasive and popular in the history of the world. The face of Jesus has been depicted in many ethnicities and styles over the centuries. In the third century, Jesus was depicted as Roman artists could imagine him at that time. He was based on the image of Apollo or the emperor and typically was portrayed as the good shepherd. Once the capital of the empire was Constantinople, the image factories set a standard for how to depict Jesus. He was depicted as ruler of the universe, the Pantocrator. This image still influences how artists imagine Jesus. The process of painting an icon was also connected to prayer; as the artist worked through aspects of the painting, there were specific prayers to accompany the act of painting. Because an icon was considered a sacred portrait there was no interpretation by the next artistic version and it was simply copied all over the empire for generations. The icon of Jesus is still being copied today as it has been for centuries in the Greek Orthodox church.
The European tradition of creating images of Jesus existed since Christianity was the legal religion of the Roman Empire. Creating an image of Jesus was a prime commission for an artist throughout Europe from the 5th to the 17th century. Those images set out to depict Jesus based on the artist's imagination and the models available to them. Throughout European history, Jesus was Dutch, German, Italian, or French based on the nationality of the artist and patrons. Christian themed art was the main creative outlet of the culture at that time.
Many of the masters of European art; Michelangelo Buonarroti, Leonardo da Vinci, Matthias Gruenwald, Rembrandt Van Rijn among others, have taken on that challenge and have created enduring masterpieces using Christ's image. These images are not only a depiction of Jesus, but they are also deeply felt images of redemption, salvation, forgiveness, compassion and reassurance for the individual and the culture. Gruenwald's Crucifixion is a painting that has inspired viewers to see and feel Christ's sacrifice in an expressive and emotional way that goes beyond mere realism.
None of the earlier images of Christ were meant to be an archeological study but rather the expression of a belief, a tool for teaching people the Gospel, something that would evoke emotion in the heart of a believer, or a witness to an unbeliever. There are things expressed in painting that cannot be expressed in words, and transcend a mere description.
It wasn't until the 19th century that artist William Holman Hunt made a major effort to depict an accurate archeological depiction of Jesus by living in Jerusalem and studying there. By that time, the European culture had moved away from the importance of the Christian image.
Images of Jesus are still being commissioned throughout the world, but they do not have any status in the contemporary art world and little in society at large, as we have reached what some historians believe is the Post-Christian era.
An Artist's Perspective
When an artist gets a commission to paint Jesus imagery there is a supremely high standard to reach and a great challenge to compete with the history of Jesus imagery.
Christian artists are attempting something that is incredibly daring and impossible – to show the specific divine nature as well as the earthly nature of Jesus Christ. The incarnation, the union of divine and human, is beyond human power to comprehend much less illustrate. Sometimes fear of failure and prayer will elevate the artist to complete this task.
There are limitations to what you can do with a strict archeological approach to the Jesus image. There were no visual records of the event at the time. The archeological version would be what we can discern based on facts from the time, including method of death, attendants, costumes and present it all as truth. If we get caught up in minuscule or mundane details and we impose what we believe is the truth, it could distance or distract the viewer from the importance of the meaning. I was once told to minimize the blood on a crucifixion image because the congregation doesn't want to look at that every week! We are limited humans and limited as artists and need to do as well as we can with these limitations. If an artist uses only symbols, it can also be vague and confusing or uninteresting and once again, the meaning can be lost. The Bible has no rules as to how to depict the physical characteristics of Jesus, but the theology of Christ must be clear and true to the Bible. There was no description of him so we can't focus on his physical features but on his words and action as stated in the Gospels.
In my own work, I try to combine the archeological with the symbolic to present what I consider a meaningful and comprehendible image. My current series of paintings uses the gold halo to designate Jesus the Son of God.
One of the most difficult aspects of creating a Jesus image is meeting the public perception or expectation of what Jesus looks like to them. A commissioned work must meet and help define the congregations' needs. The artist does not have complete creative freedom. It is up to the congregation to direct the artist and for the artist to provide that aid to worship and contemplation.
Art about Jesus is an interpretation. A child's drawing of Jesus can be as true in projecting Jesus as man and God as any in the canon of western art.
The Image of Jesus for the Missionary
As Christianity spread throughout the world in the 20th century, local artists created Jesus as one of their own culture. By the middle of the 20th century, the global center of Christianity had begun shifting away from Europe to Africa, Asia and Latin America. "Christianity around the world was becoming less white, and pictures of Jesus hanging in churches from Jordan to Japan to Jamaica were looking more like the people, instead of the standard white portraits from Europe or North America." (Copage, New York Times)
Rev. Tamura Naoumi, an American-educated Japanese pastor in the early 20th century, sought to change the Western-based Sunday school images of Jesus to those reflecting his culture and that of his students. Mr. Tamura employed local artists to illustrate his books."The images of Jesus are Japanese images," Dr. Hastings said. "The images of his disciples are Japanese images. The images of the Old Testament prophets are Japanese images." The believers in the these churches could relate to the Jesus who looked like one of them. (Copage, New York Times) Creating an image of Christ with the appearance of the people was a tool of outreach for these missionaries.
For Jesus to be depicted as part of another race is similar to translating the words of the Bible into their own language. The visual language of their art will enhance their thoughts and prayerful worship. It does not change the truth of the Bible, God's grace and Jesus' sacrifice on the cross for their sins.
A New Iconoclasm and the Disregard of the Image of Jesus
In general terms, our culture has lost the ability to read and understand Christian symbols. As the culture becomes less Christian, reverence for the image is lost. Christian iconography can be meaningless and even confusing to a non-Christian. An image of Jesus is no longer the sacred portrait of our Savior; it has become disposable kitsch. Contemporary artists have even used Christian images in perverse ways to provoke the public and to enhance their radical aesthetic.
The violence and anarchy that has resulted from social protests has carried over into the Christian church and a new iconoclasm. In June, activist Shaun King called on his Twitter followers to destroy all statues and images that depict a "white Jesus and his white European friends. They are a form of white supremacy. Always have been." He noted that some historians believe Jesus likely had the appearance of people who typically lived in the Middle East during his time, rather than a white man who is often depicted in Christian iconography. (Slisco, Newsweek) He is also urging his personal radical solution. In June a statue of Christ was beheaded in Florida. Other churches across the country were vandalized and images destroyed. A statue of Jesus was smashed in the sanctuary of St. Patrick Cathedral in El Paso Texas in September. The man who did it said the "skin color of the statue was the wrong color, it should have been darker." (KTSM news in El Paso)
To call for the destruction of Jesus images is Iconoclasm. It unleashes a violent form of anarchy that is criminal and godless. It also violates the rights of others for religious freedom. We must defend the rich heritage of Christian images of Jesus in art against this senseless destruction.
Christian iconoclasm has taken many forms in the history of the world. With Jesus imagery, two times particularly stand out. The first was the iconoclasm of the Isaurian emperor Leo III from 730-787 in Constantinople and again from 814-842. Innumerable images of Jesus were destroyed as the emperor declared them blasphemous and idolatrous. Only a small sample of early Christian art survives because of this decree.
Another devastation came during the Reformation when Andreas Karlstadt encouraged removal of images and destruction of things deemed Catholic and idolatrous throughout Germany. Martin Luther strongly opposed this wanton destruction and saw a use for images to aid in spreading the Gospel. The results of this violence against images is still visible in places like Worms, Germany today.
Secular iconoclasm has also destroyed Christian images many times in history, most notably during the French (1790s) and Russian Revolutions (1917-23) and the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-76). Attacks on Christians and Christian sanctuaries and artwork continue today in the Middle East.
As a tool for evangelism, the Jesus image is invaluable and must continue to be produced, projected and celebrated as the most important image of all time. When Christ tells us to make disciples of all nations even unto the ends of the earth, the Bible is the key but the visual aid is the image of Jesus.
I believe that church bodies should continue to commission artists to add to the visual dialogue. It is irresponsible for activists to call for destruction of images and equally corrupt for governments to suppress Christianity. We must continue to produce visual proof of our beliefs and of our Savior.
The image of Jesus is a symbol of God's love for us, His only begotten Son. He was true man and true God. The function of the religious artist of every age is to state the eternal truth of Christianity in ways that effectively communicate to the time in which it was created.
Let us inspire a new generation of images of Jesus for the 21st century where the believer can see themselves in His face.
Copage, Eric, "Searching for a Jesus who looks more like me," The New York Times, April 10, 2020.
Catch, E.M., The Image of Christ in Art, The Furrow, Vol. 8, No. 6 (Jun., 1957), pp. 373-387.
Richardson, Valerie, "'No place for God': Left-wing protesters turn focus to churches as vandalism, arson escalate," The Washington Times, July 15, 2020.
KTSM Staff, "St. Patrick's Cathedral vandalism" September 17, 2020, https://www.ktsm.com/local/el-paso-news/st-patricks-cathedral-vandalism-suspect-says-statue-was-wrong-color/.
Lawrence, Lianne, "Virgin Mary decapitated," www.lifesitenews.com/news/statue-of-virgin-mary-decapitated-in-toronto-police-seek-suspect-caught-on-camera.
Reddaway, Chloe, Audacity of Christian Art, National Gallery London Lecture, October 5th, 2017, Curator in Art and Religion.
Slisco, Aila, "White Jesus Statues should be torn down," Newsweek, June 22, 2020.
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First, your statement “. . . our culture has lost the ability to read and understand Christian symbols” – Chrismons decorating Christmas trees, various symbols in cemeteries, on carvings, banners, paraments, stoles, embedded in church windows, are everywhere. A congregation in New Ulm published a booklet describing all the numerous Christian symbol meanings that Ted Hartwig designed in the windows. All the above are examples of opportunities to educate church members.
Second - Iconoclasm in churches during the Reformation and years following affected a church Tom and I visited in 2000 in Feudingen, Germany. Tom’s direct ancestor was Father Johannas Wunderlich who brought this Catholic church into Protestantism in the late 1500’s and all the paintings of saints on the church walls were painted over. Yes, Pastor Wunderlich did marry and became Tom’s many times-great grandfather. When we were there, the caretaker of the now Protestant church explained that work was starting now to uncover those paintings.
There are many contemporary artists who consider Christian imagery as fair game for their imagination and treat it as a genre with no regard for the offense they will generate. In some cases they welcome the controversy. Post modernism expression does not regard reverence for Christians, their images, or the general audience and use it to outrage the public.
These decisions are made with an eye towards the expected audience, perhaps tradition, and communication (often referred to as “expression”). Pictorial communication may utilize unusual media, but the ideas communicated are no different than those expressed by the author, playwright, composer, novelist, philosopher, etc.
Artists are also no different in that they are prone to the same weaknesses, hypocrisy and hubris as anyone else. So in answer to Tom’s question: “An an artist... what are the lines I should not cross?” The plain answer might be: the same lines that no other Christian should cross.”
Historically speaking, one of the primary functions of Western art has been the attempt to reveal truth. There are only two places to look for the kind of Truth that can define existence: outside and inside. For the Christian artist, the struggle is the same as for any other Christian: Will I subjugate my own hubris to live under the rule of Scripture, or will presume to create my own preferred truth? The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. It follows that truth claims from other sources (particularly those made by the sinful human heart) are inferior.
Because it contradicts Scripture and because Scripture is the only source of Christianity, a depiction of a lesbian Jesus would be untruthful. Even if it were artistically significant in other ways, it would also necessarily be unchristian. Contemporary artists produce work every day that Christians would consider untruthful and even offensive, but there are concerns and responsibilities unique to those artists who also claim to be Christian.
In the end, God offers forgiveness to the hypocrite as well as to the prideful who would presume to update Scripture more to their liking.
My own experiences in and understanding of a similar vocation lead me to think differently about "defending" and to want to create a little more room for "the function of (Christian) artists." The writer is probably more optimistic about a Christian's earthly influence and liberty than I am. What the article calls out is: the challenge of being a serious, Christian artist seems especially difficult in our time.
(Place: Austria. Time: WWII is beginning. Church interior. An artist, bearded and perhaps in his late 50’s is on a scaffold decorating the sanctuary walls. He speaks slowly, as camera cuts back and forth from him working to various works of art, a gilded altar, paintings on the walls and ceiling.) “Give me a piece of coal. Just one. Thank you.” (He taps the coal dust onto paper fastened to the wall – his “cartoon”) “I paint the tombs of the prophets. I hope people look up from those pews and dream. They look up and they imagine that if they lived back in Christ’s time they wouldn’t have done what the others did. They would have murdered those whom they now adore. I paint all this suffering but I don’t suffer myself. I make a living of it. What we do is we just create sympathy. We create –“ (he blows on his work) – “we create admirers. We don’t create followers.” (bells toll in the distance) “Christ’s life is a demand. You don’t want to be reminded of it. So we don’t have to see what happens to the truth. A darker time is coming when men will be more clever. They won’t fight the truth. They’ll just ignore it. I paint their comfortable Christ with a halo over his head. How can I show what I haven’t lived? Some day I might have the courage to venture. Not yet. Some day I’ll – I’ll paint the true Christ.” (Scene changes from church interior to a green meadow, with storm clouds appearing.)
What does this mean?
A few years ago an African-American pastor spoke to our student body here at Martin Luther College. While this individual did not in any way encourage or endorse the type of violent activism that Shaun King practices, he did provocatively challenge our students to contemplate whether the white, European image of Christ that dominates so many chapels and textbooks is authentic to Jesus's historical identity as a first-century Jew from Galilee. He also asked students to empathize with the disconnect that such images can create for members of other people groups that visit our churches. When a church body or individual congregation is wrestling with their role in counteracting systemic racism, decisions about how best to represent the Savior take on a fresh and complex urgency. Your article provided an exceptional overview of this critical topic's history, importance, and ongoing controversies. Thank you!
I respect your point that images of Christ are not intended as an archeological study, but it also seems that your other stated representational goals of "a tool for teaching the Gospel" and "a witness to an unbeliever" require careful consideration about how to responsibly represent the divine and earthly nature of Christ visually. Recognizing your other point that "It is up to the congregation to direct the artist and for the artist to provide that aid to worship and contemplation.," I wanted to ask how your collaboration with sponsoring congregations has shifted or may shift in the future as our culture increasingly holds artists accountable for the way people groups are represented. If you were asked for advice from a sponsoring congregation today regarding their worship space ought to represent Jesus visually, would you lean more toward a representation that reflects their current membership, one that reflects our best historical estimate, or something else entirely? Or, to put the question another way using language from your piece, how has your personal perspective on how best to visually translate Christ shifted over time? I don't intend to suggest there's a correct answer to these questions, but I'm curious about how your informed approach to these issues has developed over the course of your ministry.
Thanks again for this rich exploration of the importance of how we “see” Christ and share the image of his love with others.
To answer your question"how has my collaboration shifted?" I have always been concerned about producing a Jesus that was effective as a representation and symbol. I would welcome more input, but usually my preliminary sketches have been accepted.
What a thought-provoking article! You made me really think about the use of race today, by focusing on several forms of Jesus statues. It’s so true that Jesus was most likely Middle Eastern because Mary was. By using so many examples, such as describing when the first artistic forms of Jesus were shown, and the destruction of white sculptures.
I do have a question about the idea of the artist’s perspectives. I definitely agree with your thoughts, that different regions will show Jesus in different ethnicities. However, how is this seen as racist? Is it because of the emphasis on White versions of Jesus? Or is it because of the lack of other races?
Thank you for doing an article on something that I was questioning. I really learned a lot about this topic, and I’m glad to have learned so much about these different forms of art!
I found your defense of the image of Christ to be informational and guiding for modern Christian Artists in a Post Christian Era. First by providing the history of Christ’s depiction in the earlier history of the church, you explained that Christ has been represented in many different styles and races. It was well described in a straightforward and logical manner. As someone who enjoys drawing from time to time, I greatly appreciated your perspective on the subject. This became crucial background information later when you dove into the tense subject of present day iconoclasm. By explaining that the true challenge to artists was to miraculously display Christ as God and man in one image, you gentlemen underlined the fact that Christ’s physical appearance is not as important as the message the artwork is attempting to communicate. This idea coincides with the fact that with whatever we as Christians do, we aim to glorify the Lord through our actions (1 Corinthians 10:31) including creating art.
I do have a few questions for you. When it comes to the freedom of an artist depicting the image of Christ, in the comments above it is spoken about how Christ’s image can very much be displayed in inappropriate ways. Because “Art about Jesus is an interpretation”, shouldn’t we let scripture interpret how we depict Christ alone? So, when artists approach the task of creating the image of the Son of God, wouldn’t it make the most sense to derive their personal interpretation purely from scripture itself? Although the physical appearance of Christ is not described much beyond Jesus as a man with ordinary characteristics, we can still depict Christ from the attributes given to him by scripture.
Thank you for tackling such a challenging topic as Christ’s image in an informed and powerful way.
Many of the Jesus images that are available at the Christian book stores don't really meet most of our expectations as to how Jesus should look but that is what the market has produced.
My hope is that the younger generation of this digital age, will crave images of Jesus that remind them of the hope they have in our Savior Jesus Christ for their salvation. That images of Jesus could help them focus through all of the visual noise with which they are all bombarded. Also that they would appreciate how Jesus was depicted through the ages from the ancient mosaics in Rome to the contemporary films.