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.
Return to original language with "show original" button at top left.