The Symbolic Image of Christ

February 1, 2009
By

Much has been said in church magazines and the Bloggernacle about the image of Joseph Smith. Do we know what Joseph Smith really looked like? Are our statues and paintings truly representative of him?

This is not the point of my post here, though. I recently had a conversation with my fiancee about Rastafarianism, mentioning that Rastas believe that Jesus Christ was black. I admitted that, though I personally don’t see much evidence for that, I did concede that Jesus probably looked very different than what most Mormons envision.

A lot of new Mormon art depicts a very clean, good-looking Christ. There is “beauty, that we may desire him.” Here’s an example from a very popular artist among Latter-day Saints, Simon Dewey:

I’ve always preferred the depictions of Christ done by Harry Anderson. They seemed marginally more authentic to me than the newer, “shinier” depictions of a Christ who had, apparently, full access to conditioner, a washing machine, a toothbrush, a nice hairbrush, etc.

However, even Anderson’s paintings have a “familiar” feel to them. Most portrayals of Christ that I see in our meetinghouses follow the same general pattern: Christ is medium-to-tall height, has a generally thinnish build, very Caucasian-looking, has a full head of long hair, a beard. He has a long face, a long, thin nose (what you’d call a “Roman” nose), robes and sandals. He is generally a handsome man.

I’ve always mused to myself on the possibilities of what Christ truly looked like. Could he have been short? Prematurely bald? Could he have been missing teeth? Could he have looked more like George Costanza from Seinfeld?

Furthermore, Christ is generally portrayed as Caucasian in our artwork, but we know he was a Jew. I’ve almost thought numerous times that the only one of Christ’s Twelve Apostles in paintings that looks “Jewish” (according to the stereotype generally pushed in the American media) is Judas Iscariot, who can be seen cruelly and evilly clutching his money bag. Interesting. So was Christ white? Did he look “Jewish”? Did he look like an Arab? How jarring would it be to the average, white, Mormon American to see a (hypothetical) photograph of Christ in mortality that looked like he could be Osama bin Laden’s brother?

We only have passing clues in the scriptures as to what he looked like in mortality, and a couple interesting details about the post-mortal Christ from Joseph Smith. There is, of course, a famous “Mormon Urban Legend” about the accuracy of this piece of artwork:

This depiction of Christ is rather racially ambiguous. He has a slightly darker (ruddy?) complexion and hair that could “go either way.” It’s an interesting depiction to say the least, especially considering the debunked mythology surrounding its supposed accuracy.

However, I’ve found that I can forgive the white bread, homogenous view of Christ in our artwork for a couple reasons.

I’ve gleaned from a few sources on the Internet some diverse pictures of Christ. Images of Christ painted by black artists and displayed in predominantly black churches may be black. Here is an example I actually found quite touching, called Black Jesus Blesses the Children, by Joe Cauchi:

I love how the Black Jesus in this picture looks so determined, and he has a definite look of determination as he blesses the children. It’s as if he’s searching the distance for danger as he embraces them. The protection portrayed in this image is just as real to me, and represents the Christ I know, as tangibly as any “white” picture I’ve seen. I want Christ to protect me like he’s protecting these children.

Images of Christ painted by Asian artists may have Asian skin-tone and characteristics. Here is a Chinese example from the 1800s:

I think many people and artists might tell you that this is more for comfort and familiarity rather than an attempt at being historically accurate. So it would make sense for a white artist living in a white culture (like Utah, or in a broader sense, Mormonism) to depict Christ as a being who would “fit in.”

It is also useful for artists to have a common language for images such as Christ, and it is not useful to have images of Christ that are difficult to identify. If an artist wishes to paint Christ, say, teaching a group of people, how can he communicate without words the identity of the Teacher in his painting? There were many teachers in the scriptures: Paul, Ammon, Elijah, Enoch, etc., so a painting of a man with his mouth open, teaching other people by itself may not clearly identify the Teacher. It’s useful to be able to look at a new painting and say, “Hey, it’s a picture of Christ.”

Therefore, to me, the image of Christ is, of course, a symbol. It is a symbol in the same way that a Cross is a symbol, or the Angel Moroni is a symbol. It is one of the many pictures that we use in our religious language to communicate ideas, and it’s a useful one. However, as the Church grows, we will continue to adapt to new symbols and new images.

So, questions.

The LDS faith is now moving to many new countries across the world, and is being embraced by many ethnicities and cultures, nationalities and skin colors. Will we one day see Latino Christs in our temples? Asian Christs? Black Christs? If we admit that our image of Christ is just a symbol, would we allow a painting of a black Christ in an African temple? What about the Logan Temple?

Do we marginalize minorities in the Church by portraying a white Christ?

Is it “wrong” to portray a Christ that is probably historically inaccurate?

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  • GBSmith

    In Rotorua, New Zealand, there’s an Anglican church with an etched glass portrait of Jesus as maori who appears to be walking on the waters of Lake Rotorua. I think minorities can be marginalized by the way Christ is portrayed especially in the case of indigenous peoples. There’s a transition point between what formed in primary or junior Sunday school as a mental image of what Jesus looked like and when that doesn’t matter anymore. The worth of the image is to get a person to start at point A and then go from there.

  • http://radiobeloved.wordpress.com/ Neal Davis

    Every Christ that we paint is historically inaccurate, since Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew, not an eighteenth-century Anglo-Saxon who happens to be dressed in robes. This is one reason I prefer Rembrandt’s renditions of Jesus to anything LDS (I do like Walter Rane’s impressionistic portaiture, though).

  • http://adventures-in-mormonism.com bfwebster

    I tend to be, if not uncomfortable, at least a little bit wary of all representations of Christ, mostly for the reasons cited above. On the other hand, the “Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew” observation, while technically true, ignores the degree to which Jesus resembles His Father. Having seen neither one, I’m not in much of a position to guess how Christ actually looks. I do suspect, however, that Christ Himself has no problem whatsoever with being represented as black, Maori, oriental, or even 20th century European. ..bruce..

  • http://linescratchers.blogspot.com/ Arthur

    Well, I’m home from church sick today, so I think I’ll go ahead and respond. :)

    #1. I think you’re right about that transition point. In my two “ethnic” depictions of Christ (the black and Asian one), you can STILL tell who the painting depicts. Perhaps less so with the Asian one, but still, nobody asks “Which one is Jesus in the Chinese painting?” This transition point that you speak of is much like the transition between our general conception of Christ when we’re young (as someone who loves us and wants to take care of us, who suffered for our sins) and the Christ we love as we get older (that builds upon our first conceptions but becomes greater as we try to apply and understand the Atonement). Christ becomes nuanced, suddenly he means something to us individually and not just as an idea. So should our depictions of Christ be.

    #2. I do like Rembrandt’s depictions, and his approach generally to lighting and subtlety.

  • http://linescratchers.blogspot.com/ Arthur

    #3. I suppose Christ did inherit the physical traits of His Father, but I imagine if they caused him to REALLY stand out in his ethnic group (drastically different skin tone or physical characteristics) I imagine the scriptures might have mentioned it. And, for the sake of discussion… “But suppose God is black? What if we go to Heaven and we, all our lives, have treated the Negro as an inferior, and God is there, and we look up and He is not white? What then is our response?”

  • PaulW

    I don’t think there are any “races” (black, white, etc.) in the eternities. I think it’s a temporary mortal condition. So, I don’t think the resurrected Christ or our Father in Heaven have a race in the way we think of it.

  • http://linescratchers.blogspot.com/ Arthur

    I’d have to, ultimately, agree with you, Paul.

  • wayfarer

    Mmm.So are we rainbow coloured in the eternities?
    It’s lovely to try to imagine the Saviour’s face,his expression,and I look forward to the wider dissemination of other cultural images of the Saviour.Christ as American football player,not so much.Difficult piece of cultural imperialism for the rest of us.

  • KingOfTexas

    You don’t mean he isn’t Irish???
    It might not be too long before we all know what he looks like. We will have a few more important concerns then; it really isn’t important anyway. We will know him when he gets here.

  • NoCoolName_Tom

    Well, while it might be a waste of time to ponder such things, I tend to waste a lot of my time on the Internet and watching TV, so in my opinion time spent pondering this imponderable is wasted time better spent. :-)

    Joseph Brickey once painted a red-robe Christ that, while still very white, had a very prominent Semitic nose and face. It was a cool image that i’ve never been able to find elsewhere. Also in his presentation of St. Joseph he also paints a very Semitic man.

  • http://linescratchers.blogspot.com/ Arthur

    #9. The point of the thread is not really to figure out what Christ really looked like… the point was whether our paintings/images of Christ could be expanded to include many ethnicities and cultures, given that they would be just as inaccurate as the ones we have now.

  • Martin Willey

    I like the ethincially diverse portrayals, not because I think they might look like Jesus really looked, but because they make me think of Him in a different way. Of course, no one knows what he really looked like. Maybe he really DID look like the “Surfer Jesus” in Mormon art.

  • Hawkgrrrl

    “Maybe he really DID look like the “Surfer Jesus” in Mormon art.” Well, he did walk on water. If that’s not hanging ten, what is?

  • http://linescratchers.blogspot.com/ Arthur

    Ah, but he commanded the waves to cease!

  • Hawkgrrrl

    Who needs waves when you can stand up without them?

  • James

    Interest post Arthur and responses

    I thought I heard which could be or probably is folklore that one of the modern day prophets had seen Christ and showed a portrait that was the closest resemblance to him.

  • http://linescratchers.blogspot.com/ Arthur

    What you’re talking about is my #3 picture. Notice my little paragraph about the “debunked mythology” surrounding its origin. I guess I should have delved a bit deeper into that, but that story’s a myth.

  • Friend

    I have thought about this question a great deal. I was recently in LA visiting the Getty Museum. As I perused the sections of religious art from around the world and especially through the middle ages into current day, I was impressed by the fact that in each case Christ took on the characteristics of that people, their complexions, their customs, their clothing, their styles. Certainly artists were painting that which was familiar to them or their patrons. Certainly none of that, or this, is historically accurate.

    But I thought, shouldn’t this be the case. As children of God, is it just that as we look at the image of Christ, WE SEE OURSELVES IN HIM. In our association with an image of him, we see God in ourselves, thus he looks like us. In this sense, an image of Christ, whether BLACK or WHITE or MAORI is appropriate.

    In terms of Christ’s beauty, I think that this same thought. “O how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that is the founder of peace, yea, even the Lord, who has redeemed his people.” As the artists depict Christ’s beauty, I believe they do so symbolically. You’ve picked Simon Dewey’s Holy One of Israel as an example of Christ’s beauty. I love that image for that reason – is there anything more beautiful than salvation through Jesus Christ? Is there anything greater than the strength (as depicted in that painting) of the Lord to save me?

    Please take my thoughts for what they are. I don’t mean to pick apart others opinions (I once shared them). But the more I think about this, the more I love the art (LDS or otherwise) that depicts Him.

  • KIP

    to-shay my friend! very well put. I do believe that a representation of Christ depicted in all areas should very well make those people who are natives to the particular area feel “at home” since such a feeling is what one would have in the very presence of Christ Himself….so long as they were free from guilt by having repented. For how could someone feel free from guilt or feel “at home” when next to the Savior when they had denied the very gift He had given them with a very hefty price. No matter how the artwork of our Savior is depicted, it should be done in a way that all who look upon can admire the simple magesty of the Man who was preordained to save all mankind, so long as they are willing to let Him do so. I believe in Christ and know that He lives. I do not however REMEMBER what He looks like, but i only pray that when the time comes that i am to be in His presence, that i may Know Him for who He is and be able to look at Hiim with a sense of familiarity and gratitude.

  • asdf

    Christ was the Egyptian god Horus history has just jumbled up superstitious myths to the point of insanity

  • mrlee

    Well, each of ya are just agrabbin’ and yammerrin’ and ajawin’, and still you turn around and read what is revealed. Yes, Christ was born of the “Chosen” people, who were/are in the middle east. Mary being descended from the “royal” lineage of David. But, what of his Father??? Who was He descended from? Maybe the Father of Christ looked like a perfect Being. How does that work into some poor little artist’s inspiration? Christ was a Nazarite like the prophet Samuel of old, or Samson, or some others who were dedicated to the temple for a specified time, or for life. How does a man look if He never shaved nor cut His hair? Never shaving leaves a long beard. I tested it myself and did not shave or trim my beard for a year when I was in my 50s. I measured it after a year and it was 10 in. long. How long would a robust young man’s beard be after a lifetime of non-shaving? I suggest that He certainly would look very different than anyone has yet depicted Him. A perfect Father and an acceptable young woman, chosen because of her obedience in all things. The artist, Arnold Frieburg(sp), in an interview prior to 2000, said that he thought Christ would have been a very robust Man, with a build that would make bodybuilders jealous. Who would have been stronger: Christ vs Samson?? Christ worked with His earthly father as a carpenter. Most of the carpenters I know are quite physically strong men. Why not Christ? As a little guy, myself, I would hang onto anything that was spoken about Christ. I remember Him being described as being head and shoulders above the the throngs that surrounded Him. His beard was said to be auburn and forked. His hair, wavy. I think Arnold Frieberg’s painting would be the closest of anything in existence. I think that is enough.

  • http://www.mormonvidz.com MormonKid

    I love all the atwork of Jesus. Many of these I have never seen.

  • http://www.scari.org/Mormons.ReUnite.html Thaddeus Quella

    New Mormon Art –– Old Mormon Art.

    There is the wonderful and grotesque in each mind’s eye.
    Seminal Mormon Art reflects our biases as tribal beings in the “Religion Making Business.”
    The ideal Christ, a subjective notion, will remain enigmatic as is the first upright human without brow ridges. The perfect humanoid will stray from our purview as our received indoctrination’s deliver to each of us an ideal visage of the Perfect Being reflected through our personal experience.
    This topic seems to be an argument desperate to mitigate our prejudices into an amalgam of postmodern palaver. I applaud the attempt to deliver a Christ by consensus, but, as it was, there was only one Christ as there was only one Joseph Smith.
    Joseph Smith was quite white while Christ was dark and swarthy no matter how he may be depicted.
    The critical quotient in art is to understand what is being delivered through use of color and form, through representation of symbols and expression of facture; focus on symbology when dealing with iconography is paramount when delivering “The Message” whether ambiguous or absolute. Iconoclastic Iconography appears to be the sole depiction worthy of criticism.
    http://scari.org/anonymous_magazine.html
    At the bottom of this page is, for me, the most accurate depiction of Christ ever to be seen. That’s my mind’s eye. QED.
    The image, Struggles With God is copyright protected. One might like to do an image search for: Struggles with God. PAX

    Thaddeus Quella

  • http://artemisandollie.blogspot.com/ crazywomancreek

    23 That was f’d up. If you click, super gruesome, super inflammatory and epic fail on the “art” front. And “expression of facture”? Ugh. Gross AND pretentious.

  • Wali618

    Early images of Christ were depicted in the icons know as the Black Madona & Child. I have a copy from an early Coptic Bible, some of the first so-called Christians. In any case Christ and Mary are shown as Black and given that Jesus was born in Bethlehem it sure
    ly would have made him other than white in appearance.