A duct tape Jesus? A female Jesus? A black Jesus? An electronic winking Jesus? Those are some images you’ll discover if you search the internet for visual depictions of Christ. Jesus has been portrayed in thousands of different ways over the last two millennia, by some of the most famous artists and sculptors the world has ever known. He has been pictured as tall and thin, short and stocky, pale and sad, ruddy and laughing, old and young.
There are no written descriptions of his physical attributes yet many people think of him with long hair, a beard and a kindly smile. American moviemakers have cast blond blue-eyed athletic types in the role of Jesus. Byzantine artworks usually show him as a rather stern-looking figure. Asian art frequently depicts Jesus as Oriental with smooth black hair.
I taught grade one in a private religious school on the Hopi Indian reservation in Arizona. After I told my students the Christmas nativity story, they drew pictures of a baby Jesus whose hair, skin and eyes were every bit as dark as their own. I realized how appropriate it was for the children to have depicted Jesus with a face that looked familiar to them and allowed the infant Christ to fit right in with their people.
The heroine of Harriette Arnow’s novel The Dollmaker also assumes the familiarity of Jesus’ face. Gertie Neven’s is a talented Kentucky carver who has saved a special piece of wood for many years. She plans to use it to create a visual likeness of Christ. Gertie is asked whether she will have a difficult time finding a model for her work. She replies, “ I know plenty of folks who’ll do just fine.”
Anno Domini: Jesus Through the Centuries can be viewed on the Canadian Virtual Museum site. It is an exhibit that contains hundreds of images of Christ. These include a painting of Jesus in silk pantaloons, looking much like a young Louis the XIV, Jesus as a child eating supper with a working class family in the 1950’s, and Jesus waiting for food in a bread line.
The exhibit made headlines because one of its works titled, “Blessed are the merciful” included a video clip of Robert Latimer, a father who was imprisoned for murder after he successfully carried out an act of euthanasia on his severely physically handicapped daughter. Some people felt his presence in an exhibit depicting Christ’s likeness was very inappropriate and asked for it to be removed.
Images of Jesus have often been controversial. Ronald Harrison, a South African artist was arrested in 1962 for painting Jesus as the leader of the African National Congress, Albert Luthuli. His picture was smuggled to London by anti-apartheid activists. In 1997 the painting was returned to its rightful home and is now kept in the South African National Gallery.
Crucified Woman is a bronze sculpture of a female on a cross that was created by artist Almuth Lutkenhaus-Lackey. It has a permanent home in a birch grove at Emmanuel College in Toronto, Ontario Canada. The artist wanted to symbolize the suffering of women and their desire to feel at one with Christ. Many appreciated the work but others deemed it disgraceful, and a complete misrepresentation of the message of Jesus.
Some images of Christ lack integrity. I’ve seen a Jesus created from fruits and vegetables, another made of spaghetti, and a bobble head doll of Christ. They appear designed to mock or poke fun rather than express true artistic vision.
These kinds of representations are the exception rather than the rule however. Most artists who create images of Jesus truly seem motivated by a desire to strengthen their audience’s closeness with Christ and send a thoughtful message about his identity. We may not always understand or agree with someone’s ideas about how Jesus should be depicted visually.
It is important however for us to acknowledge and respect the work of those who sincerely want to communicate through their images of Jesus what they believe his life and teachings can mean to the world.