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Images of Jesus

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Images of Jesus have historically been broadly different. This is because no one knows what Jesus actually looked like, and the Bible is both vague and contradictory in this matter: "He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him." (NIV translation)[1] Isaiah 53:2, and "Thou art fairer [i.e., in the sense of more beautiful] than the children of men" Psalm 45:2 (KJV translation).[2] All-too-conveniently filling in this gap, a detailed description of Jesus comes from a medieval document of suspicious origins known as the Letter of Lentulus; the letter was alleged to have been written by an otherwise unknown prefect, Publius Lentulus, in Judea at the time of Jesus.[3]

The first images of Jesus appeared in the 1st through 3rd centuries CE, but were not intended to capture his likeness because of concerns about idolatry.[2] Later images tended to be believed as acheiropoietos (an "image not made by human hands"),[2] perhaps they were actually graffiti or they just forgot who painted them.

White Jesus[edit]

Sallman's "Head of Christ"

White Jesus is the artistic portrayal of Jesus as white, or more specifically of European appearance. This is both an old and a modern concept.

Starting with the European Renaissance, European artists began painting more realistic portraits in general, and of Jesus in particular. European painters tended to paint images based on what they saw, and what they saw were mostly — but not entirely[4] — people of European descent. The Renaissance also marked the beginning of artists painting themselves as Jesus, starting with Albrecht Dürer,[2] and why not? God created man in his own image (Genesis 1:27) — why not return the favor? Though the depictions of Jesus in Europe were mostly of a white Jesus, there was no single archetype of Jesus, though there were some commonalities, such as a beard and long hair.[2] To see how different depictions of Jesus could be for that time, just compare Dürer's painting and that of da Messina ("Christ Crowned with Thorns"). Antisemitism had become widespread in Europe during the Middle Ages, and consequently there began a trend by artists to make Jesus look more European and less Middle Eastern.[2] European colonialism spread around the world and went hand-in-hand with Christian missionaries, thus propagating white Jesus images far beyond Europe.[5]:30-37

The medieval Letter of Lentulus is now generally considered a forgery,[3][5]:150 but has nonetheless at various times been used as justification for a Nordic Jesus.[5]:163

He is a man of medium size (statura procerus, mediocris et spectabilis); he has a venerable aspect, and his beholders can both fear and love him. His hair is of the colour of the ripe hazel-nut, straight down to the ears, but below the ears wavy and curled, with a bluish and bright reflection, flowing over his shoulders. It is parted in two on the top of the head, after the pattern of the Nazarenes. His brow is smooth and very cheerful with a face without wrinkle or spot, embellished by a slightly reddish complexion. His nose and mouth are faultless. His beard is abundant, of the colour of his hair, not long, but divided at the chin. His aspect is simple and mature, his eyes are changeable and bright.
—Extract from one English translation of the Letter of Lentulus[6]

Lentulus was claimed to have been the governor (i.e., prefect) of Judea before Pontius Pilate, but there was no such governor,[7] nor any such person with that name from Judea in historical records.[6]

In the British American colonies, and the United States, it was rare to find representations of Jesus among Protestants into the earliest part 19th century; this was due to lingering Puritan influences. As immigration to the United States increased though the 19th century, so did new religious ideas. Joseph Smith was one of the first to explicitly describe Jesus as white when he revised the description of his 1832 visionary experience in the mid-1840s, revising the description of Jesus as 'light' to Jesus as 'white'.[5]:76-77 Smith's Book of Mormon from the 1830s also rather ham-fistedly jammed Jesus' presence into the Americas, creating a racist tall tale of Native Americans as a Lost Tribe of Israel (Lamanites) who were extra-biblically punished by God with dark skin, a sort of Latter Day Mark of Cain.[5]:85

The nascent Mormons were were not alone in the US in describing Jesus as white, as many Protestant sects began churning out proselytizing pamphlets with engraved images of Jesus, starting in 1816 with the American Bible Society.[5]:80

Although African American Christians were accepting of the presented White Jesus for most of the 1800s, their vision of Him was different than that of the pro-slavery advocates such as Reverend William Meade.Wikipedia Meade preached that Jesus never counseled "pride, discontent or rebellion", and Meade hoped to instill the feeling "that the poorest and most oppressed condition upon earth is too good for such sinful beings as we all are."[5]:94-95 African Americans instead were more likely to view Jesus as a servant of servants, as someone oppressed like themselves, or even as a trickster.[5]:95-100

Riding off the popularity of D. W. Griffith's films, the white supremacist The Birth of a Nation (1915) and the antisemitic (holding Jews responsible for Jesus' crucifixion) Intolerance (1916), in the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan resurrected itself with a "Nordic and nativist" Jesus to support its racist ideology.[5]:142-143

Racist Madison Grant with his 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race was responsible for instigating Nordicification of Jesus by proclaiming that Jesus was not Jewish based in large part on the Lentulus Letter, which he had known was a forgery.[5]:163 Like the Shroud of Turin, people will keep believing what they want to believe even in the face of contrary evidence.

In the modern concept, White Jesus was a marketing scheme based on Warner Sallman's (1892–1968) archetypal "Head of Christ" (1940), which has sold more than half a billion copies.[8] Sallman's images are owned by his church (Church of God in Anderson, Indiana, which is part of the holiness movement[9]) and the affiliated Anderson University.[10] Art critic DeWitt Jayne of Wheaton College[note 1] noted in 1943 that the image was derived from Lhermitte'sWikipedia Friend of the Humble but that "Sallman didn't even have the draftsmanship to make a good copy of it."[13]:149-150 Other criticisms of the painting, which Sallman himself engaged in, were whether the painting was sufficiently or excessively 'manly' (muscular ChristianityWikipedia).[13]:161 The irony of an American Protestant sect bragging about selling half a billion copies of White Jesus[8] is twofold: first the early Protestants in America were often explicitly opposed to depictions of Jesus, believing that it violated the Ten Commandments (idolatry).[5]:40 Second, the idea of profiting off of this idolatry is rather unseemly, to say the least.

Black Jesus[edit]

"Savior" (c. 1905) by Henry Ossawa Tanner
Would they still pray if Christ was black?
—Joe Nelson[14]:1

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church was founded in the 4th century,[15] so images of Black Jesus have probably existed for about as long as those of White Jesus.

Modern visual reinterpretations of the image of Jesus as an African American started appearing within the Harlem RenaissanceWikipedia (1918-1930s),[5]:183,219,222 but literary reinterpretations of Jesus' ethnicity preceded this:[5]:105,150-153

  • An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man by William ApessWikipedia (1833)[16] — a chapter written by a Pequot Indian that likened the Jews of Jesus' time to Native Americans, and stated, "Christ as Jew is recalled as a man of color."[17]
  • Pactolus Prime by Albion Tourgée (1890)[18]
  • Jesus Christ had Negro blood in his Veins by W. L. Hunter (1901) — a Bible-based genealogy that proclaimed "Jesus Christ came nearer being a black man than a white man, or a tleast a very dark man."[19]:15-16
  • The Souls of Black Folk (1903) by W. E. B. Du Bois — Du Bois described Jesus as "a dark and pierced Jew".[20]:227

Also preceding the Harlem Renaissance, artist Henry Ossawa TannerWikipedia was influenced by his friend Du Bois' book The Souls of Black Folk, and began painting Jesus with dark skin: The Resurrection of Lazarus (1897), Christ and Nicodemus on a Rooftop (1899), and Savior (c. 1905).[5]:152-153

The Civil Rights Era and beyond[edit]

"Sacred Heart of Jesus" statue at Sacred Heart Major Seminary

In 1963, four Klansmen bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four innocent girls, injuring between 14 and 22 people, and blowing out all of the stained glass windows except for that of a white Jesus whose face was blown out.[5]:216 The bombing shocked the nation, but it also gave African Americans a direct reason to question the iconography of a white Jesus in African American churches.[5]:216-217 Welsh children quickly raised funds to replace the damaged windows, including one that included a stained glass Black Jesus.[21]

The 23-28 July 1967 Detroit riot'sWikipedia origins were deep-seated anger in the African American community against housing segregation, racist policing, high levels of unemployment and poverty, widespread discrimination, and underfunding of public education. During the riot, three (or one) anonymous African American men were observed painting black the face, hands and feet of the white marble "Sacred Heart of Jesus" statue at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.[22] The one man who later took credit for painting the statue black was a house painter at the time named Joe Nelson.[14]:1,7A[22]

Later in the year, three anonymous white men (suspected to be members of a militant white nationalist group known as Breakthrough) painted the statue white again.[22][23]:3A,8A Shortly afterwards, the seminary decided to permanently maintain the statue painted black so as not to allow "Jesus to become a 'painting pawn.'"[22] Daniel Gallio of the seminary said of the statue, "It's really the only positive symbol of a very difficult time. It's become an icon of multiracial harmony."[24] The statue became known locally and nationally as "Black Jesus".[22]

Black Jesus figures frequently appeared during the 1970s and 1980s, but the images were different than those that appeared during the Harlem Renaissance.[5]:243 The images of the Harlem Renaissance tended to be that of the crucified Christ, making the analogy to lynching victims.[5]:243 The post-1960s Black Jesus on the other hand tended to be an African-looking uplifting figure.[5]:243 Black Jesus started making appearances in pop culture, including rap music,[5]:243 a 2006 film titled Color of the Cross,[5]:244-245[25] and a TV series, Black Jesus that takes place in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.[26]

Black Hebrew Israelites[edit]

The Black Hebrew Israelites obviously believe that Jesus Yahawashi was black. Their main evidence involves a literal reading of (Revelation 1:15) [28]

Cristo Negro[edit]

Images of Black Christ (Cristo Negro) spread throughout Mexico and Central America. These do not specifically reference the idea of an African Jesus, but rather tend to be worshiped by people with indigenous ancestry.[29] The most famous of these is Cristo Negro de Esquipulas in Guatemala.[29] The Cristo Negro de Ímuris in Mexico became widely popular, but then went under a suppression campaign by both Catholic and Protestant church authorities.[5]:88

Jesus in Asia[edit]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Wheaton College is an evangelical Christian college.[11][12]


  1. Isaiah 53:2 Bible Hub.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 The long history of how Jesus came to resemble a white European by Anna Swartwood House (July 17, 2020 8.19am EDT) The Conversation.
  3. 3.0 3.1 See the Wikipedia article on Letter of Lentulus.
  4. Medievalists Respond to Charlottesville (August 18, 2017) The Medieval Academy Blog.
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 5.12 5.13 5.14 5.15 5.16 5.17 5.18 5.19 5.20 5.21 The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America by Edward J. Blum & Paul Harvey (2012) University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 1469618842.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Publius Lentulus (1913) Catholic Encyclopedia.
  7. See the Wikipedia article on Roman administration of Judaea (AD 6–135).
  8. 8.0 8.1 Head of Christ The Warner Sallman Collection.
  9. See the Wikipedia article on Church of God (Anderson, Indiana).
  10. About The Warner Sallman Collection.
  11. A Brush with Reality by Lynette Hoppe (March 26, 2012) ReCollections.
  12. See the Wikipedia article on Wheaton College (Illinois).
  13. 13.0 13.1 Master Painter: Warner E. Sallman by Jack R. Lundbom (2015) Wipf & Stock Publishers. ISBN 1498223419.
  14. 14.0 14.1 "A Coat of Pride: Painter Left His Mark on Seminary's Statue" by Jon Jeter (July 23, 1992) Detroit Free Press.
  15. See the Wikipedia article on Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.
  16. An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man by Arnold Krupat,
  17. "An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man" by William Apes (1833) In: The Experiences of five Christian Indians, of the Pequod Tribe James B. Dow. pp. 51-60.
  18. Pactolus Prime by Albion Tourgée (1890) Cassell.
  19. Jesus Christ had Negro blood in his Veins: The Wonder of the Twentieth Century by W. L. Hunter (1901) Nolan Bro's Print.
  20. The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. Burghardt Du Bois (1903) A. C. McClurg & Co.
  21. Alabama church bombing victims honoured by Welsh window by Neil Prior (10 March 2011) BBC News.
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 22.4 An Enduring Icon: Conceived as an expression of traditional piety. Transformed by urban unrest into a sign of controversy. Sacred Heart's "Black Jesus" has evolved into a symbol of unity and peace for the city of Detroit and beyond. by Daniel Gallio (Dec 15, 2017) Mosaic.
  23. "Detroit's White Backlash: The Enemy Known as 'They'" by Andrew Mollison (September 28, 1967) Detroit Free Press.
  24. Black Jesus statue one of most iconic '67 landmarks by Nicquel Terry (Published 10:01 p.m. ET Jul. 21, 2017; Updated 11:21 p.m. ET Jul. 21, 20170 Detroit News.
  25. Color of the Cross (2006) IMDb.
  26. Black Jesus IMDb.
  27. Ben Carson's house: a homage to himself – in pictures (7 Nov 2015 10.00 EST) The Guardian.
  28. Extremist Sects Within the Black Hebrew Israelite Movement (08.07.2020) Anti-Defamation League.
  29. 29.0 29.1 See the Wikipedia article on Cristos Negros of Central America and Mexico.