Painting Jesus: A Reflection for Artists and Catechists

Mustard Seed Training is a small business in Ashtabula County, Ohio. Our team of artisans make materials for praying with children.

The first time I was asked to help teach children at church, I went to the nearest Christian book store looking for visual aids.

I was living in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio–a black neighborhood–attending an Afrocentric Catholic church with a full band and Gospel choir.

Every week, I walked in through doors with stained glass images of St. Martin de Porres and Sr. Thea Bowman (currently called a Servant of God). We celebrated that Christ is Risen, Indeed!

Source: St Agnes + Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church, Cleveland, Ohio

The nearest Christian bookstore in East Cleveland was also run by an African-American man.

To my surprise, all I could find there were the same European Jesus felt figures and plastic toys that I had seen in Christian bookstores in the suburbs.

Source: Amazon

“What is going on here?” I asked myself.

Historically, Jesus is not white

He did not speak English.

He was born in what is now the Middle East and never left.

For thirty years, Jesus of Nazareth worked with his hands, like his construction worker father.

For the last three years of his life, Jesus was a traveling Rabbi, preaching and healing from town to town.

So why do people think Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were all Europeans?

I didn’t grow up in a Christian home, but I was used to seeing European-style statues and paintings of Jesus in friend’s homes, as well as images of Buddha and Ganesh. I enjoyed the non-representative religious art of Jewish and Muslim families in our community. I first celebrated Hannukah when I was two, with family friends. My Mom kept a small statue of St Francis with the birds.

As a semi-outsider to the Christian tradition, it seemed obvious to me that historically, Jesus was Jewish.

So after I became Christian, and started praying with children, I was confused to find out that Jesus children’s toys look like Obi Wan Kenobi.

Jesus Looks Like All of Us

By high school, I realized that the lovely framed print of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in my Grammy & Pop-pop’s kitchen was pure imagination.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Don’t get me wrong, the image holds a special place in my heart.

At the time, it meant that divine love is embodied when loved ones break bread together.

The action in the scene captured the constant movement when all our aunts and uncles and cousins gathered around an odd assortment of tables for Thanksgiving.

DaVinci’s version of the Last Supper is not historically accurate, but it does represent a deeper truth about the intersection of God, love, and food.

It is devotional artwork, more poetry than photograph.

What is the Point of Christian Artwork?

Jesus did come to be one of us.

Jesus taught us that our goal as Christians is to experience God’s love, and respond in love by following His example, becoming more like God.

Christian artwork is intended to teach these basics of the life and teachings of Jesus. The artwork is intended to inspire us to love God and love our neighbor more deeply.

But are all our neighbors white?

While many find “classical European” images great for inspiring prayer, I do not believe these images are the best choices for introductory teaching in American churches when our society is increasingly diverse.

In the 15th century, the average European was born and raised in one town, rarely moved or traveled, and mostly only saw other people from their town or city.

It’s completely understandable for artists like Leonardo da Vinci to use local models who looked like them.

Source

However, at the same time in 15th century Ethiopia, the Solomonic rulers were sponsoring Christian artwork such as icons, murals, and illuminated scriptures.

Guess what the Ethiopian Christian masters did?

Use local models who looked like them.

Source: Walters Art Museum

As local communities increase in diversity, most U.S. Christians see a variety of skin tones on a regular basis, both in person, and online.

In a diverse American church, limiting ourselves to images of a European Jesus does NOT send the message: “Jesus Looks Like All of Us.”

Instead, if all the “holy” images of Jesus and saints are all white, and the devil and demons are all dark skinned, then children get this message instead: “To be more like God, you need to be more white.”

So what’s the solution?

I’m curious to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

My perspective:

  1. Aim for historical accuracy in teaching images of Jesus.
  2. Introduce diversity of Christian artwork for prayer.

What Did Jesus Really Look Like on Earth?

Short answer: we’ll never 100% know for sure.

We can not look back to Jesus’ first disciples. Religious Jews, then and now, consider it idolatry to make an image of God.

But the Apostles spread out, and their message made it within a generation to places we now call Italy, Syria, Ethiopia, and India. In Acts 15, the first Council in Jerusalem decided not to hold these new followers to the full religious standards of Judaism (“circumcision and the law of Moses”), but settled for a few essentials of Jewish purification laws.

In other words, the gates were opened to depicting Jesus in artwork.

We don’t have much Christian artwork from the first few centuries, except symbols such as fish on tombs in the catacombs.

But thanks to advances in anthropology, we may be closer than ever to knowing what Jesus really looked like.

In 2002, the magazine Popular Mechanics shocked the world with a digitally recreated face of Jesus on its cover. The entire article is worth reading in full, and I have shared this link with prospective artists at Mustard Seed Training as an example of the facial features and skin tone we should use in our artwork:

Source: Fillon, Mike (April 10, 2020) “The Real Face of Jesus.” Popular Mechanics

How Should We Teach Children Using Images of Jesus?

The truth is, we have little control over most of the images our children will see of Jesus.

Young children absorb everything every around them: smell, sound, touch.

When my children were baptized in Cleveland, a corpus of black Jesus hung from the cross behind the altar.

Now in Ashtabula County, Ohio, my children received their first Communion under a European Jesus in stained glass blessing the children.

How do we hold in one tradition, and in one mind, these many different images of Jesus?

For the youngest children, when possible, I recommend using more historically accurate skin tones, clothing, and features when you have the chance to make or buy your own materials.

Mustard Seed Training has committed to this approach in our Family Prayer Set series drawn by artist Joan Bratt. We are using these principles to create materials for children to meditate on scripture, based on the Rosary mysteries:

Laminated Prayer Cards

Another series I love for my own children, now nearing the teen years, is the Word for Word Bible Comics.

Artist Simon Amadeus Pillario has done an amazing amount of research to draw as true to the text and (what we know of) history as possible. I first stumbled on this blog post about Roman Soliders v Temple Guards when looking to paint materials for the Empty Tomb, and appreciate his even-handed approach to the work.

While his full comics are not appropriate for young children, I think it can be inspiration for other artists and catechists about how to depict Jesus in a historically accurate way.

If your prefer child-appropriate videos, you can find fairly realistic looking characters in The Nativity Story and The Chosen.

They are a gift for all ages.

“No, there is too much. I sum up.”

When it comes to images of Jesus, we have to focus on what is essential, and control what we can.

Jesus was a man who walked on Earth.

Jesus is alive in our hearts.

If they are fortunate, Christian children will see many different images of Jesus when they are young. When questions arise about these differences, point them back to the historical fact: Jesus was born, taught, and died in one little place on Earth.

[We use a globe to present this in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, starting at age 3]

Jesus told us about the Kingdom of God. His message was for all people:

Love God. Love your neighbor.

See Matthew 22:36-40

This is why we are born. This is our purpose.

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