How We See Jesus
Every Christian community has portrayed Jesus as its own. There are African versions of Jesus, Chinese versions of Jesus, Northern European versions of Jesus, Korean versions of Jesus, Mediterranean versions of Jesus. For Christians, our connection to Jesus is so strong that it has always seemed natural to visualize him as one of us, a member of our own ethnic or genetic group.
In fact, though, the most common images of Jesus in our modern Eurocentric culture embody a medieval European idealization of the Christ. It was customary in the Middle Ages to portray historical figures as contemporaries of the painter (or the painter’s patron). Jesus’ long blond or light brown hair, fair skin, blue eyes, lean physique, height, and flowing robes represent medieval ideals of male beauty. These things have little to do with what Jesus might actually have looked like.
Through the ages, painters have worked to suggest Jesus’ divinity, his suffering, his love, and his connection to those who view their paintings. This simple desire gets complicated in a diverse community. If we portray Jesus as a Northern European, what does that say to those of African ancestry? Of Asian or Latino ancestry? What does it say to anyone who isn’t like the portrait? How can a community become the Body of Christ if part of the body feels merely tolerated – or even excluded? If we see Jesus as Anglo, might we fall into the unintended trap of seeing non-Anglos as Other?
If I could create a true portrayal of Jesus the Christ, it would look like everyone. It would be something in which every viewer would see himself or herself. It would be a picture of that part of God that resides in each of us. It would be a painting of the Breath of God within us. But I couldn’t begin to paint such a portrait. I’m not sure anyone could.
A Scientific Image
So I’m left with a desire to paint Jesus as he might actually have looked in his incarnation. No one knows what Jesus looked like. We have no paintings of Jesus, no word-pictures from the Gospels. But we can make several assumptions about Jesus: he was Semitic, spent much of his time outdoors, would have worn a beard in the Jewish tradition. He would have had short hair (see 1 Corinthians 11:14-15). His appearance was ordinary enough that Judas had to identify him when he was arrested.
My image of Jesus is based on the work of Richard Neave, a British medical artist, and the forensic anthropologists who worked with him to reconstruct a typical first-century Jewish face from skulls from that era. Neave’s work is described in an article in Popular Mechanics.
I also wished that my portrait of Jesus as he might have looked should convey something of his Spirit, something of the compelling love that makes all Christians claim kinship with him, that draws us all into the Body of Christ. In addition, I wished to convey my conviction that all humans are part of the family of God whatever their faith – or no faith. So I surrounded Jesus with small sketches of people of many different ethnic backgrounds, based on people I know and love as part of the Body of God.