By: Lina Zia, Guest Contributor
According to a 2012 Pew research study, there are 2.2 billion Christians globally, accounting for nearly a third of the world’s population. Of that number, roughly 26% live in Europe, 24% in Latin America and the Caribbean and 24% in sub-Saharan Africa. Quite a culturally diverse and scattered group worshipping someone widely portrayed as a very white, European-looking man. Interesting, since there is little disagreement among scholars that Jesus was a Palestinian Jew.
While reading an article that begged the question, “Why do white churches continue to use debunked white images of Jesus & other biblical personalities?”, I started doing some research into when and why Jesus became ‘white’, and why there are very few major Christian art works that depict Jesus as anything but.
White Jesus is a product of the Renaissance Age, according to Bernard Starr, the author of Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew. His argument is “that these pervasive distortions (fair-skinned, blond, Northern European latter-day Christians) established a powerful platform for anti-Semitism by feeding the illusion that Jesus was a Christian in contrast to the Jews — the others who “persecuted” him…”
With exposure to this type of ubiquitous fictitious imagery over the centuries, is it any wonder that so many people — Christians and Jews alike – think that Jesus was either born Christian or converted to Christianity instead of being the ethnically Middle-Eastern, curly haired Jew that he was?
And more interestingly, Starr points out that, “The Christianization of art was fueled by the nature of art as a business – a highly competitive business as noted by New York Times art critic Holland Cotter: ‘Painting in Renaissance Italy was no picnic. In artist-packed cities like Florence, competition for jobs was fierce.’ To survive artists had to give patrons what they wanted — and that meant total Christianization of artworks. Any inclusion of Judaism, or suggestions that Jesus was a dedicated Jew, would surely run you out of business, if not deliver you to the Inquisition.”
While much has changed since those times, even a much more recent example of Christian art, Christ the Redeemer, the iconic Art Deco statue of Christ in Rio de Janeiro, still presents an image of ‘white’ Jesus.
In contrast, Ethiopian Amhara paintings are the rare art form that depict darker skinned biblical figures. “One of the most notable features of these is the large eyes of the subjects, who are usually biblical figures… Ethiopian paintings from the Middle Ages are known by art historians from Europe and America as distinct treasures of human civilization.”
So in short, “ethnic cleansing of Judaism from artworks” gave rise to the ‘white’ Jesus because images are powerful in shaping perceptions. “And wherever Christians turned, in homes, palaces, churches, and at celebrations, they were confronted with an inauthentic Jesus. Jesus the Jew was vaporized,” according to Starr.
With the world becoming so diverse, and Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s transformation to Francis, the first non-European pope since 741 AD, one might wonder where, when, what and who will help to reshape Christian art as we know it? And would such a change make Jesus more relatable to a dwindling flock that is becoming more & more multicultural?