Why I think that those who criticize the Christian artistic tradition for always presenting Christ as a northern European are wrong.
Twice recently I have heard this discussion sparked off by the discovery of human remains in the Holy Land which date from the time of Christ, which have allowed scientists to create an image of the person from whom the bones came. The figure that is recreated is, surprise, surprise, olive-skinned and Semitic-looking, and so this indicates, so the logic goes, what Christ would probably have looked like. This being so, it demonstrates how narrow minded Europeans are, and how culturally narrow Christianity is for portraying Christ as a white, Caucasian.
In short, it would be said, Christ didn’t look like this painting by Sir Anthony Van Dyck, as the Church has often represented:
He looked instead more like this scientific reconstruction of a man developed from a skull discovered in the Holy Land, according to this article.
Here is my reaction: first, if ever there was a concocted news piece this was one - does we really need the discovery of a skull as evidence that a Jew living in the Middle East about 2,000 years ago might have been dark skinned and Semitic-looking? I think nearly every Christian today would at least be open to the idea without feeling that their faith was threatened, and it wouldn’t require the discovery of a skull to convince them.
Second, I think that the argument reveals a narrow understanding of the Christian artistic tradition, and a lack of appreciation of just how universally inclusive it is. I will acknowledge that there is a tradition of artists who present Christ as their own race, or the race of those for whom the painting is intended. The idea behind this is to encourage people to believe that Christ is a person to whom they can relate to at a personal level. This is natural. Sir Anthony Van Dyck, who was northern European and who spent most of his professional life working in England, might very well naturally paint Christ as a northern European. But why shouldn’t he? I feel that it is as reasonable for a European to paint Christ as European as it is for him to be painted as an African for an African congregation, or as Chinese for a Chinese audience, as in this painting:
This desire to portray Christ in a form that the intended viewers will relate to can manifest itself in other ways. This famous crucifixion by Grunewald shows Christ with the open sores of a fungal infection transmitted through rye grain eaten in the bread of 16th century France. Those who suffered from this horrible disfiguring disease were given care in a hospital, and this painting was painted for chapel in the hospital. The intention was to give them solace by showing that Christ not only bore the pain of their sins, but was suffering with them physically too.
On the whole, the depiction of Christ in the Christian artistic tradition does look more like the Van Dyck image than anything else. However, what I would contest the idea that this results from a northern European cultural bias. Look at these two images, first this one:
and now this one of Christ and St Menas:
Both have Christ represented as a light-skinned man. However, these have no connection with Western Europe; they were painted in Egypt. The first one comes from Mt Sinai and dates from the 6th century, and second is even older, a Coptic icon from the 4th century. Why did they represent him in this way? One possibility that never seems to be considered in these articles is that the tradition has preserved an image that corresponds to what Christ really looked like. If this were the case, and it is historically accurate, one would expect to see others who looked similar. Well here are two portraits of Egyptians dating from even earlier, the 2nd century AD.
The two paintings above are portraits for coffins painted in encaustic, a technique by which pigments are suspended in hot wax. Not everybody would have been this light skinned in Egypt at this time, but at least this shows that some were. Egypt is not the Holy Land of course, but one would have expected an Egyptian artist to have some idea of what those who lived next door in the Holy Land might have looked like. Nevertheless, if the images of Christ are not accurate and reflect a prejudice of Egyptian artists of the period, which is possible, then the prejudice which created them is certainly not northern or Western European, but rather aristocratic 4th century north African.
There is another reason why Christ would have been light skinned in religious images, even if it was widely believed that he was naturally much more dark-skinned. This reason has nothing to do with racial stereotypes. The Christian tradition always portrays Christ, to varying degrees, as an idealized heavenly figure. Even in naturalistic styles, such as the baroque exemplified by Van Dyck, there is always an element of idealization that points to this heavenly destiny. The model for this is the Transfiguration. The three apostles, you will remember, saw him transfigured on Mt Tabor, shining with light. In authentic Christian liturgical art there is always going to be an indication of the Light of the World. Sometimes this is achieved by a lightening the whole complexion. Here we have a portrayal of Christ in 16th century, painted by an man originally trained in Crete in the Eastern Mediterranean, living in Spain, El Greco.
Sometimes the indication of the divine light is achieved by adding concentrated lines of pure white light which sparkle on the surface of a generally darker skin. Russian icons especially tend to use this latter method, and ironically, it is in Russian art that we see some of the darkest skinned portrayals of Christ. I say it is ironic, because if racial or nationalistic prejudice was driving the portrayal of Christ one would have a expected a Greek living in Spain to paint a darker Christ than a Russian living in Russia. The icon below is from the late 15th century by the Russian iconographer known as Dionysius:
Another point of discussion relates to what Christ looked like facially. Was he clean shaven or was he bearded with long hair? While some portrayals of Christ do show him without a beard (Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmeus comes to mind), this is rare. The early depictions of Christ without beard that I am aware of are not intended to capture his characteristics directly, but to be allegorical representations of Christ as the Good Shepherd. This is one from the catacombs in Rome.
Another image in the catacombs dating from the 4th century, which is not allegorical, shows Christ as the familiar bearded figure.
We do not know for certain what Christ looked like. However, I suggest that the tradition is old enough and geographically widespread enough to cast doubt on the assertion that the familiar bearded Christ with a light complexion arises from a Western European cultural prejudice. Furthermore it is not even true that Christ is always portrayed as white European, even by white Europeans. Russian icons show Christ with olive brown skin for example.
I would add that in my opinion, if a discussion of this subject ignores the possibility that the tradition is as coherent as it is because it reflects what the historical Christ actually looked like, this indicates an unfair bias. It is the modern anti-Christian bias of some historians that refuses to consider the validity of Christian tradition as a historical record of truth alongside other sources.
And any discussion that doesn’t consider the possibility that the complexion might be lightened in order to indicate the transfigured heavenly Christ reflects a lack of understanding of how theology governs form in Christian art.
For my part I am happy to trust Christian tradition in this respect.