July 31, 2020


What Jesus, Mary and the saints look like is important

The iconoclastic movement which seeks to remove, erase or destroy images deemed to be offensive to the contemporary sensibilities of some has raised the important question, “What should Jesus look like? An article in The Wall Street Journal by Francis X. Rocca on July 24 discusses this issue in a balanced way with a view to historical accuracy.

According to Rocca, the question of how (or whether) to portray Jesus has confronted Christians from the very beginning.

In fact, during the course of 2,000 years, our Savior has been depicted in many diverse ways in cultures as varied as those found in Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe and North America. None of these are photographic images of what Jesus really looked like (or looks like now). They are all artistic representations designed to evoke, more or less successfully, the presence, personality and experiences of a man unlike any other human being who ever lived. Some of these works of art are sublime, some are awful, and some (perhaps most) are merely adequate.

What should Jesus look like? According to Rocca, Shaun King, a prominent activist with the Black Lives Matter movement, wrote on Twitter recently that “all murals and stained-glass windows of white Jesus, and his European mother, and their white friends should also come down. They are a gross form [of] white supremacy. Created as tools of oppression. Racist propaganda.”

Rocca also quotes Jesuit Father James Martin, who responded to King’s argument by rejecting the destruction of images but agreeing that “Jesus should be portrayed more like he [probably] looked … a first-century Galilean carpenter” resembling residents of the region today.

Both arguments miss the point of sacred art. Both fail to understand that the purpose of sacred images is missionary. It is to introduce the person of Jesus Christ to people in different cultural environments and wide-ranging historical circumstances. Jesus, Mary and all the saints should look different depending on when, where and for whom their images are painted or sculpted.

In Tokyo, Jesus would look Japanese. In Russia, he would look Russian and in Africa, or in African-American churches, he would be portrayed as a Black man.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is the perfect example of this principle. She appeared to St. Juan Diego, a native Mexican, in 1531 on Tepeyac Hill (now in Mexico City) and left us with her image imprinted on his cloak. This image, which is faithfully preserved for all to see in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, shows Mary as a native woman.

According to Rocca, this Marian image portrays her “with brown skin and straight back hair, surrounded by imagery associating her with an Aztec goddess.” Is that how she appeared on the streets of Nazareth? Of course not. It is her way of illustrating to the native people of this region that she is one with them.

Even the Shroud of Turin, which many of us believe is the actual burial cloth in which our Lord was wrapped when he was entombed, is not like a traditional photograph. It is an image that captures a certain moment in the history of our salvation, and that allows us, if we’re willing, to encounter Jesus in his sorrowful death.

Nick Ring, an artist who has provided sculptures for churches in Indiana and many other states, says: “A question I contemplate when I represent Jesus and saints: I keep in mind the parish and the region, and ultimately the multicultural nations that would or could have access to the images that I create. Because of modern advances in transportation and the accessibility to ‘things’ in the world by all, it becomes problematic creating these images. So they wind up with features that can’t be specifically prescribed to one particular race or a skin color and become accessible to all. That’s the peculiarity of our post-modern society, our times. Regardless, if done well, successfully, the transcendent and mysterious nature is revealed upon contemplation and prayer above and beyond superficial physicality.”

Pope St. John Paul II famously said that the Church should never impose its teaching on anyone. We should propose what we believe, not force it down anyone’s throat.

The same is true of sacred art. Images of Jesus, Mary and all the saints and angels should not be forced on anyone. They should be proposed as representing how an artist, or a community of believers, sees the holy men and women that they revere as gifts from the God who is close to us and who accompanies us on our life’s journey.

What should Jesus look like? He should look like all of us, his sisters and brothers.

—Daniel Conway

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