Art: Whitewashing Jesus

Shopping for nativity scenes? At Macy’s you have two options to choose from: "The Vatican Edition" and "The Byzantine Edition." The first comes with a set of white figurines, including a red-headed Mary, a brown-haired Joseph and a blue-eyed baby Jesus. In the second, all three are black, as are the shepherd and three wise men. Both cost $10, and more than likely, both are historically inaccurate.

While we can never be exactly sure of what Jesus, Mary and Joseph actually looked like, we know they were not fair-skinned, flaxen-haired Europeans. And, though an emerging fringe of historians would argue otherwise, it’s fairly certain they weren’t black Africans. In all likelihood, what they were was something in between: olive-skinned, dark-featured Semitic Jews living in Israel. Yet depictions of them as such are exceedingly rare compared to the countless number of images that have proliferated through the millennia portraying them as Caucasians.

Until now. With New Line Cinema’s new movie, “The Nativity Story,” we finally get what many historians agree is a more accurate representation of the Holy Family. Cast with a group of dark-haired, dark-complexioned actors whose nationalities range from Guatemalan to Australian and Irish to Israeli—those who aren’t Middle Eastern certainly look like they could be—the movie strives for physical accuracy, and in doing so may challenge some Christians’ notions of what the story’s central characters looked like: the Angel Gabriel, for one, is played by Sudanese actor Alexander Siddig, who you might have caught this time last year playing the part of an Iranian prince in “Syriana.” (Ethnically ambiguous baby Jesus gets only about a minute of screentime at the end.)

To be sure, “The Nativity Story” is an anomaly. So,how did we end up with a popularized image of Jesus that common sense tells us is not accurate? For starters, the New Testament is conspicuously devoid of any detailed physical description of Jesus—in the Book of Revelation, his hair is compared to wool and his feet described as the color of burned brass. This largely blank slate has essentially allowed us to imagine him as we wish, which is exactly what we’ve done.

The mainstreaming of a white Jesus began in earnest during the early Middle Ages in Europe, a time and place where darkness had a powerfully negative connotation. Eighth and ninth century European theologians, obsessed with the symbolism of the Passion, began ascribing blame to the Jews. As such, Judas and King Herod and eventually Pontius Pilate came to be represented in dark, sinister hues while Jesus became increasingly white. “The oldest basis of all Christian art is the clash of good versus evil, light versus dark,” said Colum Hourihane, director of the Index of Christian Art at Princeton University. “This was particularly the case in the ninth and tenth centuries, when basically the Jews assumed a dark coloration [in art] while Christ became radiantly white, illuminated.” This whiteness naturally extended to such secondary characters as Mary and Joseph and the disciples.

Of course, it is a powerful human inclination to be drawn to people who look like ourselves. As Christianity spread out of the Holy Land, across the Mediterranean basin and west into Central and Northern Europe, the image of Jesus morphed to mirror each new culture—he became more white and less dark, more European and less Middle Eastern, more like an Irishman and less like an Israelite. “The whole ideology of Christian art is the remaking of Jesus in the mold of every subsequent generation of converts in order to meet their need for identification,” says Dr. Lawrence Schiffman, a professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University.

Many scholars agree that the adaptability of Christian art was integral to the indoctrination of a largely illiterate, intransient population because it allowed them to relate to the religion on a local level. “We have to realize that in medieval Europe, travel, especially to somewhere as far off as the Holy Land, was incredibly difficult for the vast majority of the population,” says Holly Flora, curator of New York’s Museum of Biblical Art. “People’s worldview was very limited to their immediate surroundings, and so they projected those surroundings onto their imagery of Christ and the holy family.”

This is particularly true in the case of the evolution of nativities and Christmas plays. The invention of the nativity, or crèche, is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, who, in 1223, on a hill near a church in Greccio, Italy, conceived and re-enacted the first nativity with an ox, donkey, a hay-filled trough, and, of course, real people. Soon, the tradition of the living nativity spread across Italy and the rest of Europe, and over time, the living scenes were replaced by miniaturized dioramas displayed in churches at Christmastime. By the sixteenth century, miniature crèches were ubiquitous in homes throughout much of continental Western Europe, seen as symbols of a certain blissful domesticity and a source of pride.

With the Renaissance was in full swing, white Jesus became been firmly entrenched in the European consciousness. This is the image that made its way to the New World, taking root along with the first seeds of American culture. Blonde-haired and blue-eyed Jesus reached his painted zenith with the oeuvre of twentieth century Christian artist Warner Sallman, whose iconic 1940 oil painting, “The Head of Jesus,” would become inescapable via mass-production. More than 500 million copies have been printed. “It’s the image of Jesus that every American soldier took with them to World War II,” says Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, professor of religious art and cultural history in the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.

Even today, in our increasingly global community, Western Christians are more likely than ever to simply assume the Holy Family was white and Jesus looked like Barry Gibb. Which is what makes the movie “The Nativity Story,” so refreshing to so many. So on your trip to Macy’s, instead of playing eeny-meeny-minie-moe between the black and white crèches, you might want to ask the clerk, “Do you have anything in between?”