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A recent trip to the city of Porto, Portugal, reminded me of how much Jesus is a product of our imaginations.

I don’t say that to be flippant or disrespectful. Rather, that comment stems from viewing and thinking about images of Jesus. How Jesus is depicted can tell us something about the culture and ourselves.

To start, we have no physical description of Jesus in the Gospels or the various epistles. Was Jesus tall or short; thin or heavy set; dark-skinned or fair? We don’t know.

Yet all around the world, we imagine Jesus in paintings and sculptures. In many European-descent cultures, Jesus tends to be thin, white, with long flowing brown hair, often a beard. That is how Leonardo painted him in the late 1400s. In 1940, American artist Warner Sallman created what may be one of the most famous images of Jesus in North America: Jesus in semi-profile, with shoulder length, neat, light brown hair swept back from his high forehead, his pale skin glowing, his beard and moustache neatly groomed.

It’s an image very different from one found in Campeche, Mexico, which houses the Cristo Negro, or Black Christ, in the Church of San Roman. The Cristo Negro is a protector of the local fisherman and the locality. He is also an icon for the people, one to whom they can relate. As a resident explained to writer Shannon Collins of Mexico News Daily, “We may not be Black as such…but historically, the perception of our skin was that we were darker, poorer, less civilized. Of course, this is far from the truth, but we take this symbol as a badge of honor. This is our land, our history. Our skin is a mix of all our races and all our histories.… And this Christ? Well, this Christ is our Christ.”

Porto’s Christ is a Jesus broken and bloodied. Both his knees are raw. So are his elbows. His body is a graphic depiction of corporal punishment. Bloods streams down the arms and legs of the gaunt Jesus in the Se do Porto, and all his ribs are visible as he gasps for breath; in other churches, he bleeds from his ears and nose as he hangs dying. His hair and beard are dark, much darker than those of Sallman’s Jesus, and are not neat. Rather, he is tousled and agonized.

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Notably, every depiction of Jesus in Porto, whether painting or statue, included a many-rayed sunburst behind and around him. There is no question, the images tell us. The sunburst depicts divinity and holiness, and it links Jesus and other holy figures back to Roman and Greek mythology. But although Jesus was divine, he was equally human, and the scourged and battered images assure us that Jesus suffered terribly, excruciatingly painful suffering, much as many Portuguese people would experience when the Inquisition came to the country in 1536.

In China, Jesus has been depicted as Chinese in appearance, as well as with European features. Images of Jesus can be found in the painting of Jesuit missionaries who proselytized in China near the end of the Ming Dynasty. Interestingly, crucifixion does not take center stage in the Jesuit paintings. Instead, Confucian values are reflected. In one, Jesus was portrayed as a benevolent ruler and teacher, one who blesses the world.

In a centuries-older image from a Nestorian mural in Qocho, Jesus’s hair is black and wavy but short. In fact, it is as short as men including Jesus probably wore their hair when he was alive. We can guess this from Paul, who wrote his first letter to the Corinthians roughly 20 years after Jesus died. “Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him,” Paul taught (11:14). The Nestorians were a sect of Christianity that originated in Syria and Turkey in the 4th and 5th centuries. They came to China along the trade routes in the 7th and 8th centuries, and the image found at Qocho dates to that period and has Chinese facial features.

USC art historian Anna Swartwood House has written about the development of images of Jesus, from earliest times to our own times. She points out that early artists “combined visual formats from other cultures,” and that the popular Good Shepherd image is “based on pagan representations of Orpheus, Hermes and Apollo.” Over the centuries, how Jesus looks depends on the message the artist or culture wants to convey and promote.

Whatever image we see, we are seeing a reflection, and it is useful to stop and consider what is being reflected.

Nancy Thompson teaches classes in comparative religion at CCV and NVU Online. She is author of Touching the Elephant: Values the World’s Religions Share and How They Can Transform Us.


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