In church and in the arts, Jesus is portrayed whiter than is historically credible. In order to break through this mistaken and evil image, some artists, therefore, portray him as a dark man. “Depicting Jesus as a white man is a sign of white supremacy.”
In the first images made of Jesus, in the first century, he was a white man. This is how he was portrayed for centuries in European church and art history. When more than twenty years ago, the BBC asked a team of scientists to do historical research into the appearance of Jesus, it turned out to be wrong. He is a dark man, with dense black curls, as can be seen from the reconstruction that was made of clay.
But even though the whiteness of Jesus has not been credible for some time now, the image appears to be difficult to eradicate. One of the reasons for this is that the Catholic Church continued for a long time to prescribe that Christ be depicted as a white man, says Guus van den Hout, a connoisseur of religious art, and former director of Museum Catharijneconvent.
In the 1960s, some Dutch, German and Flemish artists who did work for the church began to resist. “But they could do little, especially because religious art suddenly didn’t matter anymore from that time on. Due to the advancing secularisation, there was hardly any more demand for Christian art”.
Meanwhile, there are artists all over the world, including in Africa, who have portrayed Jesus as a dark man. Or as a black man, because there is also the theory that Jesus is black. This goes back to the idea that Egyptians were black, and Joseph and Mary would not have fled there if they had been noticed.
The artists aim their arrows at the image of Jesus in the collective consciousness. There, Jesus must no longer be white, is the goal.
‘Jesus is white in the collective consciousness, although we know that he is from Palestine’
On the picture of Bas Uterwijk (Picture below), Jesus looks straight at you, with a somewhat languid look and a friendly mouth. It looks like a photographic shot, but it is an artistic impression, made with a computer program that floats on artificial intelligence. Last summer, the image went all over the world. Via the internet, it ended up in Iranian newspapers, on Turkish TV, and in Brazil, it also made the headlines.
‘His’ Jesus was received enthusiastically in the Middle East, North Africa, and South America, where men recognized themselves in the man. Uterwijk understands that “history is dominated far too much by powerful white men. Thus, in the collective consciousness, Jesus is white, although it may be latent. We all grew up with that image. Even though we now know that people in Palestine don’t look like that. It is so skewed: how we first got that faith from somewhere, and then went to house elsewhere in the name of that faith.”
Uterwijk used for the portrait, among other things, the research into Jesus’ appearance that the BBC commissioned for a documentary twenty years ago. Jesus has dark skin there and short, almost frizzy hair. “There is no historical material at all: the earliest depiction of Jesus is from hundreds of years after he is said to have lived. The BBC reconstruction is the only image we have that is somewhat based on fact. But that figure looks like a doll like the one made by forensic investigation services. You don’t feel anything.”
At his computer, he could, as it were, bring Jesus to life, he says. “The system can create an almost photorealistic image of a person that we experience as very credible. You do this by entering artworks and portraits, the computer will use that to calculate. I have included the Fajum portraits, from the middle of the third century, which comes closest to the time and region in which Jesus lived.”
Beforehand he had feared that controversy would arise. “When you are dealing with racial characteristics, you are entering a field where you can get a huge cesspool of misery over you on the internet. But I almost only get very positive responses. Even evangelical American Christians are not negative about it. I get fan mail from people who tell me I hit them. Maybe also because it is a disarming image. And I also receive very enthusiastic emails about the other historical figures I make, for example, from France about my portrait of Napoleon.”
Or perhaps it makes a difference that the face of Jesus in his photo cannot be pinpointed appropriately to one ethnic group, says Uterwijk. “It has something Mediterranean-Middle Eastern, but it extends into India. You have these faces all over Europe and America. I do think that does justice to Palestine at the time, which was also a huge melting pot. Many people identify with it. It could also be because it is Jesus, and he naturally has a bit of that magic.”
‘A white Jesus undermines the spiritual value of black people’
Blond hair, blue eyes. This is how visual artist, curator, and filmmaker Felix de Rooy received the image of Jesus in the church on Curaçao, where he grew up. Not only Jesus was white, but he also says. “The brothers and nuns were white too. The saints on prayer cards were all white. So were the angels. Yes, and if God’s son is white, he must be white himself, of course.”
It wasn’t that everyone took that for granted. The artist Charles Corsen, a friend of his father, already painted a portrait of a Black Madonna in the 1950s. “My father made a poem for it. I realized early on: if Jesus existed, he was certainly not white. It was brown anyway, and it may well be that it was quite dark. You had already been Jews in Ethiopia long before he would have lived. Some people believe that he descended from them.”
Dark Christs are already appearing in his own work in the 1970s. One of those early works will soon be on display at the Stedelijk Museum. It is still hanging in a side room at his home. He shows it: “Look, he’s screaming, and is in revolt, against the image that was always made of him, which wasn’t right. Hence the brushes in his hand.”
Depicting Jesus as a white man is a sign of white supremacy, says De Rooy. “That becomes clear when you see the context from which that originated. Jesus stands for purity and holiness. The devil was usually depicted as black. You can see this stereotypical thinking throughout visual history, with all its consequences.”
For a long time, De Rooy collected images of dark people in Western popular culture. More than thirty years ago, he turned it into an exhibition. “Although your skin is black, your heart will be white and clean,” he repeats an old verse.
“There is the idea that there is something wrong with black people, and that they need to be washed. An idea that has also been used in many soap commercials. Dark people were invariably depicted worshiping Jesus, waiting for the enlightenment of Christianity. And the Bible has also been used to make black people believe they were wicked and could be enslaved. Everything shows the undermining of the spiritual value of black people.”
All over the world, people portray Jesus in their reflection: for example, in Mexico, he often has more Indian features, says De Rooy. “But no other group has used it as propaganda and shipped it around the world to impose that image. That was only the Catholic Church.”
Tragically, it is precise because of art that the image of a white Jesus is still burned in the subconscious, says De Rooy. “But it is not complicated to change that. You just need to use your common sense.”
“We have all been conned”
Artist Raul Balai recently painted a black Jesus. Being depicted as long as white is the ultimate example of whitewashing our history, he says. “The white Jesus is a falsification because we know where he comes from: Palestine. We have all been conned with the pictures from the children’s Bible.”
A white Jesus is unbelievable, but a Middle Eastern appearance is still a bit too light, says Balai. “It was black. You can see in the reconstruction that the BBC once made, with archaeologists and scientists, that the image went more towards Afro. In the biblical book of Revelation, it is about the hair of Jesus, which looked like lamb’s wool. And the Canaanites or Israelites originally came from the south of the Sahara.”
He made the painting together with visual artist Brian Elstak, ‘Black Jesus aka Fuck Cracker Christ’, they called it. It was part of the exhibition “Hier. Black in Rembrandt’s Time”, which was on display in the Rembrandt House until last week. “We were involved in the exhibition as exhibition designers, conceptual advisers, and curators of modern art. When it was designed, it turned out that there would be a sculpture gallery in which several works could be seen of Jesus, who is depicted as a white man, with dark people as secondary figures,” Balai says.
“We immediately found: a white Jesus has no business in a portrait gallery of black people. Please throw it out, we said.”
But that proposal did not pass. So Balai and Elstak decided to find another solution, and together they made the black Jesus. “That way, we could at least raise this issue, and hopefully change something about that image of Jesus that continues to bother us.”
His parents both come from a Catholic context, and he was given the image of a white Jesus in the children’s Bible, says Balai. “For me, it is: God okay, religion no. It is one of the pillars on which colonialism, world conquest, racial thinking, and slavery were built. A white Jesus is a huge part of that. If you say that Jesus is white, then God is white. And kings and rulers were seen as representatives of God. For example, in the name of the Christian faith, there has been endless oppression: violence, rape, dominance, which people all over the world have suffered.”
He thinks we absolutely have to get rid of the white Jesus. “It is bad and harmful to everyone. We have to reprogram ourselves as a world community, as it were. Because white thinking is still going on. If you now type ‘doctor’ or ‘hand’ in Google, you will only see white people as a result. And sensors of hand soap dispensers often do not recognize black skin. That makes no sense if you look at the world population.”