Much has been said in church magazines and the Bloggernacle about the image of Joseph Smith. Do we know what Joseph Smith really looked like? Are our statues and paintings truly representative of him?
This is not the point of my post here, though. I recently had a conversation with my fiancee about Rastafarianism, mentioning that Rastas believe that Jesus Christ was black. I admitted that, though I personally don’t see much evidence for that, I did concede that Jesus probably looked very different than what most Mormons envision.
A lot of new Mormon art depicts a very clean, good-looking Christ. There is “beauty, that we may desire him.” Here’s an example from a very popular artist among Latter-day Saints, Simon Dewey:
I’ve always preferred the depictions of Christ done by Harry Anderson. They seemed marginally more authentic to me than the newer, “shinier” depictions of a Christ who had, apparently, full access to conditioner, a washing machine, a toothbrush, a nice hairbrush, etc.
However, even Anderson’s paintings have a “familiar” feel to them. Most portrayals of Christ that I see in our meetinghouses follow the same general pattern: Christ is medium-to-tall height, has a generally thinnish build, very Caucasian-looking, has a full head of long hair, a beard. He has a long face, a long, thin nose (what you’d call a “Roman” nose), robes and sandals. He is generally a handsome man.
I’ve always mused to myself on the possibilities of what Christ truly looked like. Could he have been short? Prematurely bald? Could he have been missing teeth? Could he have looked more like George Costanza from Seinfeld?
Furthermore, Christ is generally portrayed as Caucasian in our artwork, but we know he was a Jew. I’ve almost thought numerous times that the only one of Christ’s Twelve Apostles in paintings that looks “Jewish” (according to the stereotype generally pushed in the American media) is Judas Iscariot, who can be seen cruelly and evilly clutching his money bag. Interesting. So was Christ white? Did he look “Jewish”? Did he look like an Arab? How jarring would it be to the average, white, Mormon American to see a (hypothetical) photograph of Christ in mortality that looked like he could be Osama bin Laden’s brother?
We only have passing clues in the scriptures as to what he looked like in mortality, and a couple interesting details about the post-mortal Christ from Joseph Smith. There is, of course, a famous “Mormon Urban Legend” about the accuracy of this piece of artwork:
This depiction of Christ is rather racially ambiguous. He has a slightly darker (ruddy?) complexion and hair that could “go either way.” It’s an interesting depiction to say the least, especially considering the debunked mythology surrounding its supposed accuracy.
However, I’ve found that I can forgive the white bread, homogenous view of Christ in our artwork for a couple reasons.
I’ve gleaned from a few sources on the Internet some diverse pictures of Christ. Images of Christ painted by black artists and displayed in predominantly black churches may be black. Here is an example I actually found quite touching, called Black Jesus Blesses the Children, by Joe Cauchi:
I love how the Black Jesus in this picture looks so determined, and he has a definite look of determination as he blesses the children. It’s as if he’s searching the distance for danger as he embraces them. The protection portrayed in this image is just as real to me, and represents the Christ I know, as tangibly as any “white” picture I’ve seen. I want Christ to protect me like he’s protecting these children.
Images of Christ painted by Asian artists may have Asian skin-tone and characteristics. Here is a Chinese example from the 1800s:
I think many people and artists might tell you that this is more for comfort and familiarity rather than an attempt at being historically accurate. So it would make sense for a white artist living in a white culture (like Utah, or in a broader sense, Mormonism) to depict Christ as a being who would “fit in.”
It is also useful for artists to have a common language for images such as Christ, and it is not useful to have images of Christ that are difficult to identify. If an artist wishes to paint Christ, say, teaching a group of people, how can he communicate without words the identity of the Teacher in his painting? There were many teachers in the scriptures: Paul, Ammon, Elijah, Enoch, etc., so a painting of a man with his mouth open, teaching other people by itself may not clearly identify the Teacher. It’s useful to be able to look at a new painting and say, “Hey, it’s a picture of Christ.”
Therefore, to me, the image of Christ is, of course, a symbol. It is a symbol in the same way that a Cross is a symbol, or the Angel Moroni is a symbol. It is one of the many pictures that we use in our religious language to communicate ideas, and it’s a useful one. However, as the Church grows, we will continue to adapt to new symbols and new images.
The LDS faith is now moving to many new countries across the world, and is being embraced by many ethnicities and cultures, nationalities and skin colors. Will we one day see Latino Christs in our temples? Asian Christs? Black Christs? If we admit that our image of Christ is just a symbol, would we allow a painting of a black Christ in an African temple? What about the Logan Temple?
Do we marginalize minorities in the Church by portraying a white Christ?
Is it “wrong” to portray a Christ that is probably historically inaccurate?