Image Is Not Everything

So I am in Florence, Italy, right now (nun count is 2; see I Fucking Love Nuns) and I have seen a ton of paintings of Jesus in the last three days. I have seen Jesus as a baby and as an adult with blood coming from his sides. I have seen Jesus on the cross and Jesus coming down from it. And, no matter what the adult Jesus is doing, he looks almost the same in every painting.

Around ten years ago, the BBC released a reconstruction of what Jesus’ face would have looked like.  The scientists used skulls from Jewish people living in the Middle East 2,000 years ago, They also consulted historians as to how men back then would have worn their hair (head and facial). What was created can be seen here.  There was much hullabaloo about this.  Some Christians were upset because the BBC Jesus had no resemblance to the Christ that was depicted so prolifically by white, European artists. Go figure!

Now, let’s move from the Middle Ages/ Renaissance in Europe to Asia.  As you move through the various countries of Asia you repeatedly see a figure that has some similarities but with slightly different characteristics.  Sometimes he is seated with his eyes closed. Sometimes he is standing with his palm facing the viewer. Sometimes, he is reclining; other times he appears to be in mid step.  In Thailand, his hair goes to a flaming point and is full of tight curls.  In China, the figure is of a larger statured man.  In parts of India, he has long flowing robes.  In Japan, he is a mix of the Chinese (being a little thicker than the Thai/ Southeast Asia figure) with robes similar to the Indian statue.

These are all Buddha and part of what is amazing about all the Asian depictions of Buddha is that he conforms to the culture in which the religion is studied.  And this makes sense! Buddha’s message is all about your actions and thoughts, not about your physical appearance.  For many years, the corporeal Buddha wasn’t depicted but an aniconic image of him was. (There is some argument as to whether or not the symbol was meant to represent Buddha the man or just important events or places in his life.  More on that here.)

Whether Jesus is depicted as a white guy with hair like a 60’s folk musician or like an actual Middle Eastern dude, it isn’t important what he looked like, but what his message was.  And that message was not “Get a hair cut and a tan.”

Check out the various Buddhas below.

IMG_6770 IMG_6778 IMG_6782 IMG_6787


3 thoughts on “Image Is Not Everything

  1. Arguably the people who insist “No, Jesus looked like ME and everyone I know” have a better grasp of the core concept than the people who argue, correctly, that he was a short Jew with close-cropped hair. I fear that the effort to leverage Jesus’s historicity to make a point about identity is a damaging blow to the entire point of the Incarnation. A related point is that Jesus’ Judaism plays in the world in which the Holocaust has occurred as a gigantic story arc in which God chose to be incarnate as an ESPECIALLY disempowered person — as if the message was that God really doubled down on the victimhood by choosing to be revealed to the Jews as a Jew. To me, that does not make sense — the essentially Jewish characteristics of Jesus were both a tremendous gift to early Christianity AND a substantial hindrance to its adoption. If the theology says God wanted us to be saved, then He has Paul to thank for Christianity’s success and Himself to blame for getting off on the wrong foot, with an insular origin and His membership in a sect with substantial barriers to entry and participation. Artists depicting Jesus as locally native are carrying on the work of Paul, and those who want to re-contextualize the historical Jesus are inadvertently back-sliding.

    • Tim, I see your point about those who view Jesus “carrying on the work of Paul” by using recognizable imagery of Christ to spread the message. I do not wish to remove non-historically accurate depictions of Jesus, but instead to show how other cultures can interpret their central figure differently without any “brouhaha” from other believers.

      I think your comment has made me want to update Christ’s image. Jesus will be in a local, organic coffee house with a hipster ‘stache and a MacBook. Matthew would be collecting the money to place the coffee order for the rest of the apostles. Thomas would be doubting that anything productive would come from their meeting. Judas would, of course, be at Starbucks.

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