Dark-skinned pictures of Jesus have been known from the earliest times. The first picture on this page is a painting from the 1960s, artist and source unknown.
In 2004, Jesus was voted greatest black icon of all time by the New Nation newspaper, which prompted a debate about Jesus’ skin colour. “Despite the common depictions in Western cultures of Jesus as a blond, blue-eyed hippy looking man, all reasonable evidence points to the fact that Jesus could not have been of Scandinavian extraction and certainly was a brotha of colour,” said the paper.
The debate is not new. Throughout the 20th century, black theologians argued that showing Jesus as a white-skinned European is not only historically inaccurate, but profoundly alienating for non-Europeans. Some 20 million Africans were taken as slaves to the New World by Europeans between the 16th and 19th centuries, and images of a white Jesus reinforce the idea that Christianity is a “white man’s religion”.
Black theologians argue that since Jesus came to bring good news to the poor and oppressed – to set them free from their chains – he should be shown looking like the poor and oppressed, and not like the world’s rich and powerful.
History is on the side of a dark-skinned Jesus. Some of the oldest images of Christ show him with the dark, olive-coloured skin of Mediterranean people. One very early mosaic image of Jesus (at top right) has him with very dark skin, and the images of Ethiopian Christianity – one of the oldest branches of the Christian church – show Jesus as a black person, with an African hairstyle and beard (see picture, bottom right).
The main picture, above, is the polar opposite of the classic white image of Jesus. What do you think of this image of black Jesus?
Theologian James Cone writes about the black Jesus:
“The ‘raceless’ American Christ has a light skin, wavy brown hair, and sometimes – wonder of wonders – blue eyes. For whites to find him with big lips and kinky hair is as offensive as it was for the Pharisees to find him partying with tax-collectors. But whether whites want to hear it or not, Christ is black, baby, with all of the features which are so detestable to white society.”
Cone believes it is important for black people to view Jesus as black:
“It’s very important because you’ve got a lot of white images of Christ. In reality, Christ was not white, not European. That’s important to the psychic and to the spiritual consciousness of black people who live in a ghetto and in a white society in which their lord and savior looks just like people who victimize them. God is whatever color God needs to be in order to let people know they’re not nobodies, they’re somebodies.”
This image, from a church in Rome, dates from AD530.
This picture of Jesus is from Ethiopia, from the 17th or 18th centuries.
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Christians have been making images of Jesus since the early centuries of the church. In this section, we look at pictures of the face of Christ – some of them centuries old, some of them from today.
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