At the Mormon History Association conference this weekend, Anthony Sweat shared a funny story during his presentation on “A White Jesus and a Global Church.” Apparently there were some individuals who were visiting BYU from Saudi Arabia to observe teaching at the institution. During a class that Dr. Sweat was teaching, the Saudis saw a print of the famous Del Parson Jesus the Christ painting. They asked through an interpreter who the painting was depicting. Dr. Sweat explained that it was Jesus, and the Saudis busted up laughing and started chattering. Confused, Sweat asked the interpreter what they were saying and the interpreter explained that they were laughing about Jesus being portrayed as a white American mountain man. Dr. Sweat asked them about what they thought Jesus looked like and they responded that he probably looked like them, which probably isn’t far from the truth. In his presentation, Anthony Sweat went on to discuss the history of how Jesus has been portrayed and ultimately made the point that the traditional European iconography of Jesus as European in appearance is well-established and doesn’t need to go away, but that there does need to be more diversity in depictions of Jesus available for a global church.
I’m not going to rehash the whole issue of Jesus’s complexion again, but I am interested in some of the artwork that has been produced in the Church in recent years that provide a different vision of Jesus. There are a few paintings that gained attention in the bloggernacle a few years ago, such as Emile Wilson’s “The Last Supper”, “Christ Praying in Gethsemane”, and “Christ on the Cross” and then Sopheap Nhem’s “Early Morning with the Savior”. When visiting the Church History Museum recently to see the artwork presented in the current International Art Competition, I was excited to see several diverse depictions of Jesus in art, notably including Michelle Franzoni Thorley’s “Making Space For Us”, Arawn Billings’s “Jesus and the Woman Accused”, Emma Taylor’s “Together in Christ”, and Anthony Sweat’s “Jesus of Nazareth”. At the MHA conference, Anthony Sweat also talked about and shared images of some other recent works of art depicting Jesus as non-white, such as Rose Datoc Dall’s “New Images of Christ” series, Esther Hi’ilani Candari’s “This Bitter Cup”, and some of Mark Mabry’s recent additions to his “Reflections of Christ” photographs. More and more, artwork depicting Jesus in ways that disrupt the established European iconography of portraying Jesus as Caucasian is developing a presence in Latter-day Saint artwork.
Part of this seems to be a developing trend over the last decade as the Church has become more diverse and the internet is providing outlets for more artists (and historians) to present their works to a broader audience. For example, at a 2019 Temple Art Seminar, it was communicated that artists thinking about portraying Jesus should not only be looking at “prior LDS depictions in painting, photography, and film, but largely looking to scriptural and scholarly evidences to provide accuracy where possible. Part of that accuracy includes moving away from a more Caucasian depiction of Christ in favor of a depiction closer to what a 1st century man from Jerusalem might look like. A variety of depictions from various artists allows patrons to connect with different representations of Christ and helps avoid any depictions becoming ‘canonized'” (“Temple Art Seminar Summary,” June 12, 2019, p. 2-3). While I understood that this summary document isn’t an official Church publication, it does corresponds to a broader trend in Christianity to depict Jesus more accurately, such as the AI-photograph-analysis-based image of what Jesus may have looked like produced by Bas Uterwijk or the model of a Galilean man created by Richard Neave in 2001 based on anthropological evidence.
Sweat also shared that some of the recent depictions of Christ as a non-European man by Latter-day Saint artists were catalyzed by the racial reckoning in 2020 that was sparked by the killing of George Floyd. A few of the notable artists in the Latter-day Saint community had discussions together over Zoom in the immediate aftermath of that event about depictions of Jesus. This seemed to be part of the inspiration for Anthony Sweat’s “Jesus of Nazareth”, in which he put a lot of time and effort into researching what a 1st century man from Jerusalem might look like and using that as the basis of his depiction.
For many of us who have grown up consuming images of Jesus as white, these alternative visions of Jesus’s appearances do take some getting used to. Sweat mentioned that when he dropped off his painting for the art competition, the folks who received the painting asked who it was portraying because it fell outside of the standard iconography of Jesus, making it less recognizable as Jesus. To me, though, this is an exciting direction to move in (even though I love the paintings of Jesus I grew up with), because it is more accurate and less Euro-American-centric for a religion that is trying to grow beyond its white-mountain-man-American origins.