For modern skeptics, the sixth-century icon hanging in the Orthodox monastery in the shadow of Mount Sinai is simply a 33-by-18-inch board covered in beeswax and colored pigments.
For believers, this Christ Pantocrator (“ruler of all”) icon is the most famous image of Jesus in the world, because the remote Sinai Peninsula location of St. Catherine’s Monastery allowed it to survive the Byzantine iconoclasm era. The icon shows Jesus — with a beard and long hair — raising his right hand in blessing, while holding a golden book of the gospels.
This Jesus does not have blond hair and blue eyes. “Christ of Sinai” shows the face of a wise teacher from ancient Palestine.
“When you talk about ancient icons, you are basically talking about images of Jesus with long hair, a beard and some kind of Roman toga. That’s just about all you can say,” said Jonathan Pageau of Quebec, an Eastern Orthodox artist and commentator on sacred symbols.
In the early church, he added, believers “didn’t ask other questions — about race and culture — because those were not the important questions in those days. ... Once you start politicizing icons, there’s just no way out of those arguments. You get into politics and dividing people, and then you’re lost.”
In these troubled times, said Pageau, many analysts are “projecting valid concerns about racism and Europe’s history of colonization and the plight of African Americans back into issues of church history and art that are centuries and centuries old. It’s a kind of category error and everything gets mixed up.”
But that’s what happened when debates about some #BlackLivesMatter activists toppling Confederate memorials — along with attacks on Catholic statues and even insufficiently “woke” Founding Fathers — veered into #WhiteJesus territory.
“Yes, I think the statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down. They are a form of white supremacy,” tweeted Shaun King, author of “Make Change: How to Fight Injustice, Dismantle Systemic Oppression, and Own Our Future.”
The popular internet scribe later added: “All murals and stained-glass windows of white Jesus, and his European mother and their white friends, should also come down. ... We can debate (whether) or not Jesus was real all day long. What I do know, is that white Jesus is a lie. And is a tool of white supremacy created and advanced to help white people use the faith as a tool of oppression. Also, they never would’ve accepted a religion from a Brown man.”
During this firestorm, there were some Christian conservatives who affirmed King’s main point, with crucial caveats.
While it wasn’t “clear whether King was claiming that Jesus is a form of white supremacy or statues that depict Jesus as a white European are forms of white supremacy, King did get one thing right,” noted John Stonestreet and David Carlson, in a BreakPoint radio commentary. “Jesus was not a white European. Jesus would have looked like a first-century Middle Eastern Jew. Because he was one. And that he was is no incidental or accidental part of the redemption story. Throughout Holy Scripture, God reveals himself as a God of time and place.”
At the heart of the debate was a famous painting — the 1940 “Head of Christ” by the American artist Warner E. Sallman. This image shows Jesus gazing toward heaven — with blue eyes and waves of long brownish-blond hair.
While Protestants do not have icons, this image graced church walls for decades and traveled around the world with missionaries, military personnel and in American publications. This Protestant image was, in some ways, a modern expression of portrait trends in the work of some master artists in the European Renaissance.
It’s true, explained Pageau, that iconographers in different cultures have depicted Jesus in many ways — steered by principles of “unity and multiplicity” seen in early church traditions. There were variations in icons of Jesus among Irish Celts, Egyptian Copts, Alaska Aleuts and believers in Turkey, Syria and Palestine. The “cultural pizza” of American church life has led to some confusion.
In ancient traditions, he said, the “goal was to help people encounter Jesus. If an Egyptian visited an Orthodox church in Norway ... he would still recognize an icon of Jesus Christ. It would speak to him. There would be unity there.”
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.