Images of the first century Palestinian Jewish man named Jesus are more prevalent this time of year than any other. Depictions rendered by artists (namely by or inspired by an artist named Warner Sallman) are resurrected and pervade our social consciousness. Images grace the covers of popular magazines that otherwise would never have a religious figure on the cover. They often have phrases under then like “The Real Jesus” (US News and World Report) or “Uncovering Jesus”. They seek to offer readers some historical context for understanding the life and times of arguably the most influential person in human history.
Art is a powerful tool. It can convey emotion, express complex ideas, offer hope, present mystery, and point to things beyond our present reality.
Among the most popular pieces of art (or sets of art) in the world are depictions of Jesus created in the 40’s by an artist named Warner Sallman. Sallman was originally commissioned to create a more masculine image of Christ by Dr. E O Sellers (1924ish). The set of images presented to the world up to that time (as thought by Sellers and members of the institute he was dean of) were too passive. Jesus looked to him too effeminate, too gauntly, and too non-American. [This was 1920’s America]. Sallman woke up the day of the deadline for the submission with an idea and sketched it in charcoal. Sallman integrated other features that had become more and more popular every since the spread of Christianity in medieval Europe to distinguish Biblical characters worthy of veneration from depictions of the “negative” characters like King Herod and Judas who were depicted to have more “Jewish” features. This tradition was inherited in order to perpetuate and solidify the message that it was the “Jews”…a group somehow distinct from “Christians” that crucified Christ. [This was 1920’s America...the height of Anti-Semitism in America].
Sallman’s paintings captured the heart of America. By the 1940’s his pieces began to spread like wild fire. In 1940, based on his earlier sketches, he created what has become the most duplicated piece of art in the world, Sallman’s Head of Christ. His pieces were something unlike other images at the time in that they reflected the deepest held views of America about what the person they would worship should look like. [This was 1940’s America]. Sallman had captured an ideal. For a decade, between 1940 and 1950 pieces that would become as American as apple pie (maybe more so) were created by the same artist who had mastered the formula for what America wanted in their Jesus. To Sallman belongs not only the famous Head of Christ, but the ubiquitous painting of Jesus knocking at the door, and many others.
But 1940s America was a very significant time in American and global history. The ideal figure that Sallman had created or based his images off of held a certain place in American and global society. To that ideal was granted certain rights and privileges not afforded to others. Sallman had created an exceptionally tall, strong looking, beautiful man who could be easily seen as strong enough to fight off attacks from a Japanese enemy, but gentle enough to open the door for a lady. He was John Wayne and George Washington combined! He was perfect! [This is 1940s America]
The nation, or those in power, were complicit with the state of things. There was enough other mess going on. Good Christian folks may not have “supported” the segregation of the day but they weren’t making too much fuss about it. The Civil Rights Movement wasn’t at its peak. That wouldn’t be for another 20 or so years. The country had “enough on its plate”. We were trying to emerge from the Great Depression and FDR was president. Anti-Semitism was not as high as it was in the 20’s and 30’s but it was high.
To white Christians (non-Jews), to Sallman, and to the Jesus he had created (to be a perfected image of their ideals, hopes, and dreams) this was the time some historians call the Golden Age of America.
[OK…enough with the history]
During this season of Christmas, where we are bombarded with images, I created (manipulated) an image to provoke thought and to engage in discussion. The work that I am committed to doing right now in my life as an artist is centered around exploring the role of sexuality and skin tone in the formation of identity. It is impossible for me in doing this work to not take seriously the function of the art that unlike any other time of the year is all around us, its history, and how it shapes all of our lives.
People aren’t born thinking they are ugly, or inferior, or not good enough, or too black or too white or not strong enough or too fat or too gay or too feminine or too masculine. These things are constructed…slowly over time…with unbelievable precision. Us, our institutions, our art, our lack of understanding of history, our fear, and our hesitancy to deconstruct these things keep us here.
I’m one of you. I’m afraid of what I don’t know. I afraid of being rejected. I’m afraid of being judged. I hate the thought of being isolated and unliked. I was afraid to post this image. I was afraid of what you might say or think of me.
...so I did it.
This is not an attempt to make people think that Jesus was black. That doesn’t do anything for us. I do, in this season of mass consumption: of food, of stuff, of images of a first century Jew from Palestine named Jesus to take a moment to think about what all of it means. In this time of great discovery, of birth, of mystery, let’s be as imaginative and as hungry to meet Jesus as the Magi.
…to ask ourselves where it all comes from, to ask why is it presented this way, to not be complicit, to think anew about what a Jesus who would have fought against segregation, who would have refused to drink, swim, or be baptized in a segregated pool. To think anew about a Jesus who may have been, on the flip side, not allowed to drink, swim, or be baptized with others. To think anew about maybe emphasizing less the images of any figure that has been dictated to us of any particular race and try to discover the essence of the truth within the teachings.
…to fight against the structures: institutional, mental, personal, that separate us…to think boldly but with passion about how to do so…through thought provoking art, through conversations, through how we spend our resources, etc…to think about what we can do to not be a religion/group that performs our holiest of actions on the holiest of days in ways that don’t scream for _________________ only but instead all are welcome.
PLEASE READ LET JESUS WALK PART 2
Creator of 50 Shades of Black