On Blond Jesus — how a little art history can go a long way

Not blond, but pale and skinny in this fresco by Fra Angelico in the Louvre
Not blond, but pale and skinny in this fresco by Fra Angelico in the Louvre

Everyone once in a while, someone, maybe a friend in conversation, maybe a preacher from a pulpit, will come down hard on traditional western images of Christ, saying that that pale, blond, slender Jesus is a remote image of someone who is very close. Or, as Mark Driscoll says, he can’t worship a Jesus whom he could beat up. Or there is a complaint that the white Jesus is just another example of western, imperial triumphalism over the Middle Eastern, Jewish roots of Christianity.

A few words about how misguided the above representations are in order, then.

Starting with the last first: Most of these images are too old to be imperialist. In fact, they’re often so old and from places so far removed from the Middle East that it would surprise me enormously to see a swarthy Jesus. In, say, mediaeval Norway. Third, I have a feeling that, even if the artists were thinking, ‘Let’s make Him look Jewish’, they would have made him pale, given that a lot of European Jews are, in fact, pale.

A pale Jesus from San Marco, Venice (not my pic)
A pale Jesus from San Marco, Venice (not my pic)

But just as there is more to slender, wispy mediaeval saints than their status as pillars, so also is there more to our images of Christ. We must ask ourselves why Jesus is sometimes blond, and why sometimes a fairly slender specimen of the male gender. The answer will silence those of Mark Driscoll’s ilk and hopefully be the starting place of an answer for those who find these Jesuses remote.

Mid-14th c. French diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)
He can’t help but be pale when carved out of ivory. Mid-14th c. French diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)

So, if you ever see a blond Jesus, why would that be? (Blond Jesuses are actually hard to find; mind you, my experience of looking is mostly Italian and Orthodox art.) The answer, as always with mediaeval art and architecture, is theological (who’d’ve guessed?):


Byzantine mosaic of the Transfiguration, 11th-12th c, Louvre (my pic)
Byzantine mosaic of the Transfiguration, 11th-12th c, Louvre (my pic)

These images are not supposed to be perfect, mimetic, historically accurate pictures of Jesus as he actually was whilst on earth. Byzantine icons (which are definitely never blond) and western mediaeval paintings/mosaics are, as Rowan Williams puts it, ‘theology in line and colour.’

Jesus is perfect. Jesus is God. He is, spiritually speaking, beautiful. In fact, He is Perfection. He is Beauty. He is the Good/Beautiful (to kalon) that Plato aspires to in the Symposium.

As a result, Jesus has a tendency to adhere to cultural standards of beauty wherever he goes. This is the short and simple answer why northern Europeans would make a blond Jesus — because they are blond. Because blond in their culture is beautiful. So Jesus is beautiful. So he is blond. And white. Like them. It is the enculturation of Christian theology and Gospel.

This, when combined with the spiritualising of the human form I blogged about earlier, produces our pale, slender Christ Crucified. Put Him in stained glass, and He also is a reminder of the Uncreated Light, drawing us upward into God with Gothic architecture and its spirituality of light and of height.

Christ in Glory
Blond Jesus, from Haworth Parish Church (my pic)

People still do this — we have black Christs, First Nations Christs, Chinese Christs. By doing this, we take the particularity of the Christian narrative — that God became a man in first-century Roman Judaea to save us — and make it universal — He did so for you, here and now in this remote corner of the world. Here in Paris, in Toronto, in Timbuktu — Christ is for you.

Chinese Jesus, ca. 1879 (thanks, Franciscans!)

And He is Beautiful.


3 thoughts on “On Blond Jesus — how a little art history can go a long way

  1. The ancients described and depicted Jesus as blond because He is. Just as a number of jews are and always were even before coming to europe. And Jews/ Israelite tribes varied between darker and lighter even thousands of years ago.
    i’ve seen Jesus and He is alive and indeed blond. I am not at all blond and a bit on the tan side. But when ( as a child) i died and He came down to me and gave me my life back, in person, He was definitely extremely blond. As in, shining bright yellow blond. I don’t recall His eye color because His eyes had rays of piercing light coming from them. That Light pierced all thru me warmly and felt good, as He examined my inner person. I recall His skin, it was white, but not the whitest white. More of a golden complexion like many blondes with just a kiss of sun. Going by memory of decades ago.
    His hair was straight and it came to about his shoulder blades. He was VERY slender waisted , tall, had a good set of shoulders, very long arms.
    So this is how He looks as a person appearing on Earth in nature, not as a spiritual vision with symbolism. He had on a white linen “robe” aka dress, and it has long angel sleeves.
    He healed me of my broken neck and head injury immediately, by touch and word, and we spent some time talking. He told me who i am in His scheme of things and other stuff.
    He came down on a small white cloud and left up in the air walking, zipped across the air and disappeared from sight, carried like 500 mph to ” his other sheep” who needed Him, He said.

  2. –continued–
    oh i forgot, when Jesus came to me and healed me in person. He also had a long beard to His chest, very narrow and seemed to just cover His chin, also blond and mostly straight with just some curl on the ends. Nothing bushy or big . His face was fine featured, no big nose but a fine narrow nose, more delicate than people imagine a ” jew face” looks like. ( Lots of jews have always had those fine features). so the dark depictions of Him as being a burly or coarse looking dude are just stereotypes of carpenters and Mideasterners. Not at all what He really looks like. He is much more refined looking . ( as are many ” carpenters” who work wood with thier hands).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.