Museum Sued for Art Depicting Jesus as White

Portrait of the Savior as a Young Man

On November 26, Justin Renel Joseph visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and was horrified by what he saw. Racist artworks, hanging right there on the walls of this so-called “museum.” These works, including but not limited to four specifically named paintings, blatantly misrepresented the hair texture and skin color of an important historical figure:

In each case, the Racist Artworks depict the historical and public figure of Hebrew descent, Jesus Christ, as a blonde haired, fair-skinned, Aryan adult male, despite that an adult male native to the Middle-Eastern region of Hebrew descent who existed from approximately 1 B.C.E. to approximately 33 A.D. would not be genetically disposed to possess such features (i.e., blonde hair, fair-skin and other such Aryan features) and despite that historical accounts of Jesus Christ describe him with hair like wool and skin of bronze color.

(All sic, especially the hyphenation.) Plaintiff suffered “emotional and psychological harm” from exposure to the offending art, and four days later, he sued, demanding among other things that it be removed from the museum.

Well, there can be no dispute that the paintings in question do depict said historical figure (and others) as relatively fair-skinned. See, e.g., Exhibit A:


The Blonde Holy Family With Blonde Angels and an Old Dude Who I’m Sure Was Previously Also Blonde (Sebastiano Ricci, c. 1700)

The other allegedly offending works are “The Resurrection” (Perugino, c. 1502), “The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes” (Tintoretto, c. 1545-50), and “The Crucifixion” (Granacci, c. 1510) (exhibits B-D respectively). To me Jesus looks a little bronzed in some of those, but that might just be from spending too much time out in the sun. So let’s assume it’s fair to say that Jesus is in fact depicted in these works as being, broadly speaking, a white person.

He probably wasn’t, but the fact is we have no idea. It seems pretty much settled that despite the plaintiff’s claim, there are no contemporary “historical accounts” (i.e. not later forgeries) that describe what Jesus looked like. The Bible doesn’t do so, except arguably in Revelation when John says “His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were as a flame of fire; And his feet like unto fine brass [often translated as “bronze”], as if they burned in a furnace” (1:14-15). This seems to be where the wool and bronze stuff comes from. But this is just post-human Jesus being awesome, not a physical description of him during life. Of course, the Bible says that he was a Jewish man who lived in the Middle East, so if he had been a Masai warrior or a little Japanese dude, for example, somebody probably would have mentioned it. But the conclusions you can safely draw from this information are pretty limited.

So this is problem numero uno with the lawsuit. Plaintiff is claiming that the Met has violated his civil rights and the First Amendment by “endorsing” a racist depiction of Jesus. And he appears to claim standing partly on the grounds that, like Jesus, he too “possesses black hair like wool and skin of bronze color.” But if nobody knows what Jesus actually looked like—and since Plaintiff seems to be misquoting John by talking about black wool anyway—then Plaintiff can hardly prove that the depictions are false, let alone racist.

Problem number two, even if they were racist, putting a racist work on display doesn’t mean you’re “endorsing” racism. Or, as Plaintiff puts it, that the Met is “deliberately and affirmatively endorsing anti-Semitic, racist and offensive, view-point based discriminatory speech” just by hanging some pictures that show a white Jesus. I mean, I could set up an entire museum that had nothing but white-Jesus pictures, or Nazi propaganda, or New Kids on the Block memorabilia or whatever, and that wouldn’t necessarily mean I endorsed any of it. Here, of course, the Met is not endorsing the viewpoint, if any, expressed in the artwork it hangs. It might be taking a position on its quality as art, but that’s not illegal.

DP231460And the Met doesn’t show only one kind of art anyway. For example, here’s a piece from Nigeria that depicts the King of Benin’s mother, and—wait a minute, she’s white too! What is going on here?!

Oh, it’s made out of ivory, which is white, and which was apparently for whatever reason a “symbol of ritual purity” to those people.  But did the Met specifically pick this one piece because it shows a black person with white skin? I seriously doubt it, partly because there are 1,786 other artworks on display in the section on Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, and while I haven’t looked at all of them, I’m not really seeing a Caucasianish theme there overall. It looks like here color was just color.

This is not the same thing as with the Jesus pictures, of course. To explain that, Met officials suggested that artists often tend to depict subjects in the image of the audience, and at the time and place of the paintings the subject was Jesus and the audience was white Christian Europeans. Now, could you call their depictions a kind of pro-Christian racist propaganda? You sure could! Is it fair to point out that Jesus probably wasn’t white (or not this white, anyway), and otherwise put this stuff in historical context? It sure is! I just did! Would it be kind of cool and interesting if you painted a picture depicting Jesus as black, or however you think he looked? I think it would! Is the best way to make these points by suing a museum for showing some pictures? No it is not!