Images of Jesus

by the Rev. Cheryl V. Minor, PhD
Director of the Center for the Theology of Childhood

The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci

The Last Supper offered a lasting image of Jesus and his disciples.

Artists creating images of Jesus and his followers depict ethnic characteristics like those of the artist’s culture. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper is a good example. The painting, created around the time of the voyages of Columbus, depicts Jesus and his disciples as wealthy late 15th century northern Italians. They look like someone who might buy a painting from Da Vinci.

Art was so important in the development of Western Christian identity, that Renaissance paintings determined how people pictured Jesus, Mary, and his disciples. However, anti-Semitism or racism is inherent in many of these paintings.  For example, the only person who “looks Jewish” in Da Vinci’s painting, is Judas with dark, curly hair. Of course, not all Jewish people have dark and curly hair, but for his time, Da Vinci painted a representative figure, a stereotype.

Given this history, and knowing that Sunday school artwork forms us in ways we do not even realize, it is no wonder that when Godly Play materials were first developed, eye color and skin tone were not carefully considered.

Jesus may have had green eyes for all we know. Or he might have had reddish hair like Esau, or dark skin, or an aquiline nose, or . . . you get the idea.  What he probably did not have was white skin. He spent a lot of time in the sun. He probably also did not walk around picking up lambs in a white robe, or dress like a Roman senator. Jesus likely had brown eyes and brown hair, and a nice outdoor tan.  But does it matter?

At Godly Play Resources the answer is yes! It does matter. In Godly Play we have always said that we do not just teach with words, but also with the materials. All the materials are carefully developed with the unspoken lesson in mind. Sacred Stories are three dimensional because they happened in time and space. Parables are flat because they are fictional. So, when it comes to the way we depict Jesus and his followers in artwork, we want to take great care.

With all that in mind, we have taken action. The art work in the Faces of Easter (found in Volume 4 of the Complete Guide to Godly Play) has been revised so that there are no more blue eyes to be seen. The skin tones of the people depicted in the story known as The Greatest Parable (found in Volume 8 of the Complete Guide to Godly Play) have been darkened. Is there more that needs to happen? Yes, indeed! Be assured, we are regularly working to improve the quality of the materials on all levels.

3 thoughts on “Images of Jesus

  1. Jamie Hui

    Yes – I’m glad that good changes are being made. I am totally sold out on godly play and can’t stop loving it! I also like to bring it to someone’s attention that the synagogue is built very big. It looks out of proportion compared to the tabernacle and the temple. It was made to order and before it was delivered, I made a temporary synagogue with a shoe box that went well with the story. After the wooden model of the synagogue came, I observed that the kids enjoyed playing with the shoe box more than the wooden model. The shoe box did not stand the test of time of course. I wondered if the model can be made smaller and proportionate to the rest of the classroom materials. Thanks for reading.

  2. Dominic Black

    Most of the materials are very simple to make yourself from plywood. Have a go. It is also good Montessori practice as you will have a deeper connection with materials you have created.

  3. Ashley WolfTornabane

    Wow, as I read this, I have been working on my own Faces of Easter for our Godly Play room because ‘white Jesus’ has bothered me for a long time. I’ve come to a little more peace with it because of the song, “Some children see Him”, but I still don’t think we should have all white representations of Jesus in church. Our town enjoys a diverse community, so it’s important to me that they know Jesus probably looked more like many of them than like me, but I think I would especially want to do this if we had all white children. I want the children to know that Jesus probably looked a lot like many middle eastern Muslims who often times endure hate from our part of the world.

    I was so happy to read this! Thank you so much for caring about this topic!

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