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