Changing Appearances According to the Audience

by David Clayton on June 3, 2011

When depicting Christ or Our Lady one always has to consider their individual characterics (handed down to us by tradition); but at the same time the artist will always consider modifying the appearance so that those who are likely to see the painting will identify with Him or her. Here are some paintings by Chinese Christians. The first, left, dates from the 14th century and the second from the turn of the last century.

Christ is the Everyman, the model for all humanity. When He (or indeed Our Lady and the saints) are painted, the image must also participate in a model of humanity that the audience can relate to. All sacred art is a balance of the general and the particular. If those who are going to see the painting are going to be almost exclusively Chinese, then it is a legitimate approach, I would argue, to portray Christ and Our Lady as Chinese.

This principle is used famously, in a different way, in the Isenheim altarpiece painted in the early 16th century in the gothic style by the German artist Matthias Grunewald. Christ is horribly disfigured, but not as he would have been disfigured by the passion. This painting was made for a hospital in which people were suffering from an illness caused by fungus in the rye grain used in the bread eaten locally. The cause was not known at the time and so the illness was incurable. The symptoms match exactly those that Christ has in the painting. This is clearly intended to offer solace to the patients to communicate to them that Christ is suffering with them and for them.

There are many depictions of Christ by Western European artists that show him as Western European for the same reasons. When I showed my students the Christ pantocrator, below, many assumed that this was painted in Western Europe too, and were surprised to learn that it was from Mt Sinai in Egypt. I could only offer a speculation as to why his skin tone is paler than one would expect of a working man, a carpenter, in the Middle East, which would surely have been known to the Egytians who saw this image in the 6th century. I suggested that as this was in the iconographic form, the artist would shown the uncreated, heavenly light emanating from the person of Christ. So the lightening of the skin tone is linked, perhaps, along with the other familiar features such as the halo to the depiction of this. As usual I will be interested to see if there any readers who can enlighten us (if you’ll forgive the pun) on this matter.

Even if my suggestion is correct. It doesn’t apply universally. The last two are from Russia. So in this case the skin tone reflects neither the uncreated light, nor that of those who are likely to see the icon. I once had lessons from an icon painter in England who had been at one time a student of the famous Russian iconographer, Ouspensky. She told me to use predominantly the green-brown colour that we see there (called ‘avana ochre’) with highlights used sparingly in yellow ochre and white specifically because it matched the olive-brown Mediterranean complexion.

It seems that an artist has a choice in these matters. The governing principle is that he should aim to maximize his chances of communicating the person of Christ to those who are likely to see his work.

The Isenheim altarpiece

Caravaggio’s Flagellation of Christ

Mt Sinai, Christ Pantocrator









{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim Janknegt June 3, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Do you think it is inappropriate to paint Mary without a veil? It seems awkward when attempting to paint contemporary depictions of the blessed Mother as almost no one wears veils any more. What do you think?

Here is one example where I did not paint a veil:


David Clayton June 9, 2011 at 1:04 pm

I always would. I think that it is one area where a contrast with modern dress makes a valuable point. It is a powerful symbol of modesty, which is so necessary today


Rachel June 15, 2011 at 1:03 am

Perhaps my observation will be too simple, but still I offer it: on the icon of Christ from Mt. Sinai, might the lighter skin tone be, in fact, deterioration due to age? I notice His hands are actually much darker than His face, and the rest of His facial features look Middle Eastern. Perhaps, when new, His face matched His hands’ color. Just a thought. Though I have no idea why the face’s color would fade, but not the hands!

As an American of mostly Western and some Central European heritage (plus a smattering of Cherokee), it is only natural for me to be drawn most to images of Christ and Our Lady that look Western European. However, I really, really love images that are ‘inculturated’ (is that the word?), which really the Western European ones, all the ‘classics’, are, since Christ, etc, were not from Europe. I love Chinese, Japanese, Middle Eastern, African…all these depictions. They bring delight to my soul to see the Catholicity of Christ and the Church depicted so visibly. Just like Mary appeared as an Aztec princess to St. Juan Diego, and spoke his native tongue, and thus did for all the Latino people, she also bore characteristics familiar to the Spanish, linking the two cultures. At the same time, Mary spoke French to St. Catherine Laboure, and the local French dialect to St. Bernadette, etc. The list goes on. I have often wondered if, in Heaven, we will see Christ and Mary as they really look, in their Middle Eastern (glorified) form, or if we will each see them in the form most comforting/relatable to us, be it Chinese or French, or Mexican, etc.

Are you familiar with the icons depicting Christ, Our Lady, etc as Native American, from various tribes? I stumbled across them last year, they are truly stunning.

On a similar note, I have often thought that it would be a wondrous sight to see a Chinese or Japanese church done in the traditional architectural style of those cultures. All the beauty and distinctiveness would be kept, yet Christianized. (Rather than a pagoda temple to Buddha or some other pagan deity, it would be a Catholic church.) All the art would depict Christ, etc as one of those races, too. In this way, it would be like the churches of Europe, where the architecture is of the culture, and Christ and the (non-European) saints look European, too. I think this would be a fascinating undertaking, and I wonder if the evangelization of those cultures would be aided by such inculturation, as I think it did in Europe, when Europe’s art began to show Christ, etc as European. Perhaps Christianity still seems too “foreign” and thus irrelevant or something hard to relate to, to those lands.

Another thought: if depicting Mary with an all-out veil or mantle seems incongruous for one’s artwork, perhaps a pretty scarf wrapped around her head, like is sometimes done today in fashion, would work? It would still point her out to be the Blessed Virgin, but in a more modern way, perhaps. Or possibly a scarf or shawl that has fallen to her shoulders? Just ideas. :P I agree it is a symbol that should be retained as much as possible, though. There are many medieval depictions of her truly as a ‘maiden’ — with long hair, unbound and uncovered. Often the Annunciation or as Madonna of the Rose Bower/Garden, etc. Or where she has a mantle, but it is draped about her shoulders and not her head. So it is not without some precedent. It is best to keep her identifying color of blue, though. :)

Sorry for saying so much, I guess this post made me think of a lot!


David Clayton June 19, 2011 at 7:39 am

Thank you! lots to think about here. In regard to the possible changing of the complexion over time: maybe. The medium used in this icon is encaustic. In this the pigment is set in wax. I am not an expert at all, but I don’t think the pigments themselves would have changed over time. It does depend on how much direct sunlight has been incident upon it over the centuries, and if at some stage it’s been sitting in the Egyptian sun then that might have had an effect, but my guess is that they wouldn’t do that and it’s been carefully kept in a church over the centuries (that’s how it’s lasted this long). So my sense is no, but I don’t really know for certain so you may be right!


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