Christmas means different things to different people. Wendy Joyes explores how artwork has variously portrayed Jesus and his coming as a baby, and what the variety of those different perspectives may tell us.

When I was at university working in a fruit and vegetable shop over the summer, Christmas was a day of rest sandwiched between people buying for Christmas dinner and New Year’s parties. When I was a child it was about presents and extended family. Last year I helped children and adults ‘discover’ that Jesus is the point of Christmas. But which Jesus are we talking about?

Head of Christ

Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ from 1940 is one famous depiction of an adult Jesus. Sallman cleverly made friends with Catholic and Protestant publishers in the USA, which helped promulgate the image to the level we have come to know. (See URL #1 at the end of the article for a link to this image.)

I’m sure I remember a print of this image, or one similar, in a frame on my bedroom wall as a child. But is this the Jesus we’re talking about at Christmas? Well, no. For one thing, this is adult Jesus and Christmas is about a baby.  

Sallman’s work might not actually depict a blue-eyed blonde-haired man, not to mention the Eurocentric features of the face, but that is the impression that is often evoked and represented in other artwork. However, having said all this, Sallman’s famous artwork is a valid and important depiction of Jesus.  

Holy Family with the Lamb

Holy Family with the Lamb

Raphael’s artwork Holy Family with the Lamb (pictured right) depicts a younger Jesus. We may see him here as a toddler rather than a baby, but he would likely have been around this age during some of the traditional nativity stories we tell (Matthew 2:1-12) and those we don’t (Matthew 2:13-18). 

In this sense, this artwork is a closer description of the Jesus of Christmas than Sallman’s. However, this too is not an accurate picture to my Western post-enlightenment scientific brain. I may be a generation removed from the farm, but I am yet to meet a sheep that behaves this way. Mary and Joseph’s ages are incongruous, their clothes are the wrong fashion, and the physical features are even less Middle Eastern than before. However, this artwork, too, is a valid and important depiction of the Jesus of Christmas.  

The Star of Bethlehem

This artwork The Star of Bethlehem (pictured at top of page) was painted by Edward Burne-Jones in 1887. An internet search readily produces many more pictures like this, like those previously referred to, and many more styles besides. (See the end of the article for links to this and other artwork examples.)

It is difficult to find a picture that shows a manger and poor Middle Eastern teenage parents wearing clothes accurate to the period. However, all these pieces of art are relevant depictions of the Christmas story. The problem is not with the artistic styles. The problem is with me.

Missing the point

Children have asked some fantastic questions during our mid-week discipleship programme. Three are particularly relevant here. Why was Jesus born a Jew if the Jews didn’t like him? What did Jesus look like? And later, what is DNA?  

Thanks to my YouTube notifications I am reminded of a few lines from the opening song of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. As the crew arrives on a bus and is setting up the stage in the middle of a desert, Judas sings, “If you’d come today you could have reached the whole nation—Israel in 4BC had no mass communication.” These three questions and this lyric is why the problem is with me.  

My critique of the accuracy of the art shows that I have missed the point entirely of how and why Jesus came to Earth, lived among us and died (John 1:1-18). 

If Jesus was born today and made the claims he made, it is likely we would not recognise him. We would be running DNA tests, assessing him and his parents for mental health disorders, and involving child protection and border control agencies to sort out the housing and refugee issues. We would be looking at photos of Jesus on Facebook, comparing him to an orthodontically-enhanced tele-evangelist or to George Clooney, and ignoring him (Isaiah 53:2).  

We would be saying we can’t relate to Jesus, that Jesus has nothing to offer us because he doesn’t share our background or hasn’t walked a mile in our shoes. We would be hearing his whakapapa and pepeha and finding points of discord rather than points of harmony. At best he’d be an inspiring motivational speaker. At worst he’d be a lunatic cult leader. We would be no different than the people among whom Jesus lived (Isaiah 53:3).

We have no actual pictures of what Jesus looked like because we do not need one. John 1:14 tells us all we need to know: “…the Word became flesh and lived among us…” (NRSV). That is why Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) dressed as a Buddhist monk and a Chinese scholar. That is why missionaries in Kathmandu on the hippie trail often wore clothes like those of the people they were helping. That is why artists have taken Sallman’s work and reinterpreted it in different cultural contexts. That is why artists have created pieces that depict aspects of the Christmas story in different cultural settings.  

Why do we not know what Jesus looks like? Why are the historical and modern artworks all vital and relevant? Because Jesus looks like you and me. 


Wendy’s artwork suggestions

These URLs are for artworks about Jesus and the nativity, from different cultural views: 

  1. https://bit.ly/3nmQm9U
  2. https://bit.ly/3ku7msT
  3. https://bit.ly/3eZz7Is
  4. https://bit.ly/32EubUw
  5. https://bit.ly/36zrBQQ
  6. https://binged.it/3eRRJu9
  7. https://bit.ly/3eRJuOC
  8. https://bit.ly/36DHMN9
  9. https://bit.ly/2UolFEC
  10. https://bit.ly/38C1qLX

Contributor: Wendy Joyes

Wendy is passionate about building relationships and supporting families’ spiritual development in the home. She runs Hutt City Baptist Church’s children’s programmes, including mainly music. In her spare time she can usually be found with her dog Biko.

“The Star of Bethlehem by Edward Burne-Jones” by Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.