BYU–Hawaii students and faculty reflect on depictions of the Savior throughout history

Written by: 
Elijah Hadley


Since the beginning of Christianity, artists have used their skills to attempt to depict the Savior, Jesus Christ, as an expression of faith, said BYU–Hawaii artists. Throughout the history of art, different depictions of Christ have been common. Although students and faculty said it would be nice to know how he looked, they said the emotion that the art emits is more important.

Artists from different countries have depicted Jesus Christ in many different ways, often creating controversies, according to Elysse Hunt, a junior from California studying intercultural peacebuilding. “Artists often depict the Savior with their skin tone and wearing the clothing of their culture. This was so that he could be more relatable to them because he looked like one of them.”

“Whenever I decide to draw the Savior, it’s honestly a little bit daunting. He is the most important person in my life, and I want to make sure I get it right. Sometimes in church or at a conference, I’ll sketch him in my journal whenever I am reminded of the Atonement. I take it very seriously, but I don’t know if there is a specifically correct way to draw or paint him.”

When asked how she thought Jesus Christ should be depicted, Hunt responded, “He should be strong and brotherly, but should also look meek and mild. He should not look stern or angry but have a loving, tender look in his eyes.

“He should look more like a kind older brother than an all-powerful being. If someone can accurately depict that way in a painting or drawing of Christ, that’s what I connect with best.”

Hunt said a common depiction of Jesus Christ is a strong-looking middle-aged man with a short beard and long hair. Of this depiction, Hunt said, “The scriptures do not really tell us what Jesus looked like.

Joseph Smith’s testimony tells us that ‘His brightness and glory defy all description.’ A lot of artists paint him as a Caucasian male, some depict him as African or Asian, but in reality, he was a Galilean Jew from Nazareth. Many of the paintings we have of him probably were not what he looked like.”

When asked if it mattered to her what Christ really looked like, Hunt said, “It does not matter to me. I don’t think God and Jesus Christ care about skin color. We should focus more on his message than his appearance.”

“My favorite paintings of Christ,” Hunt continued, “are by Walter Rane. He shows him living with the people, not isolated and stern as other artists do. I connect better with depictions of Christ that portray him as a leader and a loving older brother; someone who is strong, calm, compassionate, and firm but not overbearing.”

Reagan Spence, a freshman from California majoring in business, said, “I think the color is something we as people take into consideration way too often. I don’t think Heavenly Father and Jesus see color the way we do.”

“If an artist wants to portray Christ in a certain way, as being part of a certain race, I don’t see a problem. After all, it doesn’t really matter what Jesus looked like. His teachings were the most important thing. Pictures just give us the feeling of what His presence must have been like.”

Jeff Merrill, associate professor and coordinator of the Visual Arts Department, said, “It shouldn’t matter if it looks what someone might deem ‘accurate,’ because the truth is, we just don’t know. Skin color doesn’t matter either.

“What matters is an artist is depicting their concept of Christ, and in doing so, they want to create an emotional power. It doesn’t matter what he looks like in the painting. To me, painting is a deviation from reality, so it should not look exact. It’s all about visualizing Christ.”

Merrill continued, “I feel like a lot of the members of our church get hung up on the likeness and miss out on the teachings. I do not think Christ wants us to debate about what color his skin or hair was. When we have realistic paintings such as the one by Del Parson, which is very recognizable, of Jesus in a red robe looking straight at the viewer, we lose some mystery. I prefer the paintings without very defined edges or lines.“

Merrill added, “My favorite paintings of Christ are by Minerva Teichert, which show him in a way that leaves more to the imagination, and he is shown as less stern and more loving and caring.”


Date Published: 
Tuesday, December 4, 2018
Last Edited: 
Thursday, December 6, 2018