The Black Christ
Can Jesus Christ be depicted in a Byzantine icon as a black man? Byzantine iconography is strictly governed by theological considerations. Everything in an icon must conform to the Bible, the historical events in a saint’s life, and the other elements of Tradition. At first glance, these requirements seem to deny the possibility of painting a black Christ. I believe that a more careful consideration of this question is required, however.
“Tradition” is a key word in this question. In common use, “tradition” means the way things have been done for a long time. Since icons have never been painted of Jesus Christ as a black man, this definition would prevent such an icon from ever being painted. There is no room for further consideration. In a theological sense, however, “Tradition” means the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, something that is ongoing. This second definition is often forgotten when people talk about icons, but it is the only definition which should limit an iconographer. Not everything traditional in the first sense has been from the Holy Spirit. At the same time, the life of the Holy Spirit within the Church has not ceased in our day. An iconographer must look forward as well as backward, respecting the canons of iconography, but also attending to the signs of his own time. To live in the past and refuse to look for God’s continuing revelation is to serve an idol rather than the living God.
While it is true that most icons of Christ faithfully resemble one another, regardless of the country or century in which they have been painted, there are some rather surprising icons — both in Russia and Greece — which do not look at all like the familiar Pantocrator. In medieval Russia, icons were painted of Christ as Holy Wisdom, with bright red skin, a beardless face, royal Byzantine robes, and wings. In Greece we find Christ with a long white beard and wrinkled face, as the Ancient of Days from the Old Testament. Also from the Old Testament, we find Christ as a beardless angel with wings, in icons of the three Hebrew youths in the fiery furnace. None of these icons bears any resemblance to a Semitic man of the first century. Each has a scriptural or theological justification, however. And each has been accepted as a legitimate expression of the faith of the Church.
No human being has ever had wings or bright red skin, but a very large portion of our race has black skin. A black Christ should therefore be less startling than one that is fire-engine red. But what theological justification is there for a black Christ?
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