What does your Jesus look like? I’ve been interested in portrayals of Jesus since I was assigned a 2005 article for Relevant about how everyone, from hippies to capitalist republicans to urban hipsters, seems to want to claim Jesus for themselves. Jesus is the most accessible personality in human history — because he has something to offer everyone, and everyone focuses on the aspect of his life and teachings that fit them best. Hippies like his peace, love, and tolerance for outsiders. Preschool teachers like that he seemed to love and respect children. Conservatives like his emphasis on personal holiness and attachment to traditional values. Democrats like his concern for the poor. And all of us could make a bunch of other random generalizations along those lines.
And just as we all tend to emphasize a different facet of who Jesus was, we also think of him a certain way when it comes to his appearance. How do you picture Jesus? As the solemn, big-eyed, Byzantine figure in one of the Christ Pantocrator icons? As a tragic, emaciated figure on the cross? As a gentle shepherd holding a fluffy baby lamb? As the soft-lit, shiny-haired Jesus of Warner Sallman’s painting “Head of Christ”? (The familiar one from your Sunday School classroom, where Jesus had a nicely trimmed beard and plucked eyebrows and caucasian skin and may or may not have been a woman.)
Visually, most of us have a certain image of Jesus that comes to mind. Here’s the question, though: Do you ever think of Jesus with a smile?
I don’t. Probably because it’s so rare that you see images of smiley Jesus. Why is that?
A few years ago, an Australian group commissioned pieces from several artists around the world — all of whom live in struggling communities, from Mongolia to New Guinea — to create an image of a happy Jesus, which the world of religious imagery sorely needs. The Jesus Laughing Exhibition is traveling around to very positive reviews. Next stop, I believe, is a United Methodist church in Leeds, UK. It’s worth a visit to the collection’s website, just to see the paintings. They’re…different. Gone is the serious, drab Jesus. In his place is a Jesus who juggles. And tells jokes. And plays a ukelele. (That last one? Probably not historically accurate.) Visit the Jesus Laughing exhibition here, where you can download all the images.
Want more fun images of Jesus? You can’t beat “Jesus of the Week,” a snarky Village Voice-produced project that collects depictions of Jesii (including the grinning Jesus above).
And for a more serious take — and by “serious” I’m referring to both the commentary and the non-smilingness of the images — visit Beliefnet’s Jesus in Art Through the Centuries project.
So…what does your Jesus look like?