Were Jesus and the 12 disciples black Africans? No. Nor were they the European- looking crowd in Leonardo's depiction. In reality, they were Palestinian Jews whose coloring and appearance would have reflected their ethnic origin.
Yet Jesus transcends time, space, culture and race. That concept is at the heart of the Incarnation. John's gospel states: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And we beheld his glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14)
Incarnation means that Jesus of Nazareth had a real body, with definite physical characteristics. Yet, for whatever reason, not one of the biblical writers bothered to describe Jesus' appearance for us. We do know that he got hungry and thirsty, slept during storms, cried real tears and felt real pain. The Jesus of history was a specific individual with a family lineage, genetic profile and definite physical manifestations. In some ways, to deny his particularity is to deny his incarnation.
Yet he is also the Christ of faith--"God with us"--who belongs to all people and societies. Some depict him as the suffering Christ, the exalted Christ, the resurrected Christ, the medieval Christ or the modern Christ. Some, in accordance with Matthew 25, have sketched him in the faces of the poor, the imprisoned and the sick.
The Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Art mixes all those categories for the eye, ear and heart. Art is not a photograph or videotape. It bursts out of the soul, from the hands and the paintbrushes of the artist. And, in unexpected ways, art draws us nearer to Jesus the Christ. Such art is often controversial in its time. Some visual representations offend, even as they bless. They also force us to think about Jesus and ourselves in new and different ways.