Jesus in the Medieval European Imagination
lifesgrandparade reblogged your photo:
…Is Mary selling a John The Baptist t-shirt in the corner there?
It’s the Veil of Veronica, an image supposedly made miraculously without paint or dye, when Saint Veronica wiped the blood and sweat from the face of Jesus during the crucifixion procession. It’s meant to be the actual face of Christ. Which reminds me of something I really wanted to talk about.
Monique Scheer has a great paper that I’ve cited before (and which I remain critical of in its conclusions), that sheds so much light on what I mean when I talk about how our perception of these works has been greatly affected by people who wrote about it before our time. From the paper:
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe also expressed a sense of aesthetic disappointment in black madonnas in a comment from 1816: “How the most unhappy of all appearances could have crept in-that, probably for Egyptian or Abessinian reasons, the Mother of God is portrayed as brown, and the face of Our Savior printed on Veronica’s veil was also given a moorish color-may be clarified when that part of art history is more closely examined.”
^ See what I mean?
Academics writing now actually kept the whole idea, they just snipped off the part where it’s openly and blatantly racist in a way we recognize immediately.
I mean, there is plenty of text to support that that’s what a fair amount of Medieval Europeans thought Jesus looked like, more or less. You have Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love:
His clothing was full and ample, as befits a lord; the cloth was as blue as azure, most sober and comely. His expression was merciful, the colour of his face a comely brown with pronounced features; his eyes were black, most comely and handsome, appearing full of tender pity…” (118)
The brown of his fair face with the handsome blackness of the eyes was most suited to showing his holy gravity… (119)
Obviously the Europeans who created these works thought Jesus looked the way he was supposed to, and made images of him this way without really needing to “explain” it. After all, the painting above would have been instantly recognizable to intended viewers as Jesus.
It’s not the Medieval artist Robert Campin who thought he had given the Son of God “the most unhappy of all appearances”, after all!! It was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who decided hundreds of years later that he didn’t care for the appearance of Jesus in that particular work because of his skin color. And in 1816, he decided he was going to come up with some kind of “explanation” for why Jesus and Mary were depicting with a dark and/or brown skin color in so much art from that era.
Anything you read about the Black Madonnas or Medieval European depictions of Jesus with brown or black skin is going to talk about “candle smoke”, parishioners with dirty touchy fingers, aging pigments and “chemical reactions”.
Finally, I am not trying to make a “race claim” for Jesus.
I am saying that there is plenty of evidence that a contingent of Medieval Europeans thought Jesus was brown, that white people in the late 1700s and 1800s didn’t like that because they had racialized skin color and decided brown or Black skin was bad to serve their own purposes, and decided to change history because they didn’t like it.
I am saying that it’s people like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who are responsible for what we think we know about Medieval Europe, because the information we have now was filtered through the racism and colonialism of that century.
And that is “why” and “how” I can apply modern ideas about race to Medieval Art. The intent of the Medieval Artists and their original context is not my main focus here. How these works were received in later centuries and are still interpreted right now is.