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Double Diptych Icon Pendant from Ethiopia (early 18th century) (all images courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art unless otherwise noted)

One New Yorker is suing the Metropolitan Museum of Art for displaying fair-skinned and blonde-haired artworks of Jesus Christ, claiming that they are racist and made him suffer from emotional distress. Justin Renel Joseph, 33, filed a complaint with the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York on November 30, in which he describes seeing “anti-Semitic, racist, and offensive aesthetic whitewashing” of Jesus during a trip to the museum on November 26. The document is posted in its entirety online; in it, Joseph identifies himself as a “biracial male who is of Hebrew and African descent” who “possesses black hair like wool and skin of bronze color, and is a Christian,” and notes that historical accounts describe Jesus as having similar features.

Sebastiano Ricci, “The Holy Family with Angels” (1700) (photo by Jorge Elías via Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0) (click to enlarge)

The complaint is also directed at the City of New York for using public funds to finance the cultural institution. Joseph, who is representing himself, has not only called for the removal of a number of works — arguing that they violate Titles II and VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — but also for the court to reimburse him for the finances incurred in pursuing this action. Four works in particular offend him, causing him to suffer “lowered self-esteem, discomfort, personal stress, emotional distress” in addition to feeling “rejected and unaccepted by society”: “The Holy Family with Angels” by Sebastiano Ricci; “The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes” by Tintoretto; “The Resurrection” by Perugino; and “The Crucifixion” by Francesco Granacci.

Jesus’ race has long been a subject of debate, but Joseph’s claim is especially outlandish as he simply ignores the fact that there are many, many different artistic interpretations of Jesus. It’s true that the majority of depictions show him with light skin and hair, but Joseph fails to consider the historical and artistic contexts in which artists work.

As Met spokesperson Elyse Topalian told the New York Post, “When they were painted, it was typical for artists to depict subjects with the same identity as the local audience. This phenomenon occurs in many other cultures, as well.” The museum, in fact, is actually home to such works that stray from the “Aryan” illustrations of Jesus, although its collection is certainly dominated by them.

Its Ethiopian gallery, which focuses on works that emerged after the African nation adopted Christianity in the fourth century, features an early 18th-century double diptych icon pendant of an olive-skinned Jesus child with curly black hair. A similar rendering appears multiple times in the pages of a northern Ethiopian illuminated manuscript, from scenes of the Ascension, the Nativity, and the Baptism of Christ.

“Four Gospels in Armenian” from Armenia (1434/35) (Purchase, Fletcher Fund, Hagop Kevorkian Fund Gift, in memory of Hagop Kevorkian, Tianaderrah Foundation, B.H. Breslauer Foundation, Aso O. Tavitian, Karen Bedrosian Richardson, Elizabeth Mugar Eveillard and Arax Simsarian Gifts and funds from various donors)

The Byzantine galleries are another source for more diverse interpretations. A page from a thick Armenian manuscript from 1434 dedicated to the four gospels shows the infant Jesus in the Presentation of Christ with dark eyes and dark brown hair. The lid of one gilded reliquary, the Fieschi Morgan Staurotheke from Constantinople, depicts him with jet-black hair, one particular characteristic Joseph is seeking. Then there’s a tusk fragment of Christ enthroned that exemplifies the traditional stylistic features of Coptic figuration from Egypt. At least two gold medallions, too, show Jesus as dark-skinned, with sable hair.

Gauguin’s “la Orana Maria (Hail Mary),” located not too far from Joseph’s four “racist” works, is also worth a mention, although it’s probably not the most politically correct, non-Western representation of Jesus. The oil painting shows a rare view of both Mary and Jesus as Tahitians, but one has to keep in mind the artist’s shady relationship with the female locals he so often painted and exoticized.

As Joseph’s list of offending works suggests, the Manhattanite was hanging out only in the Met’s popular European paintings section, where one would expect Westernized renderings of Jesus. His lawsuit does not likely have legitimate legal standing, but his argument at least reminds that we should take the time to explore galleries in the museum that may receive less foot traffic than the ones filled with works by European titans of art history.

The Ascension, from an Ethiopian illuminated gospel (late 14th–early 15th century) (Rogers Fund, 1998)

Nativity Scene from an Ethiopian illuminated gospel (late 14th–early 15th century) (Rogers Fund, 1998)

Baptism of Christ, from an Ethiopian illuminated gospel (late 14th–early 15th century) (Rogers Fund, 1998)

Front of lid of the Fieschi Morgan Staurotheke (early 9th century) (Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917)

Medallion with Christ from an Icon Frame (ca. 1100) (Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917)

Medallion with Christ (11th century) (Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917)

Paul Gaugin, “la Orana Maria (Hail Mary)” (1891) (image via Wikipedia)

h/t New York Post

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...

13 replies on “To the Man Suing the Met for “Aesthetic Whitewashing,” Here Are Some of the Museum’s Non-Aryan Jesuses”

  1. Proposal to publish this and distribute it guerrilla style as “Hyperallergic’s unofficial guide to Non-Aryan Jesuses at the Met”

    In any case, I suppose he’s not primarily suing for monetary damages. But to insist removal of works central to specific movements or regions seems…myopic?

  2. As poet Wayne Bryant recited extemporaneously some years ago upon passing a stunningly “white washed” creche in a storefront window: “Jesus was a blond-haired, blue-eyed baby, and monkeys fly out of my butt.”

  3. I think the article makes a pretty good arguement against Justin Renel Joseph’s case. (Though I do recognize his right to be offended. However, if that were the sole criterion for a court case, most of us would be in court most of the time.)

    But still, we shouldn’t be too hard on him for is his simple lack of information — for his not taking the time or effort to look deeper into a matter that concerns him. After all, there are any number of academics, both as individuals and as members of professional organizations, sometimes self-described as “researchers” and/or “scholars” who have signed on to the mostly misguided notions of BDS.

    Beyond that, I have a question: What, exactly, is a”double diptych”?
    Is it a double redundance? ?

  4. It’s probably noble that the Met responded so fully to a man who is clearly a trouble-making crank.

  5. I totally understand the frustration one might feel, but, well, what was he expecting? We come from a long history of racism and Eurocentrism, and the main currents of European art throughout the ages will reflect that. It’s not the museum’s fault that the most highly prized artworks reflect the values of the time, ie racism, sexism, elitism…

    By the way most of these non-Aryan Jesuses are still pretty darn pale, even the Ethiopian illuminations, which goes to show how the dominating culture’s vision bleeds into the ones it has affected (to put it lightly).

    1. I hardly think that any of the examples shown are expressing, or even reflecting any sort of racism. After all, as mankind as a whole, so far as we know, comes out of Africa, everyone is either currently African, or of African descent, and can hardly be held responsible for the color of their hair or skin. Define race for me.

      1. To say these things, you must be woefully ignorant – willfully or not – of the history of race and racism, and the pain these differences between humans have caused to millions of people.
        Yes, we are all of African descent, but as people spread to different continents, over the course of tens of thousands of years some characteristics would mutate to better suit the environment (thanks, evolution!). As with any other biological being, we evolved regional differences – our base human genetics are the same, but now we had splitting appearances, and most importantly, splitting cultures.
        There’s no denying the fact that humans have a very “us-vs-them” tendency, of protecting your community and seeing everyone else as enemies to be defeated or dominated and assimilated. We reject what is different or “unusual” to our perspective, we mistrust strangers and strange things.
        When Europeans managed to evolve their material wealth and societal structures to a high degree, they had an edge over the African populations, which for the most part were considerably less “advanced” than them. And they used that edge ruthlessly, murdering and enslaving countless people, eradicating countless cultures.
        Race is just a social construct created by humans as a way of categorising humans, but being a construct doesn’t mean racism doesn’t exist – it DEFINITELY exists, and is still virulent in present-day society.
        No one is responsible for the colour of their hair or skin or the shape of their features but people are still punished for it. The white-centric perspective is permeating the entire world – any countries that have been historically dominated by Europeans, anywhere where white media (films especially) reaches. Instead of developing their own culture they are encouraged or pressured into conforming to western/european standards. Sometimes this can be good, sometimes it results in the loss of these people’s own culture.
        /Rant over.

        1. Dear Jay Quincy,

          An excellent responce. Much of what you say is true. Of course.

          However, the “you must be woefully ignorant” clause, has no place, in my opinion, in a discussion such as this. I think it is appropriate to stick to the known facts.

          I would ask, do you think it is, in your words, okay to use “a social construct created by humans as a way of categorizing humans”? You seem not to (but I can’t be sure ). The sorts of woeful wrongs this has led to need not be reiterated. Nonetheless, almost in parallel, ‘woefully ignorant’ is a common enough rhetorical construct, and in using it you have put yourself in error. I may or may not be what you may or may not think, either “racially” or to the degree in which I am “ignorant”.

          Having said that, I don’t know to what extent any of us knows, or can know, what was going on inside the heads of the artists who produced these works. We can make honest, and sometimes useful generalizations, as you have done, but we can’t be sure they apply in individual cases. Thus, while they may be important in understanding mega-trends, I don’t see their immediate importance. That said, I must apologize for painting with too broad a brush.

          I’m not sure what you mean by, “but now we had splitting appearances, but most importantly, splitting cultures”, though I think I get your drift. Still, I think the “us- vs-them” argument is your strongest. One only has to look at today’s attitudes in the African-vs-Caribbean-vs-American black communities toward one another. There are strong prejudices, judgements, and misjudgements.

          My sense is that while you may be correct, indeed ARE correct, in much of what you say, saying it, somehow contributes to the problem. Criticism or observation without a constructive alternative is of little positive consequence (mostly). Statement and over-statement are not, again in my opinion, always healthy. I am thinking of the women’s movement from the 60’s to the present, and how devisive some of the arguments and rhetoric within the movement itself have turned out. I say that as the grandson of a maternal grandmother, the son of a mother, the husband of a wife, the father of a daughter, and the grandfather of a granddaughter, all of whom I defend (as if I needed to defend any one of them, or as if any one of them (strong individuals) needed defending).

          I stand by my African descent statement, and I think we’d all be better off if we recognized it, and behaved accordingly. It would leave”racists” with little wiggle room, and embue humanity with a more healthy understanding of who we are. (Perhaps this is the raison d’etre of the many creation stories — humans looking for themselves in others, or all of us out of a single source.)

          m-r

          P.S. Gaugin painted the skin-tones much as he must have seen them. What does that have to tell us?

  6. The Holy Crown of Hungary (Hungarian: Szent Korona, also known as the Crown of Saint Stephen) was the coronation crown used by the Kingdom of Hungary for most of its existence; kings have been crowned with it since the twelfth century.

  7. if you want to sue a museum for not representing people equally sue MoMA…and not sue over content of art, sue over the proportion of gender and race equality…talk about white male artists…and how women and minority artists are under-represented.

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