Opinion

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

Double Diptych Icon Pendant from Ethiopia (early 18th century) (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
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)
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)
“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_Ethiopian Illuminated Gospel
The Ascension, from an Ethiopian illuminated gospel (late 14th–early 15th century) (Rogers Fund, 1998)
Nativity Scene_Ethiopian Illuminated Gospel
Nativity Scene from an Ethiopian illuminated gospel (late 14th–early 15th century) (Rogers Fund, 1998)
Baptism of Christ_Ethiopian Illuminated Gospel
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)
Front of lid of the Fieschi Morgan Staurotheke (early 9th century) (Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917)
Medallion with Christ from an Icon Frame
Medallion with Christ from an Icon Frame (ca. 1100) (Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917)
Medallion with Christ
Medallion with Christ (11th century) (Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917)
Paul Gaugin, "la Orana Maria (Hail Mary)" (1891) (image via Wikipedia)
Paul Gaugin, “la Orana Maria (Hail Mary)” (1891) (image via Wikipedia)

h/t New York Post

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