I have seen depictions of Jesus classified under "early Christian art" and in the earliest depictions of Jesus he was of a much darker skin tone and I also seen the early "black madonnas" (the dark skin virgin mary and baby jesus) and these are dated back to early Christianity in european dominant lands. It was also said that the depiction of Jesus that we have today is actually based off of a portrait of cesare borgia.

Is there any historical value to these statements in question?

here are a few links

Please view these above links sincerely with a non-bias perspective and tell me if this holds any weight at all historically.

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    Better identification of the depictions and black madonnas you have seen would help this question (named works, works in holding galleries, works in art books / catalogues). A reference to who said that the depictions of Jesus today are based off cesare borgia would also help. Commented Aug 18, 2014 at 5:04
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    ok I edited it adding four links, please view and adress. thank you
    – eliyah
    Commented Aug 18, 2014 at 5:55
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    Actually, in the earliest depictions of Jesus to actually gain broad exposure to large number of people, his skin tone was neither white nor black. It was gold! The Byzantine Empire started putting Jesus on gold coins in the late 600's.
    – David H
    Commented Aug 18, 2014 at 10:42
  • @DavidH I'm pretty sure people didn't think Jesus had gold coloured skin because his likeness was on gold coins... And don't forget that there'd be other metals used to make coins as well, like silver, copper, etc.
    – jwenting
    Commented Aug 18, 2014 at 13:35
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    'Don't fuck with Korean Jesus. He ain't got time for your shit. He's busy. With Korean shit!' People depict Jesus, a person with no surviving images and uncertain existence, however they want to. Per Xenophanes, if horses could draw, their gods would look like horses.
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Nov 5, 2015 at 13:14

4 Answers 4


First off, there are no depictions of Jesus made by contemporaries. That means any depiction you find, anywhere, is more a representation of how the artist felt like viewing Jesus than an attempt at an accurate reconstruction of the man's features.

Complicating this was the iconophobic views of early Jews (backed up by the "graven image" prohibition in the 10 Commandments)

The first exemplars we have are both from 2 centuries later, and are the following:

enter image description here

enter image description here

The first it would probably be tough to argue contained a definitive attempt to depict skin color. The second depicted him as really no darker than a well-tanned European might achieve (but also probably consistent with a Semitic person from the area).

Lest someone get excited and think old depictions were universally tanned, here's another from less than a century later:

enter image description here

It took a while for the "standard" bearded longhaired depiction to take shape. According to Wikipedia this took until the 6th century in the East, and until the 12th in the West.

  • (+1) Can you add some information about the three depiction you posted (where have they been found and who is supposed to have produced them) ?
    – Evargalo
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 9:45
  • Did the bearded depiction change because beards went out of fashion?
    – jjack
    Commented Dec 5, 2017 at 1:52

The depiction of Christ (and other entities in the Christian pantheon, and no doubt other religions as well) tend to reflect the cultural and racial background of the audience they're intended for and/or the creator.
Thus, as in the early days Christianity was mostly confined to the middle east, where people have a darker skin than in northern Europe, they'd have those features.
I've seen depictions made in Indonesia that show them all as having Malay features, African depictions show dark brown to black skin, etc. etc. etc.
The European "standard" I've indeed heard was based on Borgia's representation, and with the large scale sending of priests around the world from Europe in the colonial era probably influenced at least at some level depictions elsewhere.

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    Christian pantheon? I think a central tenet of Christianity and the rest of the Abrahamic religions is that there is only one god.
    – andy256
    Commented Oct 2, 2014 at 1:21
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    It should be noted that the people inhabiting the Middle East today are not ethnically the same as the inhabitants during the early years of Christianity. The Jews were expelled, Islam brought a horde of invaders, many importing slaves from all over the world...
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jun 6, 2015 at 6:41
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    @jamesqf the differences weren't that great. Jews and Arabs are ethnically ever similar, the number of black slaves in the ME has always been low (the Arabs brought most of them to Arabia, as they do now with "guest workers" who're treated much the same as slaves except they are allowed to visit their home country once in a while from Asia).
    – jwenting
    Commented Jun 6, 2015 at 7:59
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    @jwenting, I think you have a bad understanding of the Trinity and the communion of Saints. The history exchange probably isn't the place to get into this debate, but coming from a very knowledgeable lay Catholic, trust me thats not what it is. And Mary was never part of the Trinity, unless you count that tiny group of gnostic heretics; which seems marginal. I'm just encouraging you to be open to the idea that Christians are saying what they mean and that you might not fully understand. Commented Nov 5, 2015 at 13:52
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    Also ancient jews are not monotheistic. They have gods called elohim. Those elohims are often translated as angels to make the bible look monotheistic. Jacob didn't see angels go up and down stairs. He was seing gods. Sons of gods marry daughters of men to create nephilim. Elyon divide the world according to sons of el. Yahweh portion is Israel (hence the jews have only one god). Also Yahweh punishes gods in egypts. All those uses words elohim. Yet translated arbitrarily into angels, rulers, judges, and gods. Different translations translate that differently.
    – user4951
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 1:28

Well, one should not necessarily be surprised by the depiction of Jesus as a darker skinned figure during the early years of Christianity. Remember, Jesus was from the Middle East and his earliest followers.......were from the Middle East. If one is to view the iconography of various Middle Eastern, as well as Eastern Mediterranean Churches dating to the Early Middle Ages, one will typically see a swarthy, darker complexioned looking Jesus. Again, this should not be such a surprise.

The image of Jesus has been diversely expressed for nearly 2 millennia, due to the gradual emergence of Christianity on the world stage. Yet, despite the worldwide diverse and centuries old imagery, there was only a single historical Jesus, who, was of a Middle Eastern ethno-racial background and in turn, would have had a single chromatic appearance that was commonplace within that particular region.


Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure, by all which is known today. He was a Galilean jew, born in Nazareth. His father was a carpenter, and Jesus possibly had the same occupation, because it was customary to learn one's fathers profession. He probably did not rise much above his father economically. From spending time outside beneath the Middle Eastern sun, his skin could have become dark.

There is no reason to call him dark-skinned, apart from what the sun did. Since his parents were Galilean jews, probability theory says that they were like most Galilean jews. And the majority did not look African.

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    This question is about depictions of Jesus, not about his appearance.
    – Mark
    Commented Jun 7, 2015 at 8:30
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    You would be surprised about what Probaliity theory actually says... en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Probability_theory
    – Evargalo
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 9:47
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    @Evargalo: What would you try to compute with probability theory if not the expectation of what he looked like?
    – jjack
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 17:59
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    @Mark: Well, that's a question for art historians or the like :-)
    – jjack
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 18:02
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    @jjack there are a lot of more relevant and meaningful things to compute. Anyway, the expectation of what he looked like is already a different thing than they were like most Galilean jews...
    – Evargalo
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 18:11

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