I hope you like the new statues of Sts. Mary of Magdala, and Phoebe. When we first saw the artist’s renderings, I asked of the proposed St. Mary of Magdala, “Can you make her look more Semitic?” As someone trained and interested in history, it has long bothered me that our depictions of Jesus and Mary and many of the saints are (historically speaking) wildly inaccurate. Jesus and the Holy Family did not look anything like how they are usually depicted. It is difficult to find a representation of Mary which does not make her look like a Renaissance Italian princess. She did not dress in yards of blue and red silk and satin. She was, in historical fact, a first century Galilean peasant woman, no different in appearance than hundreds of other poor peasants of her time.
St. Joseph also was not neatly dressed in flowing colorful robes. The Bible says he was a “tekton,” more accurately translated as a builder than as a carpenter. He probably worked with stone and brick more than wood, which was scarce. He would have been muscular, but usually dusty and dirty. The idyllic images of the boy Jesus (white skinned and blue eyed!) working with Joseph in his workshop are, to put it mildly, historically inaccurate. Think of the Hispanic immigrants working on repairs of the streets and construction sites of Austin, doing grunt labor in the blazing sun. Palestine is similar weather-wise to Austin in summer. That is what Joseph would look like.
Nor did Jesus wear long flowing robes of the brightest colors. His clothing was simple peasant clothing, and probably a flaxen or brown color. Jesus probably would have had short hair as keeping long hair clean and lice-free would have been exceedingly difficult. Also, St. Paul, who lived during Jesus’ life time, tells us that “Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him…?” 1 Cor 11:14. If St. Paul reflects contemporary Jewish understanding, then it would have been very unlikely that Jesus wore His hair long.
Some years ago the magazine, “Popular Mechanics” had forensic reconstruction experts attempt to recreate Jesus’ probable appearance. The result was nothing like how you usually see Jesus depicted. They subtitled the results, “you probably wouldn’t want to sit next to him on a plane.” You can see the article here.
There is some spiritual and pastoral benefit to depicting Jesus and Mary like us, so that we can more easily identify with them. All around the world Jesus is depicted in native costume and with local ethnic characteristics. Jesus is “like us in all things but sin.” (Hebrews 4:15). In Alaska, the fundraising letter of the Diocese of Fairbanks uses the image of Our Lady of the Arctic Snows, in which Mary is clothed in traditional Inuit dress, and Jesus is bundled up as an Inuit baby.
At my previous parish, Old Saint Mary’s in San Francisco, which is near Chinatown, a side altar has statues of St. Joseph dressed as a Chinese mandarin, and Mary and Jesus as ethnically Chinese. I remember one European tourist incensed over this depiction. Historically they were not Chinese, but neither were they white. While we want the Holy Family to be relatable, we also need to recognize that they are real people of a specific time and culture.
As in so much of our religion, this issue requires a “both/and.” The Holy Family can be represented truly in every world race and culture in a real spiritual way . But they are also people of a specific culture and ethnicity which should not be overlooked.
So I hope that Mary of Magdala looks a little Semitic to you, and reminds you that all those pictures that show Jesus as white need seriously to be put in context. In reality, Jesus is every race and all races.