Faith has always been an integral part of humanity. We all have ideals that we worship, be it the efficiency of pragmatism, or the miracles of the naive faith. We construct images to help us better connect to these ideals, exalting people who exemplify the ideals that we are worshipping. Think Jesus and Buddha - the faces of two of the most popular religions today. With these two revered figures, we have in our minds respective images of them. Yet, these images are not static. Jesus, for example, takes on many different illustrations while Buddha has a wide array of appearances. By delving into the historical context, we dig deeper to find out the significance of these images (and their changes over time) and how people relate to the idea of their gods based on the imagery.
The image of Jesus has changed significantly throughout the whole of history. The modern image of the Jesus with long, wavy hair and Caucasian features originated from the Byzantine empire, and was further popularized by Warner Sallman’s painting in 1940, titled “Head of Christ”. This is largely due to the Christians in the Middle Ages who didn’t approve of the idea of a Jewish Jesus (according to a comment here) and Jesus appeared as a Caucasian from 4th century CE onwards. Franchesca Ramsey, a writer on Huffington Post, notes that “white Jesus” could be more damaging compared to other non-jewish Jesuses (like black Jesus (biased source alert!) and Korean Jesus - popularized by 21 Jump Street) because white Jesus was possibly used to spread racial bias (whites above others).
Even if Jesus was not used as a symbol of justification of wrongdoing, white Jesus is depicted from ethnocentrism, normalizing and validating the European colour in the process. It is not just the Whites who used the image of Jesus as a source of justification. Joshua Canada (from the linked article) said, “We have Aryan depictions [of Jesus] which fueled Nazi Germany & the KKK, “We have Black depictions that form an Afro-centric/Black Power Christianity. We have European depictions that encouraged the Crusades.”
There is an intersection of the ideal and the superior here. Though the image of Jesus throughout time and cultures have varying differences, it is evidently often used as symbol of inspiration and justification. This is only possible because each and every individual across different races and cultures believed that Jesus is the ideal exemplar of whom they considered as ideal, right down to the physical features. These individuals from diverse cultures wanted to have “Jesus” on their side, to be of the same colour and looks as them so as to give them comfort in their colonial actions.
While the image of Jesus has changed over time, that of Buddha did not change per se but rather, have many different portrayals.
There are two primary schools of Buddhism – the Theravada Buddhism, which emphasizes individual enlightenment, as well as the Mahayana Buddhism, which emphasizes enlightenment of all beings. These two schools of Buddhism, as a result, give rise to the many variations of Buddha statues that we see today – most notably the fat and jovial Buddha, as well as the serious and meditative one. Why the differences?
The most predominant form of Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, teaches that anyone can achieve enlightenment, of which some already have. And thus, not all the statues we see in a Buddhist temple are Buddha, or he who attained enlightenment. Some of them are boddhisatvas, saints who have been enlightened yet selflessly delay the state of nirvana in hopes of helping others attain it as well.
There are many boddhisatvas, but a prominent and iconic one is Avalokiteshvara, the Boddhisattva of Infinite Compassion, also known as Guanyin in China and Kannon/Kanzeon in Japan. Today, we know the Avalokiteshvara as a female; however, the boddhisatvas was initially portrayed in art as male, back in the Sung Dynasty. However, from the 12th Century onwards, the Avalokiteshvara started taking the form of a mother-goddess of mercy. Perhaps this is a result of cross-pollination as this coincides with the time when Virgin Mary was gaining popularity in Europe, or that compassion and mercy are primarily associated with females, thus the change in gender depiction. In any case, there is an evident fluidity in the portrayal of the gender over time, which sheds light on how these portrayals change according to ideals.
Other prominent Buddhas are:
1) the Buddha of Theravada Buddhism, which is primarily practiced in Southeast Asia such as Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos portraying a thinner Buddha that is often in a meditating position.
2) The “Laughing Buddha”, also known as Budai or Pu-tai, that emerged from a Chinese folklore of the 10th Century. He is often depicted with children surrounding him because he carries with him a sack of sweet treats that are to be distributed to the children, thus earning the title “Protector of Children”. Besides this peace-loving persona, the Laughing Buddha’s fat belly is also a representation of happiness (after all, his smile seems almost contagious just by looking at it), generosity and wealth.
These Buddhas each have their own variations. One can only imagine the vast variations of Buddha throughout the course of history. Beyond the differences in appearances, it is evident that each of them are portrayed in a light that emphasizes the particular quality/characteristic which is revered by the masses of that particular figure. People create the images of these Buddha (and boddhisatvas, for that matter) in a manner such that the main characteristic, that which people revere, is portrayed. In other words, the portrayals of these Buddhas are now used as a form of personification of who the worshippers/followers strive to be, a physical creation of the ideal.
So what does this all mean?
As we can see throughout the course of history, people worshipped the ideals through the exemplar of a ideal person, which is depicted through the imagery portrayal. This explains why there are so many different illustrative interpretations of Jesus, and the many images of Buddha(s) that spanned across different countries and cultures.
Perhaps this shows humanity’s pursuit of an perfect expression of an ideal, right down to its physical features, or it simply reinforced the fact that we humans worshipped the ideals, and not the human beings themselves. In any case, these expressions are a reflection of our perspectives and the influences of the cultures, then and now. By extension, these expressions are a reflection of who we are, who we want to be, and how the “ideal human life” is like.
This, then, raises an interesting thought: How would our conviction change if we had no images of the gods to relate to?