The importance of non-European Christian imagery

I recently began creating non-traditional depictions of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus. And by “non-traditional”, I mean non-European. Below is an Indian and Japanese depiction respectively. I got plenty of inspiration from images I saw online, and then added my own spin. Both are hand-drawn with Micron pens.

"Madonna and Child as Indians" by Karen Zainal
“Madonna and Child as Indians” by Karen Zainal
"Madonna and Child as Japanese" by Karen Zainal
“Madonna and Child as Japanese” by Karen Zainal

Just to be clear, I’m not creating these alternative cultural depictions to be gimmicky.

I have a deep, personal appreciation for such images because they have helped me better grasp the universality of our God and His plan for mankind. I am ethnically Chinese and grew up in Muslim-majority Indonesia. For years, I was subconsciously frustrated and estranged by singularly European depictions of Christian figures.

As my friend Christopher wisely said, it was healthy for Europeans to try to depict religious figures in terms familiar to their culture, but unfortunate that imperialism forced those depictions on the rest of the world.

I’m hoping to work on Chinese and Indonesian versions next, because of these cultures’ special closeness to my own heritage and identity. If you have any suggestions on other cultures you would like to see (some great suggestions I’ve received are Mongolian and Maori), do let me know! (To keep up with my latest work, follow Thingamadoodle on Facebook.)

I hope these images will be a blessing to your journey as they have been to my own. Have a wonderful Advent! 🙂

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The Zainals wish you a most blessed Advent!
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21 thoughts on “The importance of non-European Christian imagery”

  1. This has long been an area of complaint, the western paradigm’s domination of iconography in many forms. Another area that has taken create strides to move beyond that paradigm as an example is the Steampunk movement of all things, taking the notions of Victoriana and applying it to different cultural settings, though works of fiction in this case, it has a beauty and splendor all to itself. The world can share so many things, and in that sharing, we can expand our understanding of self and the universe, through including difference, instead of demeaning it and forcing into a narrow paradigm that unfortunately alienates or even confuses other. Fantastic art work as well.

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  2. It’s funny: I once saw a Chinese translation of the New Testament with illustrations that depicted Jesus and his disciples as classical Chinese figures. My gut reaction was, “Well that’s silly and inaccurate…” but when my brain caught up with my thoughts, I realized it wasn’t any more inaccurate than my Bible whose illustrations depicted Jesus as a hippie-ish, sandy-bearded Caucasian man. Another time I heard a Native American man give a moving testimony at a public event. He then performed his tribe’s (I can’t remember which one) traditional worship dance in praise of God. Again, my gut said, “I don’t know about this… mixing pagan forms of worship with Christianity…” and then my brain checked it: Is contemporary Christian rock (which I enjoy) tainted because that music form started in a secular setting? Or has the Lutheran sanctuary I went to as a child impaired my worship because it uses Roman architecture? It’s amazing how we humans can happily accept the biases we are used to but look with critical scrutiny on others’ biases! Anyway, I love your project (even in my critical gut). Keep up the beautiful artwork – and thank you for sharing!

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  3. Very pretty! You should make some Christmas cards.
    Most Christian art since tries to strike a balance between familiarity and foreignness. In the catacombs, depictions of Jesus were very Roman: clean shaved, short hair, and a toga. It was only in the late Empire that you see the more familiar long hair and beard, which has determined what we think of when we imagine Jesus ever since: the artists were probably trying to imagine what Jesus really looked like as a 1st century Jew.
    Familiar and foreign: on the one hand Jesus was a real human being in inhabiting a distant time and place; on the other, he really was one of us, like us in all things but sin. And on the other, he is alive, active in history and preparing his glorious return. Christian art moves between these various poles and mixes them up. I doubt there is any one right way.

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  4. Hi Karen: I love your work and the idea behind the project. I think you’re right on the mark that Mary shouldn’t be limited by race. I believe Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared dark-skinned. Our Lady of Kibeho, which the Church has authenticated, was described by the three visionaries as ” the most beautiful woman. Her skin was neither white nor black and she radiated a warm, glowing, motherly love.” Marie Claire (one of the visionaries) said that she could describe her beauty; simply that “her beauty is as great as her love for her children.”

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  5. Beautiful. My family is from Peru. We put a Nativity scene up with the tree every Christmas. A few years ago, we were in Cuzco and invested in nativity figures that have Andean features and dress. It’s great to have my religion and culture validated that way. I take a lot of pride in showing it off to visitors.

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  6. Interesting, I always seem to think that Christ is depicted the same in all cultures. This post has brought to my attention the many different ways that the ordeals of the Christian faith can be portrayed very differently across many different cultures. Thank you for bringing to my attention a part of our faith that is vitally important, its diversity.

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      1. Was just going to ask the same thing as Grace! I’d love to do a blog entry about you and your style. It’s beautiful and (as you pointed out) very important! I’m always on the prowl for new Christian artwork, and I think you’ve got something very special to add to the mix. Can’t wait to see more of your work!

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  7. Lovely drawings! I like seeing other depictions of Mary, Jesus, etc. rather than just the light-skinned Caucasian ones that are depicted so much in the Western world. We erroneously believed that our Western versions are “right” and all the other depictions are wrong. The Lord Jesus is for all cultures in all parts of the globe. God bless!

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