More than a century old, mural portraying Jesus as Black still inspires but needs a touchup
The “Risen Christ Mural” that adorns the ceiling of Quinn A.M.E. Church on the Near South Side was painted by a church member named Proctor Chisholm in 1904.
“The Black man will be respected nowhere while he is not respected in the United States,” Douglass told the crowd, according to a newspaper account that said his speech was greeted with “the greatest enthusiasm.”
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“Our work,” Douglass said, “is to make ourselves respected.”
Nearly 70 years later, during the Civil Rights Era, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. also took to the pulpit at the church to speak.
Throughout most of that time and still today, there’s been a presence above the church’s altar that also speaks to the plight and salvation of African Americans. It’s a mural depicting Jesus as a Black man.
Painted in 1904 on the domed ceiling along with other religious figures, the mural remains a source of pride for the roughly 400-person congregation.
It’s also a rare portrayal of Christ, who typically has been cast as a white man with European features.
“Oftentimes, when you grow up, you think that your set of circumstances are how it is everywhere,” says Will Miller, Quinn Chapel’s historic preservation chairman, who grew up attending services there. “Looking at that image, I thought that every church had images of a Black Jesus, especially Black churches.”
Tyra Owens, 33, a lifelong member of Quinn Chapel, says: “I just remember looking up at that mural during services” as a child “and seeing myself close to God. It really meant a lot to me.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, Sunday services have been held remotely and recorded. Tours are on hold. Even weddings and funerals aren’t allowed.
Now, with age and water damage having taken their toll on the walls and ceiling of the church, Quinn Chapel is trying to determine how to have the mural restored so that it can remain vibrant for another century or more. The church is applying for a federal grant to help cover the cost, estimated at about $150,000. Church officials figure it will be sometime next year, at the earliest, that the work will be completed.
Beyond the mural, the congregation is a part of Chicago history. Now at 2401 S. Wabash Ave., Quinn Chapel was established before the Civil War — in 1844, with seven people meeting at a member’s home. The church was built in 1892, just before Douglass spoke there.
The church was a place of refuge for the Underground Railroad.
The building was designated a Chicago Landmark in 1977 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
Other speakers over the years included Presidents William McKinley and William Howard Taft and women’s rights advocate Susan B. Anthony.
The mural is titled “Risen Christ Mural.” It was painted by Proctor Chisholm, of whom little is know, according to Miller, other than that he was a church member and self-taught artist.
Miller says the images of Mary and the angels in the painting were patterned on women and children in the church and that one of the angels — seen resting her head on the clouds — was modeled on a girl who used to rest her head on a pew.
Though that’s the story told throughout the church’s history, Anna Swartwood House — an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina whose doctorate in art history focused on Renaissance art — immediately recognized the angel’s resemblance to an angel in the “Sistine Madonna” painted by Italian artist Raphael in the 1500s. That famous work features an angel in nearly an identical position as the one in the “Risen Christ Mural.”
Swartwood House was surprised to learn the Quinn mural was painted in 1904 because artwork depicting Jesus as a man with a non-white complexion was uncommon until the 1970s.
Experts say it’s almost certain that Jesus wasn’t the fair-skinned, blue-eyed, wavy brown-haired figure he’s still frequently portrayed as.
“He had dark skin, dark eyes, dark hair,” says the Rev. Laura Mayo, a minister in Houston who earned a master’s degree at Wake Forest University’s divinity school and did her graduate thesis on God images and the way people view God. “He was a Middle Eastern Jew. This depiction of Jesus as white is inaccurate, and it distorts our connections to the stories of Jesus and to the stories” of people of color.
Swartwood House says depictions of Jesus as fair-skinned became increasingly popular with European artists in the 14th century. The line of thinking that people were created in God’s image led the white Europeans to model their depictions of Jesus on themselves. And that depiction spread through trade and colonization, she says.