I have heard this story come from a couple of Afro-centric scholars. In a push to explain how the black African Jesus became the blonde haired, blue eyed, pale skinned tool for white supremacy, it is a belief in some circles that the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. and led the program to destroy all black images of Jesus. As an Orthodox Christian who has a layman’s sense of early church history and have seen my white brothers and sisters in the faith venerate black and brown icons along with white ones, I respectfully disagree with blaming this one man for trying to erase the racial origins of our Lord and Savior.
Constantine gave the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. which ended the last great series of persecution of Christians and legalized the faith. Every form of paganism was allowed to continue in the empire except for the new eastern capital city that was named after the emperor. Constantinople and its immediate suburbs such as Nicaea was to be a uniquely Christian city. Later emperors did oppress all pagans from Germanic believers of the Norse gods and goddesses to the Africans who held to the Egyptian deities. But, this happened centuries later as Christianity became more dominant throughout the empire, not simply because one king legalized an underground religion that about 10% of the population practiced.
If the goal of the Council of Nicaea was to destroy black images of Jesus, the bishops made a big mistake in putting the Arian controversy at the top of the agenda. Arius was a priest from Alexandria who declared Jesus to be the created Son of God and not the Only Begotten. His rival that won the argument was an Alexandrian deacon named Athanasius. He was described as being black of skin and short in stature. As well as Celts, Germans, and other European clergymen, there were representatives from Nubia, Ethiopia, India, and Arabs and Persians. Even within the borders of the Roman Empire, skin color meant as much as eye color today. What mattered was if one could assimilate to the broader culture and obey the Roman laws. Anyone who could was considered a citizen and could rise up to any level of Roman society. In fact, there were at least three black emperors of Rome. It would have made no sense for Constantine to bring in white racial supremacy and a new religion as he official imperial standard.
Before Constantine, Christians of all races had established the faith. Simon of Cyrene, Simeon called Niger, Rufus, Alexander, Djan Darada (the Ethiopian Eunuch who’s icon is on a Russian Orthodox Church in Michigan) can be found in the pages of the Bible. Perpetua and Felicity, Mary of Egypt, Anthony the Great, Cyprian of Carthage were among the most heralded martyrs and saints. For Constantine to rule a multi racial empire, listen to a Christological debate between two black men, and believe in a religion established in no small part by black people to turn around as say that their holy images are forbidden does not seem like a legitimate belief.
Black images of Christ, Mary, and the saints are neither unheard of nor uncommon in the Orthodox Church. The Copts of Egypt and the Ethiopians certainly had them. Greeks, Slavs, and even Italians kept them in their churches among their holiest of icons. As Muslims conquered the Byzantine East, the African Christian world was cut off from their European kin. Naturally, Eastern Europeans and the Catholic West began painting Biblical characters to look like themselves. But, this was not done necessarily for the purpose of racial supremacy until the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade began in the 15th century, well after Emperor Constantine was dead and gone.
Radical reformers intentionally destroyed icons in their breaking away from the Roman Catholics and undoubtedly wiped out any non-European looking images of Christ along with any representations of Christ, Mary, and the saints. As the United States was largely iconoclastic and Protestant, the idea of ancient black images of Christ certainly wasn’t going to be promoted by a slave holding and segregationist society. Eastern Orthodox immigrants maintained some of these images and even painted some in their churches (the image of St. Moses on this blog came from the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY). But, Orthodox Christians made up a very small percentage of the immigrants that came to America and their communities and ours didn’t come in contact with each other very often. Constantine cannot be blamed for this.
But, the black images of Christ and the saints still existed in some Roman Catholic circles and more prominently in the Orthodox jurisdictions. In most of these churches, one will find the full sized icons of Mary and Jesus with some shade of brown skin looking like Drake or Lawrence Fishburne. Granted, the hair may be long and brown. But, these icons are a far cry from what one Russian Orthodox priest calls the “truck stop Jesus.” My first encounter with Orthodoxy was at St. Cyprian of Carthage in Richmond, VA. Not only were Christ and His mother darker than my light skinned mother, the full sized icons of Sts. Cyprian and Moses could have been paintings of myself and my father. The Icon on the box of holy relics at Holy Cross Monastery in Wayne, WV is that of a very dark Mary and child Jesus. And during the Lenten Fast, we all venerate the icon of Mary of Egypt. Beyond the Eastern jurisdictions, the Copts and Ethiopians have a plethora of these black images of Jesus and the saints that Constantine supposedly destroyed.
Rather than perpetuate the myth that Constantine “whitewashed” Christianity, I recommend that African-Americans visit Coptic and Ethiopian Churches for themselves to see that the Orthodox faith has never lost its African roots. Also, visit Eastern Churches such as the Antiochians, Greeks, Russians and others as we have iconography of saints of all colors and races. The Orthodox Church is not perfect when it comes to matters of race. But, we need not make up fables.