Some who sent their comments about the winner of Jesus 2000, a contest to select an appropriate image of Jesus for the third millennium, were incensed.
"It is nothing but a politically correct modern blasphemous statement reflecting the artist's and the so-called judge's spiritual depravity," one critic said of the dark-skinned portrait that appeared on the Dec. 24 cover of the National Catholic Reporter, an independent newsweekly.
The e-mail was signed, "A Christian Patriot."
Said another anonymous e-mailer: "I am not pleased with this choice. If it is Jesus of all the people, why doesn't it show Asian, Latino, Hispanic, Italian, White, Irish, Europeans, Middle Easterners, Indians, Pakistanis, Jewish? Why just a black in dreadlocks?"
Another complained that the artist made the Prince of Peace "look like the Artist Formerly Known as Prince," and someone else called the portrait "a blatant rip-off of Jimi Hendrix. Just add a guitar and you have Jimi from the 'Electric Ladyland' album. Good album, but nothing that would make him the Messiah."
The artist, Janet McKenzie, of Island Pond, Vt., used a female African American model to create her winning entry, "Jesus of the People." The figure is flanked by a yin-yang symbol, an Asian sign of harmony, and a feather, symbolizing transcendent knowledge and the Great Spirit of American Indians.
But one cyberspace critic satirized McKenzie's attempt at universality.
"Next time I'm going to join this contest," the e-mailer wrote. "My Jesus will be a narcoleptic vegetarian astronaut clown mime who lives in a Sri Lankan tree with three lesbian popes and sings the boogie-woogie in Navajo. And I'll probably win."
Fortunately for McKenzie and the National Catholic Reporter, such angry reactions represent a minority of the more than 1,000 e-mails, telephone calls and letters that continue to arrive at the newspaper's offices in Kansas City, Mo.
Most have been "overwhelmingly very favorable," said Editor Michael J. Farrell, who conceived of the contest. But Farrell acknowledged there was a "sharp division" in reactions to a black Jesus. "It's one of those things nobody is neutral about."
Wrote one enthusiastic Roman Catholic priest: "I am sitting here with tears brimming over and running down my face. This is a magnificent image of haunting, inviting serenity. And the other images! . . . Jesus would recognize himself, as well as our time, in these images."
A reader from Yardley, Pa., admonished the editors and judges to stand their ground. "I believe the painting will bring more people to Jesus, will cause those people with long-held racist notions to question them. . . . Of course there will be the hard-core folks who cannot see this--DO NOT LET THEM INFLUENCE YOU!"
One e-mail said simply: "It's wonderful. Beautiful."
The contest, according to Farrell, was introduced last fall to generate "something new, not a Jesus of yesterday but a risky squint into the future" at the brink of the third Christian millennium. The "gracious consent" of Sister Wendy Beckett, a Catholic nun and art critic for the British Broadcasting Corp., to pick the winners greatly enhanced the project, he said.
The competition attracted 1,004 artists in 19 countries, who submitted 1,678 photo slides of paintings, sculptures, drawings and other images. A panel of three U.S. judges selected 10 finalists, from which Sister Wendy chose a winner and three runners-up.
Sister Wendy did not rank the other finalists. However, she indirectly names her fifth choice by saying that she was most taken aesthetically by an abstract entry from a Chevy Chase artist.
"The most beautiful of all the pictures I saw was Patricia Friend's 'Millennium Prayer,' a glory of color reaching up to a half-glimpsed heavenly Redeemer," she writes in "Jesus 2000," a full-color booklet featuring more than 60 submissions. "But for all the beauty, I felt the issue at stake called for something more specific."
Sister Wendy said the decision was difficult and that "Millennium Prayer" at one point in the judging process had been her first choice--as had the three runners-up. "Reluctantly and timidly," she chose McKenzie's painting.
"This is a haunting image of a peasant Jesus--dark, thick-lipped, looking out on us with ineffable dignity, with sadness but with confidence," she writes. "Over his white robe he draws the darkness of our lack of love, holding it to himself, prepared to transform all sorrows if we will let him."'
Jesus draws one hand to His heart, and He looks deeply into the eyes of the viewer.
"The essence of the work is simply that Jesus is all of us," McKenzie told the Reporter, a self-proclaimed "liberal" publication with a circulation of about 50,000. She said she was raised Episcopalian but today is a "devout agnostic" with "no connection to one institution."
Second place went to "Yeshua," an oil painting by Peter De Firis, of Frenchtown, N.J., an artists' enclave on the Delaware River. De Firis, a Catholic who attends Mass "once in a while," is widely known as a textile designer, having created among other items a line of Laura Ashley bath towels.
Joseph Pisani, a Washington area artist, took third place with "The Taking of Christ," based on a 17th-century painting by Caravaggio exhibited last summer at the National Gallery of Art. The Herndon resident was in the Army for 27 years and designed many of the interior spaces in the Pentagon.
As Caravaggio did in his portrayal of soldiers arresting Jesus, Pisani painted himself into his work--he's at the right holding a flashlight. "Taking" was his first religious work, although he plans others, including a Crucifixion scene and a Last Supper featuring homeless people sitting around a table in a Metro station. Pisani, like De Firis, is a first-generation Italian American and sometime practicing Catholic.
Fourth place went to Melissa Weinman, of Takoma, Wash., for "Study of Christ," in charcoal and crayon. Weinman, who grew up in a Christian home but never felt part of a church community, drew the image after experiencing a personal crisis in 1997 in Innsbruck, Austria.
She said she found herself kneeling in a Catholic sanctuary to seek a "new relationship" with Jesus. She used a divinity student in Portland, Ore., as the model for a "Christ [who] is strong and alive," not one who is melancholy. Today she attends an Episcopal church.
Devi Anne Moore, of Chesapeake, Va., made the top 10 with "White Throne of Judgment," a multimedia presentation of a blindfolded Jesus wearing a yarmulke and prayer shawl. "For too long, the Jewish identity of the Messiah has been covered over within a Gentile religion," she writes of her work.
Farrell said he is pleased with "the immense variety" the artists submitted. Some images are "traditional and old-fashioned. There's some weird and goofy stuff and some quite inspiring stuff."
One painting depicts Jesus as a modern-day carpenter wearing Oakley sunglasses, another as a death-row inmate and one as a blue-collar worker in an all-night diner. Some images are computerized composites; one, Jesus as the "Bread of Life," shows a bearded figure made from 70 squares of burnt bread.
"Maybe it's prophetic," Farrell said of the "amalgam" of diverse images, especially of the winning image of a dark-skinned Jesus. "Maybe the church is moving away from its smug image of Jesus as a blond-haired, blue-eyed, white European. Perhaps the moment of the indigenous has come."
Copies of the booklet "Jesus 2000" are available for $5 each from the National Catholic Reporter's Web site, www.natcath.com, or by calling 800-444-8910.