▪ Jesus, the red-head

The idea that the Jesus Christ of history would have had red hair is so unlikely that it’s always a surprise when we come up against an image of him painted that way.

In the real world, Jesus, a person of Semitic stock, in the first century AD, would never have had anything other than dark hair. (In fact, statistics reveal that only 4% of the world’s population has red hair. Margaret Rope would have realised this).

But one of Margaret Agnes Rope’s idiosyncrasies is that that she depicted him with red (or, more precisely, ginger) hair almost every single time…! A typical example is her Christ At The Last Supper in Lanark RC Church (see pic right).

Ginger Jesus

To be fair, Margaret Rope is not the only artist to have seen Jesus as a red-head. In fact, one come across isolated examples in Victorian art now and again.
Nevertheless one newspaper did get over-excited when it ran a story a few years ago purporting – quite wrongly – to have found the only image of a red-headed Christ in the country. (Clearly, it must have been a slow day!).

A Victorian red-haired Christ by an anonymous stained-glass artist, in Henfield Church Sussex

Such images, however, do run the risk of controversy. Red hair is usually associated with sin, particularly female sin – Mary Magdalene traditionally has red locks, and you’ll often see Eve with long red tresses. Even the famous Victorian painter John Millais was once slapped down by a prominent critic for painting the Christ-child with hair the colour of russet (in his picture ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’).

Works by Marga

Jesus appears only occasionally in Margaret’s works (she preferred saints) but almost each time with red hair. One sees examples in Shrewsbury Cathedral and in the churches at Lanark, Oxton, Clapham, Stockport and Kesgrave. (Curiously, in Geraldton Cathedral, in panels depicting the story of The Passion, Jesus appears once with ginger hair and then in the next panel with light brown hair…). See some examples below.

It’s quite strange. For example, her friend, cousin and collaborator, the stained glass artist MEA Rope, never gives Jesus red hair.

Why ginger?

There is nothing in the Rope archives to explain why Marga chose to do this.
Of course, stained-glass artists do relish the red end of the spectrum. Glowing ruby / orange spaces within a window give great vibrancy and power. And, Marga didn’t stop at Jesus; quite a number of her figures have reddish hair. She enjoyed the use of orange particularly.
But to be as absolute and consistent about this particular view of Jesus, as she is, seems utterly deliberate.

There is very little in the literature of art-history to explain the ginger-Jesus phenomenon.
One piece of pure speculation is that nineteenth-century northern European artists, used to depicting Jesus with Anglo-Saxon features, now wanted to give him a Celtic feature. Maybe. Even so, artists other than Margaret Rope varied his hair-colour in their works; they didn’t always stick with the one colour.

Whatever the reason, Marga demonstrates, once again, that her art was supremely personal to her… and that’s why we shouldn’t be surprised at the ‘left-field’ and very individual approaches she sometimes takes.

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