With the possible exception of Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper,
no picture of Jesus is etched so deeply into our imaginations
than the Head of Christ, painted in 1940 by Warner Sallman. Perhaps
this is because Sallman's image of Christ has been reproduced
in so many different media; it has been used to illustrate the
pages of the Bible, Sunday school literature, calendars, posters,
church bulletins, lamps, buttons and even bumper stickers. The
Head of Christ has been reproduced over 500 million times, making
it one of the most popular art works of all time.
The most popular picture of Jesus of all time.
For many of us this image is part of our childhood, having been
hung on the walls of Sunday School classrooms and the halls and
offices of the churches where we received our nurture in the faith.
Countless Christians have recognized in Sallman's picture the
personal savior whose intimacy and tenderness is at the heart
of their faith.
It is the object of personal devotion ... and scholarly study.
So important is this painting that the Lilly Endowment funded
a major study of the impact of Sallman's art upon religion in
America. Recently, David Morgan, an art historian who teaches
at Valparaiso University, published a book on the impact this
painting has had upon an entire generation of Christians around
the world. Morgan's study of this one painting illustrates just
some of the complexity and mystery surrounding any attempt to
paint a clearer picture of this one man who plays such an important
part in all of our lives.
During the course of his study, Morgan interviewed hundreds of
people about their feeling for Sallman's Head of Christ. As one
woman put it, the picture appeals to her simply because it shows,
"just what Jesus looked like."
And what did Jesus actually look like?
Yet since no one who ever saw Jesus in the flesh actually left
a description of what he looked like, we have no basis to agree
or disagree with that woman's judgment; still, in their life of
faith, many millions of devout Christians do take this as an accurate
representation. The loose robe that we associate with biblical
times, the long hair and beard, the lack of any detail in the
setting that would locate the picture in any particular time,
place the painting somewhere in the past, quietly remembered,
yet all the more powerfully present.
As Morgan writes, "The darkened definition of eyes, nose
and lips, which also stand out by virtue of their pigmentation
(pink colored skin and blue eyes) combined with blurred contours
and soft lighting, recall the retouched studio photographs that
replaced portrait painting in the late 19th Century. The head
and shoulders format of the image further hints at commercial
studio photography. A largely monochromatic use of brown tones
and the popularity of the wallet-sized "snapshot" encourage
this association. For people nurtured on commercial photography
this would only enhance the apparent authenticity of the image.
... Beyond this, the mood of silence, solemnity and submissiveness
to the Father's will bespeaks an ethos of filial piety and patriarchy.
Sallman's image of the personal savior appeals to those who long
for the communal experience of face-to-face relationships. Sallman's
image is intimate, like the portrait of a family member or a loved
For all its positive attributes, the work has it's detractors.
Art critics generally see it as pure kitsch. Among the most vociferous
critics are clergy and professors who see in it the naive, sentimental
and culturally backward faith in which they were raised and which
an education helped them leave behind.
Others have reacted strongly against the Head of Christ because
of what they consider its effeminate character. One New Testament
Professor writes that in this image, "we have a pretty picture
of a woman with a curling beard who has just come from the beauty
parlor with a Halo shampoo, but we do not have the Lord who died
and rose again!"
For more pictures and paintings of the
face of Jesus