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Warner Sallman's Head of Christ: An American Icon

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 one."

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

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.