In the Introduction (Part 1) of this series, I explained the project I am undertaking with this series. If you have not read the Introduction I believe you will find it helpful.
Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ is an icon of American religious art. Painted in 1941 the image was continuously reproduced throughout World War II and the YMCA and Salvation Army, as a part of the USO, handed out the image to soldiers during the war. The image had continued success after the war with some groups intentionally seeking to place reproductions of Head of Christ in both public and private locations throughout the Midwest. This image has become the most reproduced image of Christ with over 500 million reproductions.
This leads to two key questions. First, why did Sallman choose to depict Jesus in the way he did? Second, what accounts for the tremendous popularity of the image? These are actually difficult and complicated questions; but, I will briefly outline some of the major contributing factors.
One of the main reasons for Sallman depicting Jesus in this way is primarily religious not artistic. Early 20th century American evangelicalism experienced many trials. From the late 19th through early 20th century was the Modernist-Fundamentalist (Liberal-Evangelical to use current terminology) controversy where the influences of Darwinian evolution and Higher Criticism wreaked havoc on the religious life of conservatives. This controversy created a climate where much of the religious influence of modernism came under scrutiny. This extended to the more effeminate depictions of Jesus common to the Victorian era. Sallman claimed to have been encouraged by a Moody Bible Institute teacher around the time of World War I to stay an artist. The teacher encouraged Sallman to one day paint an image of Christ saying. “I hope some day you give us your conception of Christ. Most of the pictures I have seen are too effeminate. I hope you’ll picture a virile, manly Christ.” This sort of thinking has lasted many years. Famed evangelical art historian Hans Rookmaaker wrote in his 1970 book Modern Art and the Death of Culture:
“Could it be that the false ideas that many people, non Christians as well as Christians have of Christ as a sentimental, rather effeminate man, soft and ‘loving’ never really of this world, are the result of the preaching inherent in the pictures given to children or hanging on the wall? Their theology, their message, is not that of the Bible but of nineteenth century liberalism.” (page 75)
The theologically conservative Sallman sought to create a “virile, manly Christ” as his Bible teacher had suggested. But, he did not do so without art historical awareness or the savvy he had learned during his years as a commercial artist. Most art historians agree that Sallman used the Leon Lhermitte painting The Friend of the Humble as the source for his Head of Christ. Sallman acknowledged that he was familiar with the piece and that he had given a print of the Lhermitte painting to his mother as a gift. However, the choice to close in on the head of Christ in a three quarter view seems thoughtful not accidental. Further, Sallman’s Christ is not painted in a room but with an ethereal space around him which is reminiscent of photography studio setting. As a result, Sallman’s Jesus is a contemporary figure. His facial structure and skin tone hint at a northern European heritage , his features are masculine yet gentle, and his pose is much like the the celebrity face shots common within popular culture at that time.
The great popularity of Sallman’s Head of Christ, though, may lie in the fact that the painting is sufficiently open to interpretation. The depiction of Christ is both strong and gentle allowing the viewer to read into the image the facets of Jesus the viewer finds most compelling. The format, which hinted at celebrity, made Sallman’s painting the original Jesus Christ Super Star. But, clearly a humble super star able to serve as a devotional icon in the homes of protestants across America. Maybe most importantly, Sallman’s Christ seems very personal. His masculinity pushes toward emotional strength but there is a tenderness in his look which invites the viewer to identify with him. Yet, as important as any of these may be the strong ties to commercialization which made Sallman’s Head of Christ readily reproduced and available to people at a very reasonable price. The images were often found in inexpensive frames with devotional texts. The image is highly accessible and was often found on cards and in Church bulletins.
Evangelicals today have grown-up in a culture where the Sallman image is the most recognized image of Christ. This ubiquitous image has shaped the perception of Christ in untold ways. For many evangelicals, this image has helped to associate an Anglo Christ with the largely white evangelical movement. This image also resonates well with the evangelical concept of a personal savior. Sallman’s Christ does not evoke the feeling of Christ as king but rather Christ as friend. The image corresponds well with the complementarian view of gender roles held by many evangelicals. Christ is a masculine and kind individual to whom we are to submit.
Ironically while the Head of Christ was an imminently contemporary piece in 1941, it also generated a sort of nostalgia hearkening back to a simpler, more religious, and more pious time. This sense of nostalgia is even stronger today. The evangelical culture was born of a separatist spirit. In some ways despite the political activism of evangelicalism over the last 30 years, that separatist spirit is more potent now. Many evangelicals long for a time when the United States was a Christian nation. They idealize the “golden era” of the America when the streets were safe and the Ten Commandments were on court house walls. They reminisce about the days when personal devotion and public piety lived in harmony. A simpler time when their parents or grand-parents hung their first Warner Sallman print on the wall. There is little doubt that this cultural memory is highly idealized, even simplistic, but it is powerful. The same may be said of the Head of Christ. Jesus was not a blue eyed northern European. His life was filled with trial and pain. But, in Sallman’s painting we see only Christ’s peace.
For other pieces in this series please read: