Beyond Books: The “Head of Christ”

Sallman, "Head of Christ
Warner Sallman, “Head of Christ” — © 1941, 1968 Warner Press, Inc., Anderson, Indiana. Used with permission.

To conclude this series responding to Christian History magazine’s list of 25 Christian “writings that changed the church and the world,” I want to go beyond writing altogether and suggest that other modes of creative expression and communication have done just as much to shape Christian belief and imagination. Let’s consider the iconic painting that John mentioned earlier this month

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In The Color of Christ: The Son of God & The Saga of Race in America, Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey explore

the ways Americans gave physical forms to Jesus, where they placed them, and how they remade the Son of God visually time and again into a sacred symbol of their greatest aspirations, deepest terrors, lowest actions, highest expressions, and mightiest strivings for racial power and justice. (p. 7)

Especially as they reach the twentieth century, Blum and Harvey find enormous debate about how Jesus is imaged. “Underneath the turbulence, however,” one image helped shape a “new popular consensus about Christ’s body.” While it came from a midwesterner painting for conservative Protestants, this painting

became a shared resource among Protestants and Catholics, who had fought with each other for so long. Its ubiquity soon inspired countless imitations and parodies, which spoke to but never lessened its power. It was so iconic that to combat ‘card-carrying members of the Communist Party,’ one American minister wanted every Christian to carry a small print of Sallman’s Christ in their wallets. Reproductions of this Head of Christ multiplied at an epic rate. Even as white Americans of the civil rights era were compelled to open their schools, neighborhoods, restaurants, borders, and ballot boxes to nonwhites, they held fast to this white vision of Jesus. No matter how many critics denounced its stereotypical white features or his apparent passivity or femininity, this Head of Christ became the literal face of Jesus to millions. (p. 12)

Of course, they’re talking about a 1941 painting by Warner Sallman, one that would sell over 14 million prints in its first three years of existence, as “Americans placed the picture in living rooms or bedrooms as it he was a member of the family” and GIs carried it to the Pacific, North Africa, and Europe. “Victorious abroad,” add Blum and Harvey, these citizen-soldiers “returned home and sang ‘I surrender all’ to gigantic billboard versions of him at Billy Graham’s massive revival services.” In the Cold War, “The blond hair and blue eyes” of Sallman’s Head of Christ “provided solace and safety in a world gone mad.” Evangelicals reported mystical encounters with the image, and it crossed over in popularity to Catholic sites like an Oklahoma seminary that displayed a giant version on campus.

Blum & Harvey, The Color of ChristWhile African Americans debated Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1957 assertion that “The color of Jesus’ skin is of little or no consequence,” Sallman’s white-skinned, blue-eyed Jesus was common in black churches as well — as John’s post noted. Indeed, the cover image of The Color of Christ is a 1967 photograph by William Gale Gedney of an “African-American Boy Sitting on a Float Dressed as a King below [Warner Sallman’s] Picture of Jesus.”

As the 1960s began, competitors emerged (e.g., Richard Hook’s Head of Christ, whose younger but still white Jesus appealed to the Jesus People), with Sallman’s Head of Christ becoming “a lightning rod for dissatisfaction. It was seen by some as too white, too bourgeioisie [sic], too feminine, too old, and even too sexual.”

(“Too sexual”? While Sallman was originally inspired by a Moody Bible Institute professor who wanted to see a more “manly” Jesus, critics found the result less than masculine. Blum and Harvey pass on David Morgan’s quotation of a United Church of Christ pastor, who reported that some of his colleagues wouldn’t display Sallman’s Jesus because the “finely spun hair… was too much of a come-on for the homos in the parish and the community. These pastors felt Sallman had made Christ much too effeminate”! Morgan also shared the response of a clergyman who thought that Sallman’s “‘namby-pamby’ Christ was not equal to the prophetic tradition of social justice in the Jewish Scriptures or the words of judgment found in Matthew 25, where Christ condemned to hell those who failed to love him through their service to others.”)

Nowadays, megachurch pastors like T.D. Jakes and Joel Osteen simply avoided images of Christ altogether and published books with their own portraits on the cover. (“This cult of personality revolves not around the body of Christ but around the face of the religious franchise” — p. 251.) But Blum and Harvey suggest that Sallman’s image has retained enormous power, even shaping the on-screen casting of Jesus — e.g., actors playing the title roles in the 1977 TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth and Campus Crusade for Christ’s 1979 Jesus film resemble Sallman’s Head of Christ.

By the end of the century, that painting had achieved “global iconic status,” with more than half a billion prints.

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February 1924 cover of The Covenant Companion, featuring the earliest version of Sallman's "Head of Christ"
Used by permission of Covenant Publications

It certainly was the Jesus that I saw again and again in childhood and adolescence. But then I grew up the denomination that gave birth to Sallman’s Head of Christ, the Evangelical Covenant Church.

A Swedish-American member of a Covenant church in Chicago, Sallman regularly contributed illustrations to publications like the youth magazine, The Covenant Companion. (For example, an ad for a Rockford, Illinois radio station showed a family listening to the most famous musical legacy of the Covenant’s origins in Swedish Pietism: Lina Sandell’s “Children of the Heavenly Father” — featured in this series’ first post.) His charcoal sketch of Jesus debuted on the cover of the Companion‘s February 1924 issue, then was reprinted in 1930 and 1932.

Now our denominational magazine, the Companion recently reviewed the story of how Sallman’s initial sketch (entitled Son of Man) seventeen years later became the famous painting (Head of Christ). After the initial run of 7,000 issues sold out, Sallman himself paid for a thousand prints more. The sketch continued to be reprinted during the Great Depression, with Sallman serving as the focus of a special exhibit at the 1933-1934 World Fair in Chicago. Then the 1940 graduating class of the Covenant’s seminary (North Park) paid Sallman $35 to paint a color version of his sketch. In the end, the iconic version of Head of Christ went to the publishing house for the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), while Sallman painted another version for North Park.

He even toured Covenant churches, painting Jesus for live audiences. Sallman visited my own congregation (Salem Covenant) in 1945, back when it still met in Northeast Minneapolis. What he painted now hangs in our prayer chapel, with a caption reporting that a “capacity audience watched in silent reverence as he drew the familiar likeness of Christ in sepia after which he applied the colors.”

Sallman’s most admiring biographer is Jack Lundblom, a Covenant minister. His Master Painter: Warner E. Sallman comes with this endorsement from the ECC’s then-president, Glen Palmberg: “…perhaps most important, Lundbom shows us the painter as a humble and committed man of faith who lived… a ‘portrait of a godly life through the artistry of living.’ Sallman was above all a servant of his Lord, placing at his service the gift he had been given.”

It is from Lundblom that Blum and Harvey get the story of one of his fellow seminarians complaining, in 1967, about the Head of Christ hanging in North Park’s chapel: “It’s a white Christ; it looks too Swedish!” They don’t include Lundblom’s rather defensive response: “Individuals who recoil at the Sallman picture because it looks too white, or too Nordic, will embrace—with no critical judgment whatever—a Christ painted to look African-American.”

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Lundblom, Master Painter: Warner E. SallmanI’m quite sure that being exposed so often to Sallman’s Head of Christ not only fixed my idea about the physical appearance of Jesus, but unconsciously shaped my self-identity as a white American. Let me quote again from Blum and Harvey:

By wrapping itself with the alleged form of Jesus, whiteness gave itself a holy face. But he was a shape-shifting totem of white supremacy. The differing and evolving physical renderings of white Jesus figures not only bore witness to the flexibility of racial constructions but also helped create the perception that whiteness was sacred and everlasting. With Jesus as white, Americans could feel that sacred whiteness stretched back in time thousands of years and forward in sacred space to heaven and the second coming. (p. 8)

When I come forward at Salem to take communion, I kneel at the prayer rail. As I tilt my head back to drink the cup, my eyes are drawn to a cross that is suspended in mid-air over the communion table. There is no image of Christ on that cross, but my mind invariably supplies a face that looks like Sallman’s Head. At the sacrament that brings together remembrance of the past, experience of the present Body of Christ, and expectation of our future feast in heaven, I still see Jesus as having skin near to the color of my own.

And while that speaks as clearly as anything to the persistent privilege of whiteness within my corner of Pietism and evangelicalism, I can’t entirely regret the influence of Sallman.

The same gentleness that inspired some critics to ridicule Sallman’s Jesus as “effeminate” has done much to confirm my own idea of “biblical manhood” — not violent, aggressive, or coercive, but kenotic. In fact, the caption on our church’s Head of Christ also records that Sallman was inspired by Philippians 2:8-11, which describes a Lord who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

Growing up in pietistic, evangelical settings, I’ve always been surrounded by the expectation that we relate to God through a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Indeed, that has been my life’s experience from a young age, and the relationship has been mediated through art as much as prayer, Scripture, and song. If I can claim such a friendship with the Son of Man, it’s partly because my mind so easily conjures an image that my heart so easily suffuses with feelings of love and affection.

(Contra Paul Tillich’s preference for “abstract, nonrepresentational works” in church art, Blum and Harvey emphasize that ”There was nothing strange or abstract about Sallman’s Christ. In fact, it was just the opposite. His easy familiarity made him more approachable and hence a savior who spoke to their [viewers’] circumstances.”)

Cover of the Christian History issue on 25 WritingsFinally, Sallman’s Head of Christ reminds me why I responded somewhat negatively to the Christian History list in the first place. It’s no surprise that such a publication would try to put together a list of writings, nor that the professors it surveyed would response with books. But Blum and Harvey’s survey of religious art reminds us that Christian faith does not require expertise, or even literacy.

One of their explanations for the ubiquity of this “mass-produced, mass-consumed image” of Jesus helps us see the elitism undergirding the assumption that theological treatises carry the lion’s share of historical influence:

The rise in popularity of Sallman’s Head of Christ showed that everyday Christians, not just church leaders or theologians, were the prime movers of faith’s material culture. Mothers and fathers, Sunday school teachers, and new Christian entrepreneurs were the ones who made Sallman’s Christ ubiquitous. They did so in spite of the contrary teachings of the day’s theological and aesthetic experts. (pp. 210-11)

On the Head of Christ as an example of “material culture,” Blum and Harvey draw from Colleen McDannell’s Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. For other responses to The Color of Christ, see Tommy Kidd’s 2013 Anxious Bench post “What Does Jesus Look Like?” and Tracy McKenzie’s most recent blog post, in which he also reviews cultural histories of Jesus by Stephen Prothero and Stephen J. Nichols.

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