The Image Matters

Chris Gehrz, on Sallman’s head of Christ:

I’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.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.